After years of sexual and physical abuse at Colonia Dignidad, Werner married fellow resident Katarina [Fadi Benny]
Al Jazeera Correspondent

‘Living in hell’

A former resident of the Colony describes a childhood of sexual and physical abuse.

Werner Schmitke moved to Colonia Dignidad when he was two years old. He was separated from his family and sexually and physically abused for many years. After Paul Schaefer, the sect’s leader, was imprisoned for abusing minors, Werner married Katarina, a Chilean woman from Colonia Dignidad. Together, they left Chile and moved to Germany, where they now struggle to make a living and to adjust to life beyond the confines of the Colony.

I arrived with a group of Germans, with my family, in 1962 …. My mother was also there, but then they separated me from her. I was two years old ….

I lived like a child, but we lived in groups of children, separated from the family. I did not know who my siblings were …. There was a woman whom we called Group Aunt, and she brought us up under [Paul] Schaefer’s system.

When I was six or seven years old, I met Schaefer for the first time …. We always knew that he was the boss of everything, although we had never had direct contact. But one day he called me to his house, to his room. That was the first time that I had to meet him.

It was something very awful for me, something I can never forget because I was afraid and he took me. I can’t call it affection or love, but since I had no father or mother, because I never saw them … he took on the role of a father for me.

Werner, centre, grew up isolated from his family but pictures like this were used as propaganda tools by the Colony [Al Jazeera]

He came close to me. He was in bed, and in the bed next to his was another boy …. There was always someone with him and they were always boys. That boy in the bed was older than me, I think I was about seven. Schaefer embraced me and threw me on the bed, he spoke very softly to me, he caressed me like a father who loves his child. So I thought nothing odd. But for me he was a stranger, so I was very embarrassed.

Then something that shocked me happened. He pulled my arm, he pulled me further down and finally I could feel something that he wanted that I did not want to do. He pulled me with force, and as a child, I could not oppose him ….

That was it the first time. I left very upset. I felt not fear but a feeling of rejection. I didn’t want anything to do with him. I just wanted to leave ….

After that first encounter, some time passed. Nothing more happened for a few months. As I said, there was a system of groups …. When the group was more or less eight years old, it was taken from the Kinder house and sent to live somewhere else. The boys were placed in Schaefer’s hands. The girls with the Group Aunt. At this age he would always take one or two boys, and take them for their ‘education’. I remember when it was my turn too. As a child, you grow up knowing only one man is in command. You see that everyone does what he says. He is a god.

He preached the word of God too. He always used it. He approached me and took me to his house …. And I remember that I always heard that he took other boys there, so I thought well, it is my turn. One night he began asking me questions. They were about things that happened between the boys and the girls when we played, things that I now know were normal but at the time, what can I say? He said the children had done something sexual, that the devil was inside them, and that we had to free the children of evil with a hard hand …. And I thought, what evil have we committed? I was afraid. He began to take advantage of that fear …. Because of the fear I felt, I did everything he wanted. That’s when I began to live in hell, that’s when it began …. What happened after that was much worse.

Even though we weren’t present we knew other children had the same experience. We knew that it had to be that way …. I never thought about it being wrong, because I thought that since he was my father he had to do that …. It was very strange, because I was very confused. [It] made me angry; I didn’t want that, I didn’t like it. But I could not understand it. On the one hand he said sex was wrong, but he said he could do it.

A torture camp

The fear began, our hearts began thumping .... Suddenly, we heard a scream of another boy, a strong scream. Then I found out why. It was my turn with an electric current. It was brought from Germany, that thing they use for prodding cattle.

by Wermer Schmitke

That time at the Noikra is the most cruel experience that one can ever live. It still haunts me all day. I don’t know how I could have survived it, but I think I was luckier than others. The time we spent there was worse than hell ….

I can tell you how it began. They took us from the group, they made a smaller group of 15 or 17 boys and they took us to the Noikra. The Noikra was a building built just for that, as I found out. It was built in a big rush, we all had to work in building that house, and as children we did not know what was going to happen there …. We were taken out at night, walking for about a kilometre …. We were afraid. We were left in the hands of some men whom, as we were to discover, were very cruel ….

There was always a person who accompanied us, who controlled us constantly. We could not go more than three metres away from him, day and night, at work, at school, everywhere. For about 10 years, we were monitored by that person. But that night that person handed us over to someone else and left ….

There was a very large room, and each one of us had to lie in a bed …. Between each bed there was a kind of wall or divider. And in the middle of the room there was a very, very bright lamp …. The men were in the centre, so that they could see each of us, although we could not see who was there. The beds had only a very thin sheet, and there was gas heating. To this day I cannot stand that smell of heating gas ….

