When Conny Holzbrecher was a little girl, she had a much-loved doll that accompanied her everywhere—to school, to friends’ houses, to bed at night.
But when people asked what the doll’s name was, she always gave the same enigmatic answer: “She hasn’t got a name. She’s just my sister.”
At the time, her parents thought her behaviour was a reaction to being an only child. And, because she had been adopted by an infertile couple, there was little they could do to help her.
“But I always had that feeling, deep in my soul, that there was something missing from my life or my family. I was trying to reach out, to connect with someone,” says Conny, now 38.
“Somehow I always felt an underlying sense of loss.”
And, astonishingly, she was right. For Conny was not an only child—she had an identical twin sister, living hundreds of miles away.
Thanks to a cruel twist of fate, the two were separated as babies, and remained so for 26 years.
Today, Conny is reunited with her identical sister, Ulrike Reichenbach.
They wear similar clothes, identical make-up, have the same hairstyles and even complete each other’s sentences.
It’s impossible to believe that, for the first two-thirds of their lives, they were apart. But theirs is an extraordinary tale of loss and reunion, now published in a moving book they have co-written.
Their story casts intriguing light on the endless debate over whether nature or nurture has a greater hold over our characters.
In short, Ulrike and Conny are hauntingly similar, not just in looks, but also in demeanour, tastes, sense of humour and outlook.
But there is one more twist to their extraordinary story. For they were adopted by two very different families and ended up living on either side of the Berlin Wall.
Ulrike was raised in affluent West Germany with every modern luxury and freedom, while Conny grew up amid the deprivation of the communist East.
Despite this, both twins had their appendixes removed at 16, both had their first child at 19, and both have the same career—event management. And yet they did not meet until they were adults and mothers themselves.
Today, they could not be closer. Their mannerisms are eerily alike, they laugh in the same way and both are calm, kindly and intelligent.
It is entirely impossible to tell them apart—the only difference seems to be that Conny is half an inch taller than Ulrike.
“We were born in East Germany in 1969,” Conny explained to me this week.
“We’ve since discovered that our mother was forced by the communist state to put us up for adoption because she was a young mother with three older children by our father, a graphic designer and artist.
“She was struggling, especially as all women were expected to work as well.”
Tragically, there are no photographs of the two girls together, even though they were with their parents until the age of three months. Then, they were taken to the orphanage where, cruelly, the state policy was that twins had no right to be kept together.
“When my adoptive father came to the orphanage to adopt me, a nurse took him by the arm and told him about another child he might like to take as well, and showed him Conny in her cot,” says Ulrike.
“She was obviously horrified that we were going to be separated. He saw Conny and how alike we looked and realised we could be twins, though the nurse wasn’t at liberty to say for sure.”
Ulrike’s adoptive father hurried back to his wife to ask her about taking not one but two babies. She agreed, but when they returned, the orphanage refused to allow it, or even to admit officially that the girls were twins.
The reason was that Conny had already been offered to another family, the paperwork was done and there was no going back. So she was whisked away into the arms of another family, who had no absolutely idea she had a sister.
Conny was raised as the only child of a plumber and his wife in the small town of Friedrichroda in East Germany, where she still lives.
For 26 years, she and her adoptive parents had no inkling that she was a twin. Her teenage years were difficult due to the political oppression, but she says she feels no envy of Ulrike’s more privileged Western upbringing.
“My adoptive parents are very good people. They’re very kind and Christian,” she says.
“Politically things were very difficult for my family. I always knew I couldn’t speak freely anywhere except within the four walls of my family home.
“The secret police were everywhere. There was little to buy or to eat in the shops, no freedom and things like fashion and music were very limited.
“I was 20 when the Berlin Wall came down, and I was so thrilled to be able to buy jeans, high-heeled shoes and makeup for the first time.
“But I grew up surrounded by love, feeling very much wanted by my parents. It’s that, I am sure, which has helped me to cope with the shock of our reunion so well.”
Meanwhile, Ulrike had been adopted by a childless ophthalmic surgeon and his wife. But both her adoptive parents were political dissidents who were first imprisoned, then expelled from East Germany when Ulrike was 12 for their involvement with the then-banned Christian church.
They moved to Mainz in the West, where Ulrike’s family prospered.
“As a teenager in the West, I wanted for nothing. We had lovely summer holidays on the Mediterranean, went skiing in the winter and every Christmas and birthday I was showered with presents.
“I’d been told from a young age that I was adopted, but it was only when we moved to the West that my father told me about Conny’s existence,” remembers Ulrike.
“Up until that moment, he felt I was not old enough to cope with the knowledge. It was a tough conversation and we both cried.
“I think he always felt regret that he hadn’t been able to adopt her, too.
“Back then I knew that, living in West Germany, there was little chance of tracking my sister down in the East.
“But every year, on my birthday, I would think of her and feel my heart yearning.”
“At first, I was afraid of just parachuting into her life and I was too scared to track her down.
“I used to agonise over it, particularly after the age of 20 when the Wall came down and travel to the East became possible. But I was married with a child and my life was very full.
“For a long time I didn’t have the emotional resources to force myself into my twin’s life. I suppose I was too scared.”
But when Ulrike was 26, she finally summoned the courage to track her sister down with the blessing and support of her adoptive parents.
The youth department in the newly reunited Germany acted as gatekeeper to the old adoption records of the former East German State. They gave her the details of the only other little girl from the orphanage with the same birthday as her: April 4, 1969.
