They were the blue-eyed blonds born into a sinister SS scheme to further the Aryan race. But the defeat of the Nazis left Norway's 'Lebensborn' facing the vengeance of an entire nation. Here, five former war children talk for the first time about their ordeal – and their fight for compensation
By Rob Sharp/The Independent
January 20, 2008
They stare blankly into the lens, their lips tellingly pursed. All are the Norwegian subjects of a terrifying Nazi experiment. All were involved in one of the most shocking trials of eugenics the world has ever known. All are Lebensborn – the "spring of life". And all are here to tell their stories for the first time.
The Lebensborn Society was born on 12 December 1935, the brainchild of Heinrich Himmler, Hitler's right-hand man and head of the SS. He had designed a project to promote an "Aryan future" for the Third Reich and turn around a declining birth rate in Germany. People were given incentives to have more children in the Fatherland as well as in occupied countries, most importantly in Scandinavia, where the Nordic gene – and its blond-haired, blue-eyed progeny – was considered classically Aryan.
But after the conflict had ended, many of the Norwegians born into the programme suffered. In an attempt to distance itself from the occupying forces, the Norwegian government publicly vilified the children born by Norwegian mothers and Nazi fathers. Many of those children subsequently experienced intense bullying, and in some cases, extreme mental and physical abuse. In recent years, a Lebensborn group in Norway has been fighting what it sees as the Norwegian government's complicity in their horrific ordeal.
Now, these once-persecuted children, many of whom are in their sixties, have been brought together by British photographer Lucinda Marland, who travelled to Norway to interview them and take their portraits, with a 1940s 5x4 plate camera, reproduced exclusively here.
"The people I met described themselves as the lucky ones and maintain that hundreds of others were never able to come to terms with the prejudice and cruelty they ' suffered," says Marland. "They were incredibly humble and proud people still coming to terms with their demons; many of them would be welling up when they were talking to me."
The Lebensborn programme arrived in Norway in March 1941, six years after the scheme was started in Germany. The occupying soldiers were officially encouraged to father children with the local women. They were reassured that the Third Reich would take care of the child if they did not wish to marry the mother, or were already married. As well as paying all the costs for the birth, the Lebensborn association gave the mothers substantial child support, including money for clothes, as well as a pram or cot. It was noted at the time that only a small proportion of the German fathers wanted to marry the pregnant women and bring them back to the German Reich.
Hotels and villas were requisitioned and 10 Lebensborn homes were established from scratch. Here, more than 8,000 children were registered, and issued with a Lebensborn number and file containing their medical records.
For many of the young, impressionable Norwegian girls who had become pregnant at the hands of the invaders, it was a convenient place to give birth – well away from the disapproving eyes of their peers, with access to the best available care.
But towards the end of the war, the exiled Norwegian government – which had set up shop in London – started broadcasting ominous warnings to collaborators in Norway. One said: "We have previously issued a warning and we repeat it here of the price these women will pay for the rest of their lives: they will be held in contempt by all Norwegians for their lack of restraint."
Soon afterwards, the war ended, Himmler committed suicide and Norway's pre-war leaders returned. Norwegians cut off the hair of many of the "German whores" who had sired children with the Nazi soldiers, and they were paraded through the streets and spat at. Though the women hadn't broken any law, several thousand were arrested and many interned. A large number lost their jobs, for as little as having been seen talking to a German, and many were traumatised for life. "We will never be rid of the stigma, not until we are dead and buried," says one of the Lebensborn interviewed by Marland, Paul Hansen. "I don't want to be buried in a grave; I want my ashes to be scattered to the winds – at least then I won't be picked on any more."
