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December 2017

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gertrude

Hitler’s Forgotten Children: My Life Inside the Lebensborn, Ingrid von Oelhafen and Tim Tate

lebensborn

Erika Matko was born in Cilli, in what was then Yugoslavia, in 1941. Yet she grew up in Germany as Ingrid von Oelhafen. She was a child of Lebensborn. Lebensborn. It means literally ‘fountain of life’ and was one of Himmler’s barmier ideas. Worried that the German population was declining and would become smaller still as a result of war, he planned to ensure the future of the master race by promoting childbirth amongst German women. Large families were encouraged. No stigma was to be attached to a German woman who had an illegitimate child (providing both parents had suitable ‘Aryan’ ancestry and characteristics) but she and her child would be cared for in a Lebensborn home. Worse than this was the kidnapping of children from the occupied territories; babies literally snatched from their mothers’ arms, to be part of a ‘Germanisation’ programme. Erika was one of those children. At only nine months old (!) she was deemed to have the desirable Aryan characteristics and so began her life as a Lebensborn child.

The now ‘Ingrid’ was never adopted but fostered by Hermann von Oelhafen, a career soldier, and his much younger wife Gisela. They lived in Gisela’s family home, a farmhouse in Bundekow, Mecklenberg. So Ingrid’s earliest years were spent in comparative rural tranquility. When the war ended, Germans living in the wrong place had one idea: to escape from the advancing Russian army and into Allied territory. Gisela showed great resourcefulness in getting herself and two children into what would soon be West Germany. She went to her family in Hamburg, where Ingrid grew up.

From an early age, Ingrid knew that she and her brother were foster children, but she didn’t learn this from her mother, who throughout her life obstructed Ingrid’s attempts to find out who she was. Ingrid trained as a physiotherapist, like her mother, and eventually took over her practice, specialising in treating disabled children. She made a life and a rewarding career, had friends, but was never close to her mother or able to find out why she had once been called Erika. She was fifty eight before she began serious research and the impetus for it came from outside: a call from the Red Cross. This led to years of frustrating writing of letters and delving into archives. Who are you, when you have no birth certificate? Supposing the authorities in the former Yugoslavia deny that you exist? She also found that even so many years after the war and in spite of the Nazis’ obsessive record keeping, the German authorities remained secretive about certain sensitive subjects. She did eventually discover her true origins but only with the help of professionals specialising in cases like hers

Ingrid had been warned that she might find the truth upsetting and she did, but was still glad to know. And what of this obscene plan, this Lebensborn? When Ingrid was eventually persuaded to meet other people who had been Lebensborn children, she found herself with a group of perfectly ordinary people in their sixties, displaying no signs that they might have been Übermensch. The scheme was not only wicked but based on bad science. Reading this book was a salutary reminder for me of the luck of being born English :-). Some of these people are only ten years or so older than I am, yet how easy my life has been compared with theirs!

Hitler’s Forgotten Children is a really interesting book on a little known subject and we have to admire Ingrid for telling her story, which must have been painful for her. My thanks to Elliott & Thompson for sending me a copy.

Comments

I have this book on my wishlist since I heard Ingrid von Oelhafen being interviewed on BBC Radio 4 a few weeks ago. It's an incredible story all the more so because researchers only got access to secret archives in 2007. There must be many thousands of adults who still have no idea of their background. The baby 'swap' must have been terrible for her parents.
When the publishers first wrote to me about it they said that the author had been interviewed on radio and television but I missed that promotion. I see that Amazon readers also found the book through those interviews. She seems to be a very special person.