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(A preface of sorts:) As events have shown over the past decade (or more), we are collectively unable to keep more than one thought in our minds, especially if thoughts might be competing, whether for attention or for an assessment of moral or ethical aspects (you can see this very clearly in the discussions — if we want to call what’s happening that — around Israel and Gaza).

This fact is unfortunate for many reasons, the most important one being that it risks brushing aside a lot of individual hurt (even in the group you have decided to support). If we are unable to face individual hurt — how can we hope to address collective hurt?

There is only circumstantial evidence, and it is vague as is often the case in German family histories, but I believe that my paternal great grand-aunt worked for Lebensborn. I distinctly remember that at some stage, I overheard her say that the children of the failed 20 July 1944 plot had been taken to where she worked, and she had been taking care of them. At the time — I was very, very young (a very curious child), that statement sent chills down my spine: who would take children away from their parents?

We do not have to go back in history to find an answer. It was that snippet of memory that had and still has me so revulsed about russia’s mass abduction of Ukrainian children for which the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against its dictator. Historical comparisons are always problematic, especially if they involve Nazi Germany; but here, a comparison seems apt: the underlying motivations are very similar.

The second piece of circumstantial evidence for my great grand-aunt is the locale, the Harz region. As I learned from Angeniet BerkersLebensborn (in its italicized version, throughout this text the word will refer to the book), there was such a home in Wernigerode. Unfortunately, she died many years ago; in any case it’s extremely unlikely that I would have been able to find out more. The code of silence that had been draped over German families’ past has been pierced here and there, but for the most part it remains intact.

Lebensborn homes included a variety of different children. The homes had been set up by the head of Germany’s SS, Heinrich Himmler, as a (literal) breeding ground for what he and his peers considered the ideal German. Following eugenics — at the time were widely believed across the globe — the idea was to counter Nazi Germany’s meagre birth rate by having those who were seen as following the highest human ideals — blond, blue-eyed “Aryans” — procreate to produce more of these kinds of people.

A lot less prosaic and probably much closer to the actual motivations was Himmler’s statement that “the number of cribs must be greater than the number of coffins.” In other words, if you want to wage war and you need to throw people into the meat grinder, you need to be able to replenish the raw material (and here we have one of the direct links to today’s russia).

For obvious reasons, the “Aryan” idea was complete nonsense: with few exceptions, none of the Nazi leaders looked remotely like one of those idealized blond, blue-eyed people. In fact, the influential propaganda minister had a club foot, which was carefully hidden, given that under the Nazi’s ideology disabilities rendered a person as belonging to a much lower category as a human being.

Nazi ideology aside, the Lebensborn homes ended up not only being the birth homes of SS spawns, they also housed a variety of other mothers and their children. The Nazis combed various countries to locate “Aryan” children. Using very crude pseudo-scientific methods, these children were taken from their families and put into a Lebensborn home, to be raised as German.

Germany families that either did not have children or wanted another one (for whatever reason) were able to apply to get one. That’s how children ended up in German families, with German names and German parents. But there were other cases where German soldiers had fathered children in occupied countries, and some of them were put into those homes as well.

There’s a popular internet meme: “fuck around and find out”. In the Lebensborn cases, there’s a perverse twist to it, given that some people were doing the literal fucking, whereas it would be upon their children to find out.

This might read like an unfortunately crass way to describe the situation. But I find it almost impossible to wrap my head around the situation many of the Lebensborn children found themselves in once they realized that their actual birth history was rather different than what they had been led to believe.

Lebensborn contains a number of stories of some of these children, which will haunt you forever if you have a beating heart in your chest. There is, for example, Ingrid von Oelhafen, born as Erna Matko in then Yugoslavia (pictured above), who spent years trying to find her family in now Slovenia. Or Paul Hansen, whose father was a German soldier and whose mother was Norwegian. Put into a Norwegian home for children with intellectual disabilities after the war, he managed to finally locate his mother (in then East Germany of all places) who told him “You are not welcome here.”

It is the stories that do the heavy emotional lifting in the book. These stories overflow with a hurt that is hard to imagine. One needs to be aware of the fact that all of the individuals Berkers spoke with are survivors. How many other lives ended up much shorter, possibly out of sheer despair? And when you’re reading these stories, think of the Ukrainian children held in russian institutions or homes. And think of all of those children in Gaza who lost their entire families and now face their lives like many of the Lebensborn ones: in a world largely hostile to their needs.

It’s painful and yet necessary to remain at the level of the individual hurt — or to try to approach it yet again if one forgot about that that is where it all has its beginning. Individual hurt offers no solace, it offer no quick and immediate solutions; it merely remains hurt.

Paul Hansen should have never been discarded by Norway’s post-war society because he happened to have the wrong parents. The children of Ukraine should have never been abducted to live in a fascist country. The children of Gaza should have never lost their parents, to now grow up in a massive field of rubble without food. Whatever the choices might have been that led to these very situations, if we lose track of the individual suffering, we will never be able to get to a world where such suffering will cease to exist.


Lebensborn; photographs and text by Angeniet Berkers; essay by Dr Ingvill Constanze Ødegaard; 272 pages; The Eriskay Connection; 2024

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