Hitler's Children

They were the offspring of a Nazi program to create a racially pure 'Master Race.' Behind the painful search to discover their roots.

Newsweek International, March 20, 2000
By Joshua Hammer

From the time she was a small child, Helga Kahrau always sensed that she was different. Born in Nazi Germany at the start of World War II, Kahrau has hazy memories of elegant surroundings, important-looking men in crisp uniforms, a life of privilege and comfort. Helga's mother, she knew, had been a secretary in the offices of both Hitler's top aide, Martin Bormann, and Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, but other than admitting that fact, Mathilde Kahrau refused to say anything about the war. It was only after Mathilde's death in 1993 that Helga began to examine her family's past,and was horrified by what she discovered.

Her parents barely knew one another. An ardent Nazi, her mother met Helga's father, a German Army officer, in Berlin at a party celebrating Hitler's conquest of France in June 1940. They had a one-night stand, and nine months later Mathilde gave birth in a "Lebensborn",or "Source of Life",home outside Munich. The home was one of several set up by Heinrich Himmler's dreaded SS to care for unmarried pregnant women whose racial characteristics,blond hair, blue eyes, no Jewish ancestry,fit the Nazis' Aryan ideal. At birth, Helga was anointed as one of the Fuhrer's elect, part of a generation of "racially pure" children who would populate the German Empire as it ruled a conquered Europe for the life of the 1,000-year Reich.

Helga's early years unfolded in an atmosphere of palpable evil. When she was 6 months old, her mother returned from Munich to work in Goebbels's ministry in Berlin, and dispatched Helga to the foster care of a high-ranking Nazi secret policeman. She grew up in a Nazi enclave outside the city of Lodz in occupied Poland while her foster father helped to oversee the gassing of thousands of Jews at the nearby Chelmno concentration camp. At the end of the war she returned to Munich, then a bomb-shattered ruin, where she was raised for the first time by her natural mother. Now, as she fits together the pieces of the first years of her life, Helga admits to being tormented by feelings of self-loathing. "I spent the first four years raised and tutored by the Nazi elite," she says. "I was involved, in a fundamental way, with murderers."

Kahrau and thousands of other middle-aged Europeans are struggling with the consequences of one of Nazism's most troubling social experiments: the creation of a "Master Race." During the 12-year history of the Third Reich, roughly 10,000 infants were born in Lebensborn homes in Germany. An equal number were born in homes in Nazi-occupied Norway after the German invasion of 1940, because Himmler admired the Norwegians' "Viking blood," and encouraged procreation between German soldiers and Norwegian women. There were also Lebensborn homes in France, Belgium and Luxembourg. After the war, many of the Lebensborn children grew up scorned as Nazi progeny and tormented by dark uncertainties about their origins. Those who tried to get answers were often stymied by Germans long reluctant to confront their Nazi past. Their natural or foster parents often kept mum about the Lebensborn program; the German media didn't report on Himmler's racial experiments for decades. The destruction of thousands of German Lebensborn files by SS troops during the last days of World War II deepened the mystery of the children's real identities.

But recently some of the 20,000 Lebensborn children have been getting answers. Last December, German TV reporters uncovered 1,000 long-unnoticed Lebensborn files at the German government archive in Berlin, and two Norwegian Lebensborn organizations are now helping many local war children trace their parents. For many Lebensborn children, the revulsion they feel as they learn more about their backgrounds often goes together with a sense of relief at assembling the missing fragments of their lives. "They have reached the end of their careers, their children are grown and they have time to think about who they really are," says Georg Lilienthal, a German scholar who in 1985 wrote the first authoritative book about Himmler's racial-engineering program. "For many it has been nothing but a black hole."

Himmler planned it that way. The Lebensborn homes sprang from a central tenet of Nazi ideology: the idea that no Germanic baby should go unborn. In 1933 the newly installed Nazi dictatorship outlawed all abortions and later executed doctors who violated the law. In August 1936 Himmler opened the first Lebensborn home at Steinhöring outside Munich, offering Aryan women a place where they could deliver their illegitimate babies and keep the births secret from the outside world. Himmler's SS built nine such homes in Germany,refurbished hotels, villas, ski chalets and schools,and 10 in Norway. The identities of the mothers were recorded in tightly guarded Lebensborn files, which the SS kept separate from municipal and church ultimately decided to keep their babies, but hundreds,out of shame or financial necessity,turned the children over for adoption by high-ranking SS officials, or abandoned them.

Himmler considered no method too extreme in the pursuit of his lunatic goal: the propagation of the Germanic master race. The SS also kidnapped Aryan-looking children from Poland and other occupied lands and brought them to the Lebensborn centers across the Third Reich, where they were "Germanized" and turned over to Nazi foster parents. SS administrators expelled Lebensborn babies who were born disabled,and sometimes dispatched them to euthanasia clinics, to be poisoned or starved to death. Wehrmacht commanders exhorted lower-ranking soldiers serving in Norway to father as many children as possible, and many Norwegian women were eager to oblige them. Himmler also offered promotions to SS men,Nazi zealots who served as Hitler's bodyguards, ran concentration camps and massacred "racially inferior" people in occupied lands,on the basis of the number of offspring they produced. The SS chief took a keen interest in the day-to-day running of homes in Norway and Germany, conducting inspection tours and even devising a high-protein diet for the Lebensborn children.

By the spring of 1945, the 1,000-year Reich was in ruins, and with it, Himmler's master-race baby program. The collapse of the Nazi regime would have lasting consequences for thousands of now adrift small children and infants. As the Allies swept across Germany in the spring of 1945, the SS hurriedly shut down one Lebensborn home after another, collecting hundreds of remaining babies and their secret files and taking them to the original home in Steinhöring. In early May, American troops marched into Steinhöring. According to one account, Nazi Storm Troops burned all the records in a huge bonfire before they fled. In another version of the story, U.S. forces stopped the Nazis as they tried to escape to the mountains. During the confrontation, the files were dumped into the Isar River and washed away. Either way, the true identities of many children were lost forever.

