BERLIN, Germany — One cold day in November 1973, Sabine Masing climbed into the trunk of a car with her father and sister along a lonely stretch of autobahn in communist East Germany.
Her mother had arranged the escape attempt while on a week-long travel permit to West Berlin, where she was now waiting anxiously.
“We were so tense,” Masing, then 13, recalls. “We couldn’t move for fear of making a bump or a sound. I was just waiting for that trunk to open and look up into the face of a guard and it would all be over.”
But the trunk stayed shut while the car passed through three checkpoints. When the driver — a professional people smuggler — opened it, they were in West Germany.
Masing was reunited with her mother. It was cause for celebration save for one thing: The family had four more children in the East. They had left behind three sons aged in their late teens and a 20-year-old daughter with children.
“We could only bring our youngest,” their mother, Ursula Schmidt, now 80, said. “It was very hard. Very hard.”
The following year, two of the sons tried to escape but, overconfident, they hosted a farewell party. A friend reported them, and when they tried to cross the border in the trunk of a car, the dreaded East German secret police, the Stasi, were waiting.
It was the beginning of a chain of events that would tear the family apart.
Of the many ways that the division of Germany continues to affect this country nearly 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, few are as poignant as the breakdown of families such as the Schmidts.
Many families were divided by the Wall — either by its construction or by escapes. In the 28 years the Wall stood, at least 100,000 people escaped to West Germany from the East.
But the communist regime divided people in other ways too. The Stasi were skillful at manipulating individuals, destroying trust and breaking down relationships, particularly among the 300,000 prisoners who served time in Stasi jails for political crimes.
For families such as the Schmidts, who suffered both separation and persecution, the impact was doubly profound.
“It was one of the state security’s ‘successes,’ producing broken souls and broken families,” said Karl-Heinz Bomberg, a psychoanalyst who was himself jailed in East Berlin as a dissident. “The family is the strongest bond a person has, but even this is often not strong enough to survive dislocation and the extreme force the state security applied. I know similar examples where families were destroyed this way. It’s what the state security excelled at.”
A recent symposium in Leipzig pondered the continuing damage to families caused by the communist era. Psychiatrist Markus Bassler, who hosted the symposium, said the regime created such a climate of paranoia that trust, the cornerstone of relationships, often became impossible.
The Schmidt boys, aged 18 and 19 when they were caught, were tried as traitors and sent to the notorious Hohenschoenhausen prison.
“You can’t imagine what it’s like as a mother, knowing your children are back there and that they are being tortured,” said Ursula Schmidt. “They put them in something they called the ‘Tiger Cage,’ where they had to stand for 18 hours a day.”
The boys served more than two years before the West German government bought their freedom for 60,000 Deutschmarks each in 1976. The third brother, Martin, had already escaped with a friend.
At first, there was joy as the family was reunited. The boys all went to work at the Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg. But the impact of their experiences quickly surfaced.
“They became alchoholics and they were very aggressive,” said Masing, who is now 49, works as a nurse and has her own children. “They started accusing us of things. They would say, ‘You had it easy; you don’t know what it was like.’"
“It was unbearable. I actually started wishing they’d just disappear again.”
Psychoanalyst Bomberg said the boys were probably told in prison hundreds of times that their family had abandoned them.
“They would work on dissolving your self-confidence, working their way into the private parts of the brain, trying to destroy your private relationships," Bomberg said. "Many [victims] try to self-medicate.”
The son who had not gone to prison developed similar problems to those of his brothers. The friend with whom he escaped the East committed suicide in the late 1970s because he felt alienated from his family and his roots, Masing said. Because he was deemed a traitor by the East German regime, his parents were not allowed to receive his cremated ashes.
Ursula Schmidt’s husband, Gustav, died in 1988, a year before the Wall fell. Relations in the family continued to deteriorate until the boys stopped speaking to their mother and sisters. Their mother has tried to reach out: In January she saw her youngest son, but she said afterward he called and told her to leave him alone.
Their eldest daughter, who had stayed in the East, also developed problems: Unable to adjust to life after the Wall, she became a compulsive shopper. When the family couldn’t cover her debts, that relationship also broke down.
Recently, Ursula Schmidt learned that her eldest son had been diagnosed with cancer.
“He’s probably dying. But he doesn’t want to talk to me anymore,” she said with a sad shrug. “I feel helpless. They are grown-up. I can’t force them to see me.”