Wartime orphans of shame unite

By John Tagliabue
July 19, 2009 / scotsman.com
WHEN Jacques Roquencourt handles photographs, he does so with delicate hands. An accomplished aerospace engineer, he has spent his life building things like airborne radar systems. He is also one of France's foremost experts on early photography, particularly the work of Daguerre.
But when a package of photographs arrived recently from Freiburg, Germany, he handled them with special delicacy – if investigations under way bear fruit, one of the men in the black and white photos, taken in the 1930s, will prove to be the father whose identity has remained a mystery to Roquencourt for all his 67 years.

The so-called enfants de Boches born during the Second World War to French women and German soldiers, are seeking to fill a hole in their lives, hunting for long-lost German fathers they never knew and speaking openly of the maltreatment they suffered from their French neighbours. It is estimated that 200,000 children were born of these wartime love affairs.

Photos of the time depict young women, their heads shorn in shame, being hounded through villages, clutching the children of German fathers. About 20,000 women had their heads shaved. Many rejected the children, gave them up for adoption or placed them in orphanages.

But now these children, in their late 60s, are struggling to put their lives in order while there is still time. They have formed an association and sought the help of the German and French governments to try to identify their fathers, in many cases already dead, or families that their fathers founded in Germany after the war.

Roquencourt is one of them. A tall, white-haired man with an engaging smile, he was reared in the west of France by a woman he still calls Mother. But in the 1980s, when he prepared to marry, his bride's father, a retired naval officer, asked the police for a background check on his future son-in-law. Only then did Roquencourt learn that his mother was actually an adoptive parent. His biological mother had placed him as an infant in an orphanage, where he remained until he was five and a half, when he was adopted.

"My adoptive mother had a son, Maurice Roquencourt, who died during the war in a labour camp near Frankfurt," Roquencourt said in his home, half an hour from Paris. "I've often thought that she took me in to replace her son."

Roquencourt tracked down family members on his biological mother's side. He got to know her son and daughter by a later marriage. "I went to the communions and marriages of their children," he said. Lately though, the connection has weakened.

When he found his biological mother, by then in a retirement home, she refused to recognise him. "She denied that I was her child, or that she had abandoned me twice," he said, once by placing him in an orphanage and a second time by allowing him to be adopted. "She denied it. It distresses me. It's always painfully on my mind."

But when it came to finding his father, Roquencourt was stymied. From a half-brother, the son of his biological mother, who later married a Frenchman, he learned that his father had been a physician and a major in the Wehrmacht. From one of his mother's cousins, he learned that his father had been the director of a German military hospital in Cherbourg, where the German submarine fleet was based.

But that was all he could uncover until 2005, when another war child, Jeanine Nivoix-Sevestre, founded an association to bring together the enfants de Boches. Her mother was a 16-year-old waitress in a village restaurant in 1941 when she met Werner, a soldier in his 20s. Did her mother ever speak of Werner? "She was killed in a British bombing raid in 1944," she said, "when I was not yet three."

After her mother's death, Nivoix-Sevestre was placed with foster parents, then in an orphanage. When she was 13, she learned from a girlfriend – she said it seemed that everyone in her village knew about it but her – that her father was named Werner (no known last name), was probably Austrian and was probably killed near Smolensk, Russia, in 1942 or 1943.

The association, which has 254 members, contacted the German military archives in Berlin and Freiburg and secured their help in searching out relatives; they also received the support of Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, whose grandparents perished in Auschwitz.

Then this year, the German government announced that children of German soldiers would be eligible for dual citizenship. Applications would be handled "generously", it said.

In recent months, friends of the association in Freiburg found the names of the three directors of the Cherbourg hospital during the German occupation. At the time Roquencourt was conceived, the director was Dr Walther Biese. He was 53 when he met Roquencourt's mother and he had a wife and two daughters in Germany.

Roquencourt is now in touch with a granddaughter of Biese. This summer, they will submit DNA samples to see whether Biese is really the father.

Roquencourt has received a copy of three evaluations of Biese made by superiors during the war, describing him as an "outstanding personality," and "calm and level-headed." Roquencourt's expression betrays satisfaction that his father, if it is Biese, was a healer, not a killer.

Roquencourt is realistic about his mother. "In the worst of cases, had I stayed with her, they would have called me 'Bastard, Hun,'" he said. Instead, he grew up comfortably, earned a degree in engineering and has a contented family life. Yet even now, he asks that the name of his village not be divulged.

Has Roquencourt forgiven his mother? "It's the past, it's done, what should I do, shoot myself in the head?" he said. "You have to get on with it."

He paused, then added: "I am the type who doesn't suffer. But many do. I see that in the association."


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