Testifying for ‘sent-away’ children

Ilona Yim testimony

Ilona Yim shares research with German Parliament

Ilona Yim, professor of psychological science, was a “sent-away” child, one of millions who suffered long-term trauma from the experience.

It happened decades ago in Germany. An estimated 8-12 million children were sent to homes far from their families on the recommendation of doctors or other authorities and public health insurance paid the bill.

“Many of the children were not even ill,” says Yim, who was sent away for being underweight. 

The home she went to was run by a former Nazi officer.

“The weeks of separation from parents and the conditions in the homes were extremely stressful and traumatic for many children,” Yim says. “As one of the affected children and as a scientist who has studied stress and health for the last two decades, I can speak to these issues both through a personal and a professional lens.”

Yim is a lead scientist with the Verschickungskinder (German for sent-away children), a survivors initiative to raise awareness. She’s been studying the survivors’ mental and physical health and has found that the people who were sent-away children suffer from far-reaching health and psychological consequences. 

The initiative’s goal is to raise awareness so it will never happen again. To that end, Yim testified before Germany’s Parliament earlier this week. The following is part of her testimony:

My interest in this topic is professional, but also personal. In 1979, as an 8-year old girl, I was sent away for five weeks to Sankt Peter Ording, to a home with the beautiful name “Sea Castle” (Haus Seeschloβ),“ which was, however, run by a very high-ranking former commander of the Waffen-SS. You may not be too surprised to hear that my experiences in this home were extremely negative. Similar to other homes of this kind, there was forced eating, censorship of letters, a ban on phone calls and visits, hours of forced marching at a fast pace, hours of lying still during the day, ice cold group showers, and extreme punishment when the rigid rules were not obeyed.

Today, however, I am here as a scientist and expert who has conducted research on stress and health for decades. We know from many research studies – my own and those of many other scientists – that stress leads to psychological and physiological changes that over time can lead to disease.

One might ask– is it really possible that those affected continue to suffer from these experiences today, decades later? 

This question motivated me to apply my scientific experience to the situation of the sent-away children. We are currently conducting two studies in my laboratory, with former sent-away children and a comparison group of individuals who were not sent away. Our first study is an online survey of more than 400 individuals. We clearly see that former sent-away children are different from those unaffected. They are from families with lower educational backgrounds – and they themselves have fewer years of formal education. They are three times more likely to be divorced and are twice as likely to live with a partner without being married. Yet, they are just as likely to have children, and to have just as many children – about two. The issue, therefore, was not a lack of desire to have a family, but the difficulty to create partnerships that are successful.

Our data further show that people with sent-away experiences continue to have more stress in their lives today, and that they are less equipped to deal with that stress successfully. They report not feeling as close to their parents. They also have more physical and psychological symptoms of illness.

Our most impressive result relates to depressive symptoms, which in the overall German population is reported by 10 to 15% of all individuals. Among our sent-away group, this percentage is not 10%, not 15%, but 55.5%! My data analyses show that sent-away experiences actually predict depressive symptoms, after statistically controlling for current age, gender, and the impact of other adverse childhood experiences.

We just launched a second study in collaboration with the University of Erlangen- Nürnberg. We are assessing biological markers: C-reactive protein, a general marker of inflammation in the body, and cortisol, a stress hormone. Our preliminary results suggest that, particularly among women with sent-away experiences, both markers are elevated.

Sent-away experiences caused illness! Those affected continue to suffer the consequences today, as we can see through their recollections and their concrete biological markers of stress and disease.

Yim’s testimony took place on March 20. It was televised and is available online. She was invited to speak along with Anja Röhl, founder of Verschickungskinder, Uwe Rüddenklau, chairman of the initiative, and Alexander Nützenadel, a professor from Humboldt University of Berlin. Together, they talked about the importance of the initiative. They presented what has been achieved so far and stressed the need for federal support for their work.

Meanwhile, they continue to collect stories from sent-aways on their website, which already has thousands of testimonies, recalling feelings of homesickness, strict bans on parent visits, censorship of letters, rigid rules, extreme and often cruel punishments, as well as health problems later in life.

For example, survivors tell about being force-fed porridge, being strictly forbidden to use the bathroom at night, having to wear the same underwear for an entire week and being bullied by fellow children, who were encouraged to bully by the home staff. They also testify that parents didn't believe them when they told the truth about their experiences, which contributed to their silent suffering.

“I want to see broad societal awareness and an acknowledgment that this really happened,” Yim says. “We need to know about this experience and the consequences so that it will never happen again.”
Mimi Ko Cruz