Nazi past haunts 'Aryan' children
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By Kate Bissell
13 June 2005 / BBC News
Between 1935 and 1945, around 10,000 German children and an estimated 9,000 Norwegian children with "Aryan" characteristics of blond hair and blue eyes were born into a Nazi-run programme called "Lebensborn" or "Fountain of Life".
It was part of the Nazis' plan to create a "master race". Sixty years later, many are still living with the psychological scars, as the BBC Radio 4 documentary "Fountain of Life", discovered.
"My uncle always called me an 'SS bastard' and I did not understand why," says Gisela Heidenreich from Munich.
"I always remember feeling that there was something wrong with me. I felt guilty, but no one would explain that I was a Lebensborn child."
Gisela Heidenreich was born out of an affair with an SS commander. Her mother also worked as a secretary for Lebensborn.
Heinrich Himmler, leader of Hitler's SS encouraged affairs between SS soldiers and "Aryan" women, to increase the stock of "racially valuable" Germans in response to falling birth rates.
At a time in Germany when illegitimate children were a social taboo, Himmler formed 10 Lebensborn homes in Germany and nine in occupied Norway, to provide comfortable and safe accommodation for the unmarried pregnant women.
Many Lebensborn homes were set up in houses confiscated from Jewish families by the Nazis or in former homes for the elderly or mentally handicapped.
While some mothers kept their babies others left them in the care of Lebensborn, while a "good" German family was found to adopt the child.
Gisela has twice been back to the former Lebensborn home where her mother worked. I joined her on her second visit to Steinhoering. An hour form Munich, Steinhoering sits in rolling fields with the snow-capped peaks of the Alps in the distance. At Steinhoering, her mother played a key role signing babies off for "adoption".
'Victim of Hitler'
The former home's gates, with the Nazis SS symbol clearly visible, are still propped up against a stable. The gates, along with a Nazi statue of an "Aryan" mother breastfeeding her baby, are a reminder of the home's dark past.
Gisela is touched though to find that the home is now a centre for the disabled.
"It is so moving to see these happy children playing on swings," she says. "They would not have lived during the Third Reich, because of Hitler's crazy racial policy."
Gisela says she has found evidence in Lebensborn records to suggest that disabled children born into the programme were killed or sent to concentration camps.
Maria Dorr, another Lebensborn child - her mother Norwegian and father a soldier in the German Army - now lives outside Frankfurt in Germany. Maria considers herself to be a victim of Hitler.
As a baby she was transported from Norway to the Koren Salis Lebensborn home near Leipzig, before being adopted by a German family.
Holding back tears, Maria relays the moment she realised she was adopted.
"I was a schoolgirl when a woman came up to me and told me I was not German. So I started to secretly look through my adopted mother's things, but it was not until I was an adult that I found my Lebensborn file and discovered the real truth.
"I can't help feeling like a Lebensborn child. I feel damaged and the disturbance it has caused me has damaged my life."
In a small flat half an hour from Leipzig, Maria Heinich looks proudly through her photo album which dates back to 1942, when she worked as a secretary at Koren Salis Lebensborn home.
Maria Heinich does not remember Maria Dorr, but she has kept in touch with some of the other Lebensborn children she met at the home.
Looking at me with her steely eyes, Maria is adamant that although she worked at the home she was not a Nazi.
"I was young then, I did not think it was alright what we did, but I really enjoyed my work there. I really did not have anything to do with it proper, I was just a little secretary, I did not have any connection to the Lebensborn headquarters in Munich."
Gisela Heidenreich explains that many women who worked for Lebensborn, including her own mother, face difficulties in accepting the role, however small they played, in supporting Hitler's racial policy.
The BBC also discovered that in 1943 Heinrich Himmler ordered children meeting racial "qualification" to be abducted from homes and streets in conquered east European countries. Those stolen children were taken to Lebensborn homes to be "Germanised" before adoption.
In 1945, Gitta Sereny joined the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. It was her job to find and transport stolen children back to their homeland.
"I took several truckloads of children back to Poland. It was so touching to see their parents on the platforms when the train arrived. Many of them had said goodbye to babies but they never failed to recognise their children."
However, Ingrid Von Oelhalfen, who was eight months old when she was stolen from Slovenia and taken to Germany, was not returned after the war.
Tears stream down her face as she explains the devastating effect Lebensborn has had on her life. "I have never been loved," she says.
Fountain of Life was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 FM at 2000 BST on 13 June 2005.