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German women seized during World War II seek recognition

Source:  International Herald Tribune

By Judy Dempsey, Friday, June 15, 2007

BERLIN: A group of elderly women met in the top-floor restaurant of the Wertheim department store in Berlin on Wednesday. Carefully dressed, those who turned up that day were cautious over how they spent their money. One had brought cookies to share. Others bought only a bottle of water.

The women, some from western Germany, others from the former communist east, have been meeting here once a month since 1996. They share memories, celebrate birthdays and above all struggle to have their past recognized.

"We are Germany's forgotten wartime prisoners," said Edith Protze, 79.

All of them had been seized at random by Red Army soldiers during the spring of 1945 and transported across Russia to Siberia, where they spent years in labor camps.

As they met Wednesday, legislators in the German Parliament, or Bundestag, were putting the final touches to a law that will provide higher pensions for those who were imprisoned for political reasons by the Communist authorities.

Arnold Vaatz, a legislator in Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, has spent years campaigning for these 42,000 pensioners. "This was a long struggle," said Vaatz, who was part of the small dissident movement in the former East Germany. He explained that the former German government led by Gerhard Schr�der's Social Democrats had taken the issue off the table. It was revived in 2005 when Merkel, who was also brought up in East Germany, became chancellor.

When implemented in the coming months, any German who was imprisoned by the Communists for political reasons for more than half a year will receive an extra monthly pension payment of ?250, or $330. The total cost will be ?100 million.

"It is the end of a chapter," Vaatz said.

Also this week, the compensation payments were completed for Germans and other nationalities forced during the war to work as slave laborers for the Nazi war machine.

The mere mention of these decisions provokes only bitterness and sadness among the women having lunch at Wertheim. For the past 50 years, they have been excluded from any compensation package and they have not been recognized as victims of World War II.

"Like other victims during the war, part of our lives were destroyed," Protze said.

As German teenagers, these women had lived in eastern parts of the German Reich in what is today Poland. When the Red Army started its big offensive toward Berlin during the spring of 1945, tens of thousands of Germans from the territories tried to cross the Oder River to flee westward.

"It was impossible to cross the bridge," Eva-Maria Stege, 78, recalled. "There were too many refugees. We had to wait."

For these girls and young women, perhaps as many as 20,000, the waiting turned into a nightmare.

"The Russians came. They marched along the streets. It was February. They pointed at us and shouted out, 'You, you, and you. You come with us.' They grabbed us. They did terrible things to us," Helga Rill, 79, said.

They were packed into railroad wagons. "There were 20 wagons, each with about 50 women," said Stege, a feisty woman but who now walks with difficulty. "The trains departed in April of 1945. For four weeks it trudged across Russia. We had so little to eat. Then we reached Siberia."

The women were forced to do heavy manual work. "Some of us were made to build roads," Jutta J�zosch, 78, said.

Many of these young women remained in Stalin's labor camps for more than four years. Stege, who has assiduously documented her ordeal, reckons that two-thirds of them died during that time. Then in 1949, without explanation, the surviving women, many sick, underweight and suffering from frostbite, were put onto Soviet trains and transported back to the border with eastern Germany, which was under Russian control. There, they tried to start a new life.

"It was forbidden to talk about our experiences," said Stege. "For the East German Communist regime, the Soviet Union could do no harm."

It was only when the Berlin Wall was pulled down in 1989 and Germany was reunited a year later that Stege and other former labor camp prisoners started to make their case heard.

They first approached a foundation supporting former wartime prisoners that is financed by the German government. After many bureaucratic hurdles, some received one-off payments equivalent to about ?1,000. Others got nothing.

"The issue is not the money as such," Stege said. "It is about respect and recognition. We suffered in the labor camps. We were prisoners. Yet the German government has never recognized that fact."

Stege said the government does not want to recognize the status of these women because it might cost too much. Yet, according to estimates, fewer than 2,000 are still alive.

Vaatz said the women are excluded from his proposed law that would compensate former political prisoners because they had never been put on trial.

"They had not been put before a court in the first place," he said. "When they were released from the camps, they had no rehabilitation papers."

This explanation makes the women furious.

"We were prisoners," Protze said "We were taken away. Each of us spent more than four years in these camps. We have papers showing when we were released. What more do they want?"

Only a few of the 16 German states have tried to help the women. In the southeastern state of Thuringia, the office charged with looking after the files of the former East German Stasi secret police and helping former political prisoners has lobbied for the women.

"It is a shameful chapter of our history," said its director, Hildigund Neubert. "These women were political prisoners. For bureaucratic reasons, they are not being recognized as such. It is as if they were second-class prisoners."

There is a chance that over the coming weeks, the women might receive some formal compensation when Vaatz tries to pass another bill in Parliament.

"We are trying to arrange a 5 million Euro compensation package so as to give these women each a one-off lump sum," Vaatz said.

Stege, and her other friends who sit quietly each month at the back of Wertheim's restaurant, could certainly use the money. But it will still not bring them the recognition and respect for which they yearn.

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