The condemnation escalated. The Norwegian government tried to deport the Lebensborn to Germany but the scheme was vetoed by the Allies. In July 1945, one newspaper expressed the fear that Lebensborn boys would "bear the germ of some of those typical masculine German characteristics of which the world has now seen more than enough". A leading psychiatrist advised that a large proportion of the 8,000 (officially registered) children must be carrying bad genes and therefore would be mentally retarded; "genetically bad", he said, they "belonged in special institutions". As a result, hundreds of children were forcibly incarcerated in mental institutions. Here they were often abused, raped and their skin scrubbed until it bled. A member of the Norwegian ministry of social affairs said of them in July 1945: "To believe these children will become decent citizens is to believe rats in the cellar will become house pets." '
Through legal action, many of the children have sought compensation from the Norwegian government for its discrimination against them. A few were offered limited financial recompense. But still officials refuse to take the blame. "The government has acknowledged that several war children have been subject to harassment in society," says government lawyer Thomas Naalsund. "But it is highly difficult to say now, 50 years later, that the government was responsible for these events."
Last year, 157 of the children appealed to the European Court of Human Rights but lost on the grounds that their problems happened too long ago. "There is a hypocrisy at the heart of Norway, home of the Nobel Peace Prize, a country that prides itself on resolving conflicts around the world but refuses to acknowledge its own victims of war," says the Lebensborns' lawyer, Randi Spydevold. "I'm disappointed and embarrassed on behalf of Norway. I thought Norway was a great country, the best country for human rights; I didn't disbelieve that for one moment until I took this case."
Now, what hope that still exists among the Lebensborn is in their desire that by sharing their stories, one day an international standard will be set that will prevent future war children from being discriminated against, and enduring the atrocities that they themselves have had to live through. Their chilling tales, some of which are reproduced here, are just one small step towards that potential resolution.
Ellen Voie: 'I was locked in a dark room'
I was born in 1942 in a Lebensborn home, where I stayed until I was adopted aged two. My adoptive parents were incredibly cruel: they beat me and locked me in a small, dark room for hours. To this day I'm still afraid of the dark and have nightmares.
We lived in a small community where everyone seemed to know I was a German child and told me how awful I was. I was very disruptive; I couldn't concentrate. When I was 16 the local priest refused to confirm me because I did not have a baptism certificate. I had to go to the local authority where I found out that my parents had changed my name.
Then I went to Denmark to study. While there I worked as a nursery nurse, and fell in love with a German, but my parents disapproved and I had to return to Norway to continue studying.
A year after I returned, a friend and I were walking to the cinema when a car pulled up with some boys in it. My friend said she knew them so we got in, but the car broke down. My friend went off with one of the boys to get spare parts and left me alone with the other boy, who raped and almost killed me. A taxi driver saved my life.
I later discovered I was pregnant from the attack. I was 19 years old. My parents threw me out of the house and put me in a home, where I stayed until my son was born. My parents then insisted I give up my baby; I was only allowed to hold him for a few minutes before they took him away. But I was determined that history would not repeat itself and with the help of a social worker I got my son back.
Despite all the hardships, I got an education and my work as a social worker has helped me deal with my past. I've dedicated my adult life to helping others, children in particular. It helps me to forget my own tormented past. I now live with my husband and dogs in Oslo.
Paul Hansen: 'They classed me as a retard'
I think my mother's family put pressure on her to give me up, so I was born in a Lebensborn home in 1942 and my mother left me there.
I later learnt that after the war a government delegation came to the home to decide what to do with the 20 war children, including me, who had been left there. We were lined up and the doctor said he would take us. It turned out that he was the head of a mental institution. There was no medical prognosis behind his decision; it was just that we were war children, and therefore must be "retarded" due to our parentage. They made no effort to trace any of our family members, they just locked us up with children so sick that some were incontinent and incapable of feeding themselves. I was four years old.
By the time I was released I had lost any chance of a proper education and for the next few years I went from one home to another.
I was eventually sent to a special school for children with learning disabilities and mental illness. This was the only formal education I received. War children were segregated from the rest of the school. We were not allowed any contact with the outside community. I was then moved to a boys' home and then another mental institution, where I was finally old enough to sign myself out. The people there helped me get a job in a factory. My colleagues used to taunt me mercilessly until one day I stood up and told them what had happened to me. They never taunted me again and I stayed there for 17 years.
