Horrors of post-war German foster homes are exposed

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The Independent Online

A shameful chapter of Germany's post-war past has surfaced in a new book exposing the plight of thousands of children who were locked up, beaten, and treated as slave labour in church-run foster homes during the 1950s and 1960s.

Beaten in God's Name, by the journalist Peter Wensierski, is a 300-page account of the ordeal suffered by an estimated half a million young people in West Germany's 3,000 Catholic and Protestant church-run children's homes shortly after the Second World War.

Based on interviews with scores of former residents, now in their 50s and 60s, the book describes how they were subjected to humiliating and degrading treatment, often for years, by nuns and monks using punishment methods unchanged since the Nazi era.

"Decades on, the victims now have a great desire to tell the world about their dreadful experiences," the author said yesterday. "Many are so ashamed that they have not even been able to tell their own children or spouses about what happened to them. Being interviewed for the book was simply a release," he added.

The book describes how children and teenagers were taken away and locked up on the flimsiest of pretexts.

In 1961 Gisela Nurthen, then aged 15, was incarcerated for four years in a home run by the Catholic "Sisters of Mercy" in Paderborn after spending a night out with her boyfriend dancing. Social services officials decided that only a period of detention in a home would save her from "depravity". Ms Nurthen was forced to work for 10 hours a day in silence in the home's laundry and was beaten with broomsticks by nuns. Inmates who tried to escape had their heads shaved and were forced to wear sackcloth. Phone calls were forbidden, and letters were censored. Especially degrading treatment was meted out to illegitimate children who were regarded as sinners.

Publication of Beaten in God's Name has prompted the umbrella organisation of Germany's church-run children's homes to summon a crisis meeting to consider how to respond to the allegations.

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