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A family caught by communist authorities trying to escape over the Iron Curtain to the West in 1973 told of their 17-year ordeal after the East German government put their children up for forced adoption.

Documents found in a Berlin cellar last week prove what many had long suspected: The former East German communist authorities put the children of political dissidents and those who tried to flee to the West up for adoption without the approval of the parents.The Gruebel family from East Berlin was arrested crossing the border from Czechoslovakia to Austria in August 1973.

Communist authorities in Prague sent the family - father Ota, then 36, mother Baerbel, 24, son, Ota Jr., 4, and daughter Jeannette, 3, - back to East Germany and into the hands of the feared Stasi state security police.

Ota and Baerbel Gruebel were sentenced to 29 months in prison for illegally trying to leave East Germany. The state took custody of the two children.

"For the first nine months in prison nobody would tell me anything about the children," Ota Gruebel said.

Husband and wife were stripped of East German citizenship in 1975 and sent to West Germany.

"We searched for 17 years for our children," Ota Gruebel said.

Ota Jr. and Jeannette were sent first to a state orphanage and in 1975 were given to adoptive parents living in a town on the Polish-East German border. The Grue-bels criticized what they said was a marked lack of help by West German authorities in their efforts to find their children.

"I think the government was more interested in building relations between both German states in the 1970s than with helping one family reunite," said Baerbel Gruebel.

During the early 1970s the West German government signed a series of treaties regularizing relations with the former East bloc countries including East Germany.

"One lawyer in the West told me `Frau Gruebel, you're young, why not just have a few new children,' " Baerbel Gruebel said.

The Gruebels finally learned where their children were in April 1990 after being indirectly contacted by former communist leader Erich Honecker's personal lawyer.

"We drove out to visit our children for the first time in 17 years," said Ota Gruebel. "That's when we realized that the last 17 years were lost."

When the Gruebels finally saw their children again they were adults aged 20 and 21.

"I didn't know whether to be outraged, to run away or to kill myself," she said.

Jeannette said her adoptive parents had been reluctant to talk about the past.

"All they would tell us was that our real parents had probably died in a car accident," she said.

Both children have moved out of their foster parents' home. Their adoptive mother died eight years ago and the father now lives alone.

Jeannette Greubel is now an Egyptology student at Berlin's Free University. Ota Jr. lives in Frankfurt an der Oder and works in a restaurant. "Seventeen years of our life have been destroyed, but we are not interested in revenge," said Ota Gruebel, who is an interior decorator and painter.

"No to revenge," agrees Baerbel Gruebel. "But even today I still feel hate against the apparatchiks and the soulless bureaucrats who did this to us," she said.