In 1975 I got married but my wife had a nervous breakdown and we divorced in 1977. Then I lived with someone for nearly 20 years but she died of cancer.
I now work as a cleaner and janitor at the University of Oslo and have a long-term girlfriend. As much as it hurts to talk about my past, I do so because it's important that people know what happened to us. I spent the first 20 years of my life in mental institutions just because my father was a German.
Kikki Skjermo: 'I was raped when I was 10'
I was born in 1945 near Trondheim. My mother was away a lot, finding work. It was my grandparents who brought me up and told me about my father. They provided for me, but never showed me any warmth. I felt like I lived behind a wall of silence; life was very empty and confusing.
At 10 years old I was raped by a local man, who had a deep hatred of the Germans. I didn't know him but he knew I was a German child. He told me people like me were born to be used. I didn't dare tell anyone; I stayed in bed for a week pretending I had a stomach upset.
At 15 I was granted special permission to marry my husband. It took me a couple of years to tell him about my history but he has always been a huge support and we've been married for 47 years.
Both he and my children encouraged me to trace my father, who I met for the first time when I was 42. We have a wonderful relationship and, when my daughter got married, she asked if my father could walk her down the aisle to show the world that the spell was broken.
It's taken me a long time to be able to say, it's OK, I'm a German child. It's important to speak out to help other war children who aren't as fortunate as me.
Bjorn Drivdal: 'They beat me up at school'
Growing up in Oslo, I was told my father was sent to the Eastern Front, where he died in action. But my mother would never tell me anything more about him.
I later learnt that when my mother discovered she was pregnant she tried to get an abortion, but the German authorities wouldn't let her.
I endured school until I was 15; I was always being beaten and couldn't understand why. I then went to sea, working mainly on cargo ships. On shore leave, I'd often find myself on the shadier side of town – I found it easier to be around people with something to hide.
I've been married twice and have five children. Both marriages ended in divorce; I wasn't easy to live with.
When I turned 57 I took early retirement because I couldn't concentrate and was having nightmares, and it was then that I confronted my past. I started seeing a psychologist and learnt to explore who I was.
I decided to go to Germany. I knew where my father had lived, so I went to the local newspaper, which helped me with my research. I found my father's grave and discovered he had actually died in 1974 in a car crash, not in the war as I had been led to believe. It was a devastating blow. But my trip to Germany wasn't all bad; I met my two half-sisters, who had no idea I existed, and this summer my nephew and his children are coming to visit me.
Gerd Fleischer: 'I was called a whore'
My mother and father planned to marry, but to marry an SS officer you had to prove three generations of Aryan blood. My mother's Lapp heritage meant she was not pure enough.
I was born in 1942. My father returned to Germany while my mother fell into poverty, not qualifying for any support from the state, my father or even the Lebensborn programme.
We lived a relatively untroubled life in Lapland until I went to school. One day a fellow pupil called me a "German whore"; I didn't know what this meant so I ran home and asked my mother. She told me that not everyone is open-minded.
My mother then married a former resistance fighter, who hated anything German, particularly me. Abuse and beatings soon became a regular part of my home life. At 13, I ran away.
Somehow I survived, putting myself through school. I remember being lonely, hungry and cold. The authorities knew about me but did nothing to help.
When I was 18, I left Norway and didn't return for 18 years. I worked as an au pair in England, and worked and studied in Germany. I managed to trace my father, who initially denied all knowledge of me. But when we met it was physically obvious I was his daughter. I was furious at him – even more so when he spoke ill of my mother. I successfully took him to court for the maintenance he had never paid to me.
Before returning to Norway I spent several years in Mexico, where I fostered two street children. I brought them home with me, but soon realised that Norway hadn't progressed in its attitude towards ethnic minorities. So I founded the organisation Seif [Self Help for Immigrants and Refugees] to fight for justice for all.