They gave us bees wax to put in our ears as we lay in bed. Then they covered our eyes with a towel, our hands by the sides of our legs, like lying in a box. Then a few minutes later another person came in. I remember him very well …. He still lives in the Colony. He lowered our pants and left us naked …. The fear began, our hearts began thumping …. Suddenly, even though we had the wax in our ears, we heard a scream of another boy, a strong scream. Then I found out why. It was my turn with an electric current. It was brought from Germany, that thing they use for prodding cattle. It was very strong. They shocked us in the soft parts of the body, the head and then the testicles. When you screamed, immediately they would take you out. If you couldn’t resist, if you screamed, they would take you out. And, as we found, it was better to resist because if you didn’t even more cruel things happened to you.

There was another room … where there was a bathtub and toilets. I remember another person was there, I know his name but he is dead now, he was in charge. You had to be naked and he’d put you in the bathtub with freezing water. Freezing water, in winter. Your head would be put underwater, and you’d feel a kind of shock, sure that you would not survive.

I was about 10 or 11 years old. It was the years before the military coup, between 1970 and 1973. We had no sense of time, none. There was no time. [It lasted] maybe a year, maybe two years …. We never spoke of this among ourselves, because the system was so strict that it was forbidden for one child to speak to another. If they caught you speaking we were punished ….

When it was over, about 10 years later when I was around 19, I approached Schaefer when he was alone, when he seemed to be in a good mood. I thought now I can ask him that question that doesn’t let me rest. So I asked him why they had done those things to us …. His expression changed and he said: “Do you want us to do that to you again?” That was it.


Werner and Katarina now have two daughters and have rebuilt their lives in Germany [Al Jazeera]

I can forgive, although it is hard to forgive when they don’t ask for forgiveness …. They don’t realise the harm they have done to a child who has to live all his life with this. This has consequences – to this very day. It has destroyed me. It has destroyed my body and also my soul.

The worst part is the psychological part. It never ends …. Even now, I find myself in the Colony, with everyone chasing me, to beat me, because it happened so many times to me, more than a thousand times. There was a time when they beat me every single day, to the point that I could not feel anything anymore in my body ….

After Schaefer fled to Argentina, the system remained. What changed was that now we could get married …. I could not understand how for years they had persecuted me for this and now everything was the opposite. It was a very tough time for me. I cried a lot and for weeks I went alone to the countryside to cry.

I could not understand the world. It was all mixed up …. After a while I had an experience when I went with a group of four men and two or three other Chileans to the mountains to look for animals …. I liked the mountains and animals a lot. I did not want to know anything more about humans. I liked that world. And during that time we climbed one night up to the top of the mountain and I looked for a place to sleep. I found a place and I couldn’t sleep. I began to speak to God. It was not my intention. But I felt so close to God, up there in the mountain. It was so beautiful up there, there were no people, no guilt, no evil. It’s impossible to explain, but it was very powerful and I felt God up there. And I cried as I told him all my problems. And I think that changed me. That day I realised that there was a God that was very different from the one they had taught us about.

Another world

The Colony – Extra

My wife is also from the Colony. She is Chilean …. After a short time of being married, we decided to leave. We couldn’t stand it anymore. We thought it would change. We talked to the people there, saying that together we should all change things. But nothing happened. It remained the same ….

I had an offer to work with a Chilean in Pucon, it was for just a short time. They had heard in the family restaurant that the Germans worked very well and could do everything. But they didn’t know us, didn’t know that we were like soldiers, that we had never finished school – we knew nothing really. One had to know the cash register, have knowledge of maths, all that. We didn’t have that, so naturally that job didn’t work out …. I also asked for some money from the former Colony; they had the obligation to help us.

But after a year, I met a friend … from the Colony, she told me we should move to Germany …. I immediately got in touch with the German embassy and asked them to help me leave ….

[Germany] was like going to another world. It was as though we had lived behind the moon, knowing nothing, and you suddenly are faced with reality. For me it was like plunging off the deep end …. I had a lot of problems but I also found lots of people who helped me. Yet the truth is that I realise that a person who comes from Colonia Dignidad cannot survive on the outside.

I always had a dream, as a child in the Colony, that with my own hands and labour I could earn a living and live with my family. The normal things: a house, a car, not much but enough, a garden maybe …. But not even that is possible here in Germany.

I thought it would be easier here, but if you don’t have a degree …. I worked for 20 years in carpentry and I can do many things. But I don’t have official training for that, and if you don’t have papers, here in Germany things are very strict. You can only get a job as an assistant, doing the most lowly jobs. And you don’t make much money …. You also need a lot of effort to adjust to this life, so different from the one we knew. I am too old to change myself …. [But] I have a purpose to my life: my children.


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