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German exhibition shines light on child abduction

November 23, 2023

Authoritarian regimes and dictatorships worldwide have abducted children to coerce, intimidate and punish others. An exhibition in Berlin shines a light on this grim reality.

Leonardo Fossati Ortega at the Berlin exhibtion
Leonardo Fossati Ortega at the Berlin exhibtion Image: Bundesstiftung Aufarbeitung

Leonardo Fossati Ortega has come all the way from Argentina to Berlin to tell the story of his childhood. When Leonardo was born in 1977, his home country Argentina was controlled by a military dictatorship. His mother Ines, still a teenager at the time, was active in a youth organization. His father Ruben was at university. Both were hunted down by Argentina's junta and vanished, never to be seen again, and most likely murdered. Many other Argentinians just like Ines and Ruben also disappeared during Argentina's military dictatorship, which only ended in 1983.

Berlin City Hall is currently dedicating a special exhibition to Leonardo's story and many others like him. The idea was hatched by the Foundation for the Study of Communist Dictatorship in East Germany along with the Elisabeth Käsemann Foundation.

Leonardo was not raised by his biological parents. "I always questioned my identity, because my parents were more like grandparents compared to those of my friends. I couldn't find any similarities in their appearance, either," he told DW. It was only when Leonardo was 20 years old that started asking his guardians about his real parents. "They then told me the truth."

They said they had been told by a midwife from the neighborhood that Leonardo was the abandoned child of a young La Plata woman who did not to keep the boy. Leonardo tried finding the midwife but did not succeed. One day, a friend at Buenos Aires drama school suggested he contact the grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo group.

In search of his roots

This group of courageous women had formed during the Argentinian military dictatorship, pressing those in power to reveal the whereabouts of their daughters, and their grandchildren, some of whom had been born in prison, or abducted. After the junta was gone, the group used blood samples to set up a gene database.

This database allowed Leonardo to discover his parents' identity. "My biological family, whose blood samples were stored in the database, had been searching for me for almost 28 years," he told DW. He finally met his grandparents.

Spain's stolen children

Today, there's a picture of biological father on display the Berlin exhibition. But even until this day, there is not even a picture of his mother.

Leonardo takes comfort in the fact that he now knows the truth. "For the first time, I recognize similarities with other people, with my family."

There are around 130 other Argentinian individuals like him, who eventually managed to find their families. But there are also many hundreds who were separated from their parents as children and never saw them again.

But 46-year-old Leonardo does not want to give up hope. He sees himself as part of a larger community, connected by a shared experience. "It is very important for us to continue the search for our families, make new friends and connect."

Post-war labor camps

Alexander Latotzky was born in 1948 in the Soviet-administered Bautzen prison camp, where his mother was incarcerated for alleged acts of espionage. She had been sentenced to 15 years in prison and forced labor. During the first two years of his life, Alexander was moved to different camps and finally sent to a children's home.

One can learn about his story at the Berlin exhibition too. There were many similar stories like his that unfolded after the end of World War II in the Soviet occupation zone, which later became the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

It was not until 1956 that Alexander, who is now in his 70s, was finally allowed to return to his mother, who was released from prison due to serious illness. She died at the age of only 41.

Alexander Latotzky was born in a Soviet prison camp
Alexander Latotzky was born in a Soviet prison campImage: Bundesstiftung Aufarbeitung

Alexander's father was a Ukrainian man who had been deported to Germany by the Nazis in 1943 and used as a forced laborer.    

His mother never saw him again.

"This exhibition is incredibly important to me because I have been trying to draw attention to the stories of political prisoners and their children for decades," Alexander told DW.

Interest in these tragic family fates increased after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but soon waned.

"I somehow have the feeling that people no longer think it's that important," Alexander said.

East Germany threatened to take away children

In communist East Germany, authorities would often threaten to take away womens' children if they didn't cooperate with the regime. In most cases, this meant working forEast Germany's secret police, the so-called Stasi. "This is a method that dictatorships used time and again to put pressure on their opponents," explained Alexander. 

Evelyn Zupke has heard many such stories. She was elected by German parliament to act as an ombudsperson to draw attention to the plight of all those who were persecuted by the East German regime, which was toppled in the non-violent revolution of 1989.

Breaking the silence

"Talking to victims about what happened to them is always moving for me," Evelyn Zupke told DW. "Breaking the silence is a great challenge for them, but doing so is of great value to society."

The tragic experiences of people like Alexander Latotzky and Leonardo Fossati Ortega make these seemingly abstract stories more personal and relatable.

The fate of Ukraine's abducted children

Visitors to Berlin's "Stolen Children" exhibition can learn about many more such tragic tales from all over the world, including the former Soviet Union, El Salvador and Canada.

One of the exhibition panels states that the "forcible separation of parents and children is not a thing of the past." It continues to say that since "the Russian invasion of Ukraine, thousands of children have been abducted from eastern Ukraine and taken to Russia. Chinese authorities are deporting Uyghur children to re-education camps, and terrorist organizations such as Boko Haram are abducting girls in Nigeria."

The Berlin City Hall exhibition remains open to the public until the end of November 2023.

This article was originally written in German.

Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.