Nazi program still a source of pain
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Anne-Lise Fredriksen was walking on the beach one day during a Key West vacation when her husband told her to straighten up so her back wouldn't ache later.
To his shock, she burst into tears.
Her husband's innocent remark had dredged up a far darker memory, from the time when she was a young girl growing up in a fishing village in Norway, the child of a German father and a Norwegian mother.
Because her father had been a Nazi soldier during the occupation of Norway in World War II, children threw rocks at her, adults chased her away from public gatherings, and "I didn't eat because I wanted to be so skinny no one would see me."
She also walked bent over to avoid attention, but one woman in her village would always spot her and call out, "Straighten up! I can see you, you German kid."
That is the memory her husband unwittingly tapped into that day on the beach.
Mrs. Fredriksen is one of 9,000 to 12,000 Norwegian children who became part of the Nazis' Lebensborn program, which was begun by SS chief Heinrich Himmler to increase the supply of blond-haired, blue-eyed "Aryan" children.
In some ways, the Lebensborn effort -- it means "fountain of life" in German -- was the obverse of the Final Solution.
At the same time the Nazis were rounding up millions of Jews, Gypsies and others for slavery and execution in the concentration camps, they also began several programs to increase the "Germanification" of Europe.
The Lebensborn program began in the 1930s as a set of maternity homes in Germany for the wives of SS officers and for unwed mothers with the right traits, to ensure their children would be raised as good Nazis.
After the war began, it evolved in other directions.
When the Nazis occupied Norway from 1940-1945, German soldiers were encouraged to have children with Norwegian women, whose Nordic features fit the Aryan ideal.
A handful of those children were taken to Germany to be raised by their father's relatives, but most of the children, like Mrs. Fredriksen, remained in Norway.
In other territories occupied by the Nazis -- particularly Poland, Czechoslovakia and parts of Russia and Ukraine -- many blond, blue-eyed children were kidnapped from their biological families to be placed with SS-approved foster families in Germany.
The Lebensborn program has received sporadic attention over the past 60 years, but today it remains a largely unknown facet of the Nazi's "master race" ideology.
It emerged from the shadows recently for two reasons.
Earlier this month, a small band of German Lebensborn children, now in their 60s and 70s, met for a reunion in the central German town of Wernigerode, where one of the maternity homes had been located.
Next month, the European Court of Human Rights has scheduled a hearing in a case brought by several Norwegian Lebensborn children, seeking damages from their nation for the abuse they suffered growing up.
In past years, there even were two movies -- one German and one American -- that fictionalized the Lebensborn program, although both were built around an idea that has been proven untrue.
The discredited notion is that Himmler set up the Lebensborn program as a stud farm for SS officers to produce children with unmarried women.
While many of the Lebensborn children had SS fathers, that was usually the result of love affairs rather than an intentional breeding program.
Georg Lilienthal, the leading historian of the Lebensborn program, said in an e-mail from Germany that "there is no evidence of deliberate mating in connection with Lebensborn."
He also said it's difficult to know how many children were involved in the program.
The best estimates, Dr. Lilienthal said, are the 9,000 to 12,000 in Norway, about 9,000 more born in maternity homes in Germany, and perhaps 400 kidnapped from occupied territories.
Others have floated much larger figures.
Christian Gerlach, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh and adviser to the Holocaust Center of Greater Pittsburgh, said Polish authorities sometimes claim that 200,000 non-Jewish children were kidnapped in their nation by the Germans.
Not only is that figure suspect, Dr. Gerlach said, but it probably also includes young people who were abducted for forced labor gangs and for last-second defense efforts in Germany at the end of the war.
In Norway, many Lebensborn children suffered cruel mistreatment after the war.
Bjorn Lengfelder, a Lebensborn child who is active in the Norwegian survivors' group, said one woman he knows was kept in a children's home as a virtual prisoner for 15 years and sexually abused until she escaped. Another brother and sister were punished as preschoolers by being put in a locked pig sty without food for two days and nights.
Mr. Lengfelder said he didn't suffer that kind of abuse -- but only because he was virtually hidden away during his childhood.
The son of an SS military policeman and a Norwegian mother, he was sent to live with an unrelated farm family until he was 5.
Later, he was shuttled from one foster family to the next. He thinks it was partly because his Norwegian stepfather didn't want him around, and partly to keep anyone from knowing his true parentage.
Lynn Nicholas, author of "Cruel World: the Children of Europe in the Nazi Web," said it's hard to fathom why any adult would mistreat a child simply because of who his parents were.
"I suppose you could relate it to a family stigma in this country, where, if someone's father was the town drunk, your mother wouldn't let you play with his children."
Adults were encouraged to look down on Lebensborn children, Mr. Lengfelder said.
A Norwegian newspaper article written by a doctor in 1945 said that "the mixture of Norwegian-German whore and German soldier will in many cases, possibly in mostly all, result in an offspring of little value ... These defective children will in the future in all probability cost us substantial amounts for care in various forms, including imprisonment."
In Germany, Lebensborn children weren't usually abused but often lived a life of secrecy and confusion.
Gisela Heidenreich, who wrote an autobiographical novel in 2002 called "The Endless Year," said her mother was a secretary in the Lebensborn program who had a love affair with her father, an SS training officer.
When her mother became pregnant, she went to a Lebensborn home in Oslo to give birth, and then told many relatives after returning to Germany that she had adopted a Norwegian orphan.
For the first several years of her life, Ms. Heidenreich was raised by an aunt she thought was her mother, and she thought her mother, who visited occasionally, was her aunt.
She learned the truth after her uncle returned home from the war and told his wife that he wouldn't live in the same house "with this SS bastard."
Ms. Heidenreich spent much of the rest of her childhood with her grandmother, because unbeknownst to her, her mother had been arrested to testify in the Nuremberg war crime trials.
Her mother later told her that her father had died in the war, but eventually she learned the truth and was reunited with him and was accepted by his wife and family.
"I encountered a father who was kind to me and very nice, but nobody in his family talked about his SS past. It was never mentioned."
That sense of shame helps explain why there are only about 70 people in the German Lebensborn survivors' group, she said.
After her book came out, she got letters from people saying, "I'm happy you wrote this because I finally could find my own feelings in this book -- but I don't want anyone to know about my past."
Michael Kater, a distinguished emeritus professor at York University in Canada, said the Lebensborn program was just one part of a Nazi plan to create a "racially pure" stronghold in Europe.
In his 2004 book "Hitler Youth," Dr. Kater said there was even a "Hitler Girls" program which selected bright, attractive young German girls to become the future wives of top Nazis -- "two to each Nazi leader" -- but it never came to fruition.
Many German children will probably die without ever knowing they were part of the Lebensborn program.
For the Norwegian children, though, the issue won't go away.
"For us, we will be fighting this war forever," said Mr. Lengfelder.
First Published November 25, 2006 12:00 am