The fate of the children would be cruelest in Norway. The SS never destroyed the Lebensborn files there, but after the Third Reich capitulated on May 8, 1945, thousands of Lebensborn babies and their mothers faced the wrath of their liberated countrymen. Many women and their kids were harassed, beaten and called "Nazi swine" by teachers, schoolmates and neighbors. Police sent some 14,000 women and girls who had slept with Wehrmacht soldiers to internment camps. The head of Norway's largest mental hospital stated that women who had mated with German soldiers were "mental defectives" and concluded that 80 percent of their progeny must be retarded.

Paul Hansen bore that label for decades. The progeny of a brief affair between a Luftwaffe pilot and a cleaning woman who abandoned her child at birth, Hansen, 57, spent his first three years in relative comfort in a Lebensborn home north of Oslo. But his life took a terrible turn after the war, he says, because of his German parentage. Hansen was moved to a collection center for unclaimed Lebensborn children. An epileptic, he was passed over for adoption and was thrown together with 20 other Lebensborn children at this center who could not find homes with relatives or adoptive families. Ministry of Social Affairs officials classified these half-German children as retarded and shipped them to mental institutions. Hansen recalls days of being insulted and beaten by guards, and remembers nights spent in feces-splattered dormitories listening to the psychotic screams of fellow inmates. "I told them 'I'm not insane, let me out'," Hansen says. "But nobody listened." Hansen didn't get his freedom until he was 22 years old.

He found a tiny apartment and a job in a factory,and began a search for his parents. The Lebensborn files in Norwegian archives were off-limits, but through the help of the Salvation Army in Norway, he learned that his father had died in Germany in 1952. His mother had married another Wehrmacht soldier and lived in the East German town of Pasewalk. In 1965, Hansen traveled by train and ferry to see her, and remembers the excitement he felt as he approached her flat. But the reunion was a deep disappointment. "I expected she would open up her arms to me, and say 'Oh, my son.' But she didn't care," he remembers. "When I told her that I had spent my life in mental institutions, she replied, 'So what? You weren't the only one'." Hansen left, and never went back.

In recent years, Hansen has found a measure of peace. He was briefly married, but the relationship broke up because, after years in institutions, he found it impossible to share space with another person. What has made life endurable, he says, is the growing willingness of Norwegian Lebensborn children to go public and confide in one another about their experiences. Hansen says he's found "new brothers and sisters" through his membership in a support group; the recent declassification of the Lebensborn files has allowed many to discover their parentage. Last month Hansen joined six other Lebensborn in a lawsuit filed against the government, asking for millions of dollars in damages for decades of brutal treatment. On New Year's Eve, Norway's prime minister seemed to acknowledge his government's responsibility by apologizing publicly for the first time for "the harassment and injustice done" to the war children.

Helga Kahrau has never found such peace. Growing up with her mother Mathilde in Munich, Kahrau often wondered about her origins. "I was big, blond and Aryan,different from the southern Germans,and everyone asked me, 'Where did you come from?' " she says. "I couldn't answer them." Kahrau's mother concealed the truth, saying only that her soldier father had been killed during World War II. Her only birth record was a cryptic certificate from an "SS Mother Home" that contained her mother's name but not her father's. Her mother kept largely silent about her own role during the war. "Nobody talked about the Nazis back then," Helga says.

Then, one night in the mid-1970s, Helga happened to watch a German television documentary about the Lebensborn program and the SS-run home at Steinhöring. Suddenly, she says, "everything clicked." Still, she asked her mother nothing: "I was afraid. I didn't want a confrontation." But when Mathilde Kahrau died in 1993, Helga traveled to Pullach, near Munich, the onetime home of her foster parents and the current site of the postwar German intelligence headquarters. There she uncovered Nazi files that provided detailed information about her foster father and his crimes committed in the service of the "final solution." She spent hours in libraries, digging up the little scholarship that existed about the Lebensborn. The last pieces fell into place on her birthday in March 1994, when she received a phone call from a man who identified himself as her real father.

Kahrau was shocked. "I said, 'Why are you calling me after 53 years?' " In his 80s and stricken with cancer, he explained that his thoughts had returned to the daughter he had fathered during the war. They met the next day. "He was charming," she says. "It was love at first sight." He told Helga about the night of passion with her mother, about his military duty in occupied Paris,and his postwar real-estate career. "He had become a millionaire," Helga says. As her father's health worsened, she nursed him round the clock, expecting to receive some share of his estate. But after her father died in 1996, Kahrau received a letter from attorneys stating that he had left no will. As an illegitimate Lebensborn child, she would inherit nothing. "All I got were debts," she says.

In the four years since then, Kahrau has found some solace talking with a psychologist friend about her upbringing. She has visited her birthplace, the old Lebensborn home at Steinhöring, several times. But Kahrau hasn't yet come to terms with her identity. Unlike Norway, no support groups exist in Germany for Lebensborn children, nor has she found a willingness to confront the issue in German society. Kahrau still worries that people will assume she's a Nazi because "I grew up on the side of the murderers," she says. Meeting a NEWSWEEK correspondent at a hotel in downtown Munich, she was visibly nervous, tensing when the word "Lebensborn" was uttered too loudly and insisting on speaking about her life only in the privacy of a secluded booth. "Being a Lebensborn child is still a source of shame," she admits. That shame is the Nazis' bitter legacy to those who they once thought would inherit the earth.

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