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“Not only did I find a Mother, but also a wonderful Family”

In an emotional speech in front of 110 listeners, Dagmar Nabert, the daughter of a Russian forced labourer, talked about the search for her roots. The International Tracing Service (ITS) and the history association Historicum20 had invited to the event that took place in Arolsen town church on 26 January 2011. “It was my heartfelt wish to come here”, said Nabert. “My story shows what the ITS may mean to an individual. It is a place of reminder, remembrance and recognition without the aid of which I would not be standing here today.”

Nabert’s story begins in the winter of 1942 when the National Socialists forcibly deport her mother Klawa Steblewa to Germany compelling her to work as help in a doctor’s household. Faced by the alternative of having to abort her baby, Klawa makes every effort to dissimulate her pregnancy in its early stage. On 18 December 1943, Dagmar Nabert is born in Burg near Magdeburg and given the name of Alla Steblewa.

Mother and child find secret shelter in the house of the doctor’s family for a quarter of a year, then, Klawa has to put her child to an orphanage. Once a week, she goes to see her child, until she develops tuberculosis and is sent off to an infirmary for forced labourers in Dessau. After a bomb attack on the hospital, she manages to escape unharmed. Having arrived in Magdeburg at last, she is freed by the US Army. Her first path in freedom leads her to the children’s home. The orphanage lies in ruins, though. “She wandered about desperately”, reports Nabert. “And in the end, she returned back home, but has never forgotten me.”

A foster family takes good care of Alla and gives her the German first name Dagmar. “I had a wonderful childhood”, recalls Nabert. Up to her twelfth year – when a neighbour’s child tells her that her parents are not her birth parents and that her natural mother is Russian. “I fell into a gaping hole I could not get out of by myself. It was impossible for me to bring up the subject talking with foster parents. I painted pictures in dark colours. Being the initiate of a knowledge I thought and felt uncanny was haunting me. I confided all this to nobody’s care but to my later husband’s.”

Following the fall of the wall in 1989, her intense search for her birth mother began. “When I managed to talk to my adoptive mother at last, I had to hide away my feelings. She told me that my parents presumably were dead. But the questions: who am I? Where does my mother originally come from? What would be her age today? – kept hanging shadow-like on my mind. I was determined to find where my actual roots were.” Someone in Burg near Magdeburg gave Nabert the tip to have a try at the tracing service of the German Red Cross in Munich, that office in turn referred her to the ITS. “Until then, I had never heard of this institution. But it was this service that first provided me with information on my mother’s date of birth, on the place she had been deported from, Belgorod, and named me the doctor where she had been as forced labourer.”

Following the path she had chosen single-mindedly, Nabert pursued all and any trace and, in the end, sought the media’s assistance. “Addressing myself expressly to the public after decades of silence was a decision difficult to take”, so Nabert. “But the hope to bring some light into the darkness of my story was a powerful motivation.” Having read an article on Nabert’s search in a Russian newspaper, one of her mother’s neighbours in Belgorod dares to raise the issue with Klawa. “My mother had had to keep her silence over many years for fear of being banished to Siberia”, narrates Nabert. “The fact that she, in that moment of her life, confessed: yes, I had a daughter, is the greatest present ever given to me. Klawa initiates her family into the greatest secret of her life, and she rejoices to hear her children say that they would be happy to have a sister. The family breaks the news to Dagmar that they all long to see her and expect her to hurry and come to Belgorod.

In 1999, Nabert and her husband drive to Russia for the first time. “I could hardly bear the strain I was under”, recapitulates the Bad Harzburg-resident. “I had the feeling as though I was entering my actual home country. When we embraced, my mother and I, I started weeping, both of us were weeping, everyone was weeping. I had not only found my mother, but also a wonderful family. Words fail to convey the affection we felt for each other.” They spent five days intensely telling their lives to, and coming to know, one another.   

Despite her overwhelming joy, her mother said: “You are too late”, recalls Nabert. “And I felt so, too. Nonetheless, our puzzling lives could come to a rest at last.” She goes and sees her mother’s birth place and her grandparents’ grave. And she visits a memorial centre on the Second World War in Russia. “At that moment, I decided to consider and call me a European. I did not know any more whether I was German or Russian.”

Nabert felt the language barrier to be particularly distressing. “There can be nothing worse than being unable to talk to your own mother.” That is why she started learning Russian. She has been twelve times to Russia up to now. Her mother in turn undertook her first flight - aged 80 - to Germany. She met grandsons and granddaughters and great grandsons and great granddaughters and the daughter of the doctor with whom she had been living as forced labourer. “A moving encounter with the past”, so Nabert. “Nevertheless, 55 years of separation can neither be disregarded nor discarded. Sadness was my constant companion in all our meetings.”

Meanwhile, Nabert’s mother has died aged 88. What remains is the story of her daughter she was to see again after 55 years’ time had passed only. “My wish is that young people do not forget about this past and derive lessons for the future from it”, sums up Nabert.