The children of the Lebensborn are, for many people, another barbaric part of life in Nazi Europe that we in the 21st Century are blessed to know little or nothing about. That was the case for me until I was offered a copy of Ingrid Von Oelhafen’s book Hitler’s Forgotten Children to review.
Ingrid’s book is part memoir and part history lesson about the Lebensborn: an unutterably cruel and heartless strand in Hitler’s campaign to create a pure ‘Aryan’ race of blue eyed, blond haired, white skinned leaders. Regardless of the cost to anybody.
Lebensborn was the name given to the scheme, which was led by Hitler’s second in command Heinrich Himmler, in which babies and children were brutally stolen from the arms of their parents, assessed to see if they were ‘racially pure’ and, if they passed the test, fostered by approved German families to be raised as German citizens. There were also the German women and girls who were persuaded (forced?) to have children with SS officers to ensure the continuation of ‘good blooded’ Germans. And a lot of other awful strands to this barbaric scheme, all of which are catalogued in Hitler's Forgotten Children.
In an age when it takes a lot to shock Western audiences (we are immune to horror films, to grotesque acts on reality TV), there is still shock to be found in true stories. And Ingrid’s story is a true one.
As a baby, she was stolen away from her Yugoslavian family, deemed to be racially pure, and fostered by a German couple along with another stolen baby: they were both children of the Lebensborn. Enduring an awful childhood of cruelty, abandonment and an aching lack of love (the reprinted letters that teenage Ingrid sent her foster mother begging to be brought home from her cruel foster father’s, where she was staying, are heartbreaking - even more so since they went ignored), Ingrid was in her late 60s before she finally found out who she really was: a journey that took 15 years to uncover.
Ingrid’s story is truly awful. The casual way in which young children were ripped from their loving parents, measured and prodded by SS officers, sent on unendurably long and unpleasant journeys with no food, and offloaded into Nazi children’s homes before foster families were found… it is all truly sickening. That so many people complied is even more horrific, although when the alternative to compliance is death perhaps the worn-down behaviour of the victims was less appalling. However, when Ingrid does finally find out what happened to her biological family and what they did on the day she was taken, it is extremely hard to understand how she manages to retain such calm dignity towards her true mother.
Upwards of 20,000 babies were born into Lebensborn nursing homes, and this is in addition to the countless children like Ingrid who were snatched from their families for ‘Germanisation’: to be raised as good German citizens to build 'the master race'. Like Ingrid, the surviving Lebensborn children are in their 60s, 70s and 80s now and many, like Ingrid, have been denied loving families, stability and the ability to form caring partnerships of their own. That so many thousands and thousands of young lives were ruined before they had even begun is truly heartbreaking, and yet another awful chapter in the Nazi regime.
Hitler’s Forgotten Children is not an easy or pleasant read and it will stay in your head for a long time once you close the final pages. But it is important to read, especially if - like me - this was a part of our recent history that you do not already know about.