It’s a word that I had to look up, that I then Googled to hear pronounced. It was that unfamiliar. Lebensborn. “Have you heard of it?” I asked my friend Anne, who always knows whatever fact it is that I’ve just discovered.
But she didn’t know either, and this not knowing stunned us both because we read about World War II, we watch documentaries, we visit memorials and museums.
Lebensborn. It means “Fountain of Life” or “Spring of Life,” and was a Nazi program designed by the Heinrich Himmler, the head of the German Gestapo and SS, to create a master Aryan race. Lebensborn not only encouraged and rewarded German women to have children with their SS officer husbands, it also promised German women with the right physical characteristics who were not the officers’ wives to have children for the good of the state. Before becoming Hitler’s most ardent henchman, Himmler had been a chicken farmer obsessed with the idea of breeding pure white chickens. A fervent Nazi, he switched from chickens to people, determined to create a genetically superior, pure white race.
The women in the Lebensborn program were hand-selected. They had to go back three generations to prove their own racial purity. Their noses, their ears, their foreheads had to meet a standard. If chosen, they were well treated. They had ample food, when people were starving. They had a roof over their heads, when few did. They had soft beds and fire for warmth and free medical care. They were giving birth to the heirs of the Reich. In war-torn Europe, they lived a life of privilege and comfort.
Lebensborn was the original “Handmaid’s Tale.”
By 1939, four years after the program began, there were Lebensborn homes not only throughout Germany but also in countries that the Germans occupied. Still, despite the breadth of this program, ethnically pure new Germans were not being produced fast enough.
So the SS began stealing children — from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Ukraine. If a child matched the Nazi racial criteria, blond hair, blue or green eyes, that child was taken from his home, from the street, from his schoolyard, from his mother’s arms, brought to a clinic, and assessed. Circumcision? Too dark a shade of blond? Too long a nose? Too slow? Too noisy? Then the child was rejected. But not returned to his parents. Never returned to his parents. These rejected children were sent to concentration camps and killed.
Lebensborn. How is this heinous piece of history unknown and unmourned?
Folker Heinecke, a child of Lebensborn, tells his story. He was an infant when SS officers grabbed him from his parents’ arms. Adopted by a wealthy German couple — he learned this when neighbor children told him — he never discussed his birth with the parents who raised him. Ten years ago, when he was 67, because the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Germany, finally opened to researchers, Heinecke learned who he was — Aleksander Litau, born in Crimea. He traveled to his childhood home in search of his roots.
“I scooped up earth from the road. I stood there and tried to imagine the SS advancing down here, their tanks and their motorbikes and their armoured cars, and I tried to imagine them taking a little boy who was guilty of nothing,” he told the Daily Mail in 2009.
Anni-Frid Lyngstad, a Norwegian-born Swedish singer from the pop group Abba, is also a child of Lebensborn, the most famous one.
But there are many more.
Some 17,500 children were born and bred for Hitler’s master race during the 10 years of Lebensborn’s existence. It’s estimated that more than 250,000 were kidnapped and Germanized. “Up to 100,000 children may have been stolen from Poland alone,” according to the Jewish Virtual Library (www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org).
Lebensborn was the original ‘Handmaid’s Tale.’
Lebensborn. It’s a word I had to look up last week. Not 24 hours later, I read that the International Museum of World War II in Natick is hosting an exhibit until Oct. 7 highlighting the roles of women in World War II.
The Lebensborn program is a part of that exhibit.Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.