“I was given an address and a telephone number,” remembers Ulrike.
“I knew I ought to have written a letter but I just couldn’t wait. So I rang up and spoke to Conny’s adoptive parents.”
Inevitably, it was a call which was to turn Conny’s life on its head. She recalls: “Ulrike rang my family home one Saturday completely out of the blue and told my mother who she was.
“As you can imagine, Mum was absolutely astonished because she and my dad still knew nothing about me having a twin. She asked Ulrike to call back the next day, to give her time to break the news to me.
“At the time, I was married and living nearby with two young daughters. Mum asked me to come to their house, sat me down and very gently and slowly told me that I was in fact an identical twin and that my sister wanted to see me.”
For Conny, suddenly her whole life made sense.
“I realised then and there what the problem was that had always been there for me, this feeling of incompleteness. This was what I had been searching for all my life.
“After all, if you look at ultrasounds of twins in the womb, they communicate with each other. They touch, play, even fight.
“Nature meant for us to grow up together. It was so desperately cruel for the orphanage to keep us apart.’
At first, the girls spoke over the phone. “Well, we mostly cried for the first ten minutes,” remembers Conny.
“Then we started talking and it seemed as though everything one of us said, the other replied: ‘Me too!’
“It was so exciting and wonderful. We thought alike, loved the same music and books, both were keen amateur artists. Even our voices were the same pitch, though we had slightly different accents because we lived so far apart in Germany.”
The sisters exchanged letters and photographs. “It was extraordinary,” says Conny.
“Her handwriting was exactly the same as mine. And here were photos that looked just like me, but living a life I could not imagine, with people I’d never met.
“It was like getting a letter from myself, but with a different life.”
The twins met up three weeks later, with both sets of adoptive parents present.
“We were both very nervous and needed our mums and dads to support us,” remembers Conny.
“Ulrike and her parents came to see me at my family home. I spent hours waiting by the window. I wanted to catch a glimpse of Ulrike before she saw me because I was actually very frightened of meeting her. It suddenly all seemed very real.
“But then Ulrike stepped out of the car and I couldn’t contain myself. I ran out of the house and we just rushed into each other’s arms and held on to each other as if we never could bear to let go again.
“When we finally let go, we felt almost shy with each other and sat side by side on the sofa, unable to quite look each other in the eye.
“It was so strange to be sitting with my mirror image. I couldn’t get over it. It was like seeing myself faceto-face.
“Gradually the ice broke and in the end we talked all day and it was just wonderful. Since then, I’ve been a stronger, more self-confident person.
“Just to know I have a sister who cares so much about me, as I do about her, means so much. I’m no longer alone.
“Ulrike and her parents stayed overnight and in the next few weeks I visited her home. It was lovely to see her children and for her to meet mine.”
Today, they speak daily on the phone and meet every two months. Conny still lives in a part of Germany that used to be in the East, and Ulrike lives on the other side of the country in the town of Bad Pyrmont.
“We would love to live closer, but she has children and so do I,” explains Conny. “But we talk all the time and are both more complete, somehow, now that we have each other.”
And the similarities between the two sisters continue to amaze them. “As children, we both loved art and painting, chose the same subjects at school and both went into the same career, event management, which unites our creative and practical sides. And we each had our first children, both daughters, when we were 19,” says Conny.
“We both married young, at 18 and 19, I think because we were so desperate for closeness with someone. But funnily enough, since we found each other, we’ve both got divorced from the men we married as teenagers.
“We’re both now living happily with new partners instead and have had younger children with them.
“I’ve got three children, aged 20, 17 and eight, and Ulrike has four, aged 20, 16, six and two. We even both like the same colour schemes in our houses and often meet up wearing the same or near-identical outfits.
“We’ve had the same hairstyle as each other—long hair—all our adult lives and wear the same make-up.
“We do have different taste in men, however. Ulrike’s partner is blond while mine’s dark. So none of our children look alike, though you can tell they’re related.”
The twins feel an unrelenting fury at the communist apparatus that separated them, but have been unable to find an individual to hold responsible.
“It’s so obviously wrong, unethical and immoral to separate two babies who were meant to be together. We’re identical twins—why split us up, especially when people wanted to adopt both of us?” says Conny.
“We both feel so much anger at the system that kept us apart for so long. But since we found each other, we’re so full of joy that the idea of trying to take any sort of action against the adoption agency seems a negative way to spend our precious time.
“We would rather share time together than waste it trying to find someone to blame for what has gone before.”
Indeed, given the huge political upheavals during their lives, the pair would find it difficult to pursue the authorities that parted them.
After their reunion, the twins went on to find their birth mother. Incredibly, she did not want anything to do with them and refused to meet them.
“When we found her through an agency, she couldn’t cope with being reminded of what was clearly a harrowing time in her life,” says Conny.
“Though we were both heartbroken that she didn’t want to see us, we felt we had to respect her choice.
“She did give us the information that our father was an artist and graphic designer, which explains why we both love art. And somewhere out there are our three older siblings.
“But I’ve never felt the same longing to meet them or my parents as I did throughout my childhood for a sister. That’s what I was really missing.
“The one thing our story shows is that, no matter what happens, some people are just meant to be together.”
Devoted sisters: Twins Ulrike Reichenbach (left) and Conny Holzbrecher were reunited only after the fall of the Berlin Wall.