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The Lebensborn

Aired May 2, 2005 - 23:00:00   ET


JONATHAN MANN, CNN HOST: The misery of a failed master race. Half a century ago the Nazis encouraged Norwegian women to raise a generation of arian children. Long after the Germans were defeated, those children were still being punished.
Hello and welcome.

Norway doesn't seem like the kind of place to be harboring dark secrets, but it had one that took decades to fully emerge. When the Nazis occupied the country during the Second World War they hoped to supplement their vision of a perfect arian race with what they considered to be Viking blood. They encouraged German soldiers to father Norwegian children. The Thousand Year Reich may have wanted the youngsters, but it lasted just 12 years and it left its children behind.

On our program today, the Lebensborn. CNN's Nic Robertson has this story.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You learned how to ride a bicycle here?

SIS OSTER (ph), LEBENSBORN: Yes, and I learned how to ski down here.

ROBERTSON: Down in the harbor?

(voice-over): Sis Oster (ph) is taking me down her memory lane, back to World War II.

OSTER (ph): So you can imagine, a small kid, three, maybe four, standing here on her first skis, like this.

ROBERTSON: I have no idea how rough those memories will be.

OSTER (ph): This was an (INAUDIBLE) guy, an elderly guy, and he stopped to ask for directions.

ROBERTSON: It is 1954 and she is 12 years old.

OSTER (ph): And then he grabbed me and took me into a courtyard and then he started to touch me.

ROBERTSON: He is not the first man who has tried to rape her.

OSTER (ph): Maybe not this guy, but the first guy, he did it because he knew my background.

ROBERTSON (on camera): He knew you were a German child.

OSTER (ph): Yes, he knew it. I'm quite certain about that.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): Knew that Sis Oster (ph) was a German child, a Lebensborn, which translated as fountain of life, a wartime product of Hitler's ambitions to expand the arian race.

In April 1940 the Nazis invaded Norway. By June, the king was in exile, the government gone. Norway was occupied by more than 400,000 German troops. It's 3 million citizens forced to live under Nazi rule.

It was then that Hitler, driven by his desire to create a pure arian race, saw opportunity among the blonde and blue-eyed Scandinavian women. German soldiers were told to treat Norwegian women well and the women were encouraged to return the favor. Any child born out of these liaisons was to be cared for in a special Nazi-run Lebensborn home.

By 1945 and the end of Nazi occupation, 10 to 12,000 babies had been born to Norwegian mothers and German fathers.

OSTER (ph): There was a rumor that every one of us was going to be shipped to Germany, and my grandfather had never seen me.

ROBERTSON (on camera): He hadn't come to see you because he didn't want anything to do with you.

OSTER (ph): He was persuaded to come then, and he looked at me, and I charmed him, and he said, "Oh, no, she is not going to Germany. She is coming with us."

ROBERTSON (voice-over): Sis was three. Her grandparents were saving her from on unknown fate. But her troubles were only just beginning.

ROBERTSON (on camera): Here we go. First time back.

OSTER (ph): Yes.


OSTER (ph): It is smaller than I remember.


(voice-over): But not all her memories of schoolmates are comfortable.

(on camera): Many of them actually knew you were a German child.

OSTER (ph): Yes. I think some of them did, yes.

ROBERTSON: What did they do to you?

OSTER (ph): Well, some of them were pushing me. Nagging me.

ROBERTSON: In the classroom here.

OSTER (ph): Oh, no, never when the teacher was there. Never. No, no, no.

ROBERTSON: When the teacher was somewhere else, maybe.

OSTER (ph): Yes, or in the schoolyard.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): As we talk, Sis seems to hold much inside.

(on camera): To you knowledge, were you the only German child at this school?

OSTER (ph): No.

ROBERTSON: There were others?

OSTER (ph): Yes.

ROBERTSON: But you obviously didn't know it at that time.

OSTER (ph): I had a suspicion.


OSTER (ph): Yes.

ROBERTSON: You had a suspicion about others, but you didn't know about yourself?

OSTER (ph): No.

ROBERTSON: Really? That's incredible. That's incredible.

(voice-over): As I'm finding out, though, growing up with her grandparents, Sis was told very little.

OSTER (ph): I saw this one first. And I thought -- but the letters were so difficult to read, because I was young, but I saw my name and I saw my sister's name.

ROBERTSON: But you knew it was a birth certificate?

OSTER (ph): Yes, I understood that.

ROBERTSON: It has your mother's name here and for your father it says, what -- does it say German soldier?

OSTER (ph): Yes.

So I took those and went to my grandmother, or my mother, as I said, and I said what is this and (INAUDIBLE).

ROBERTSON: She got really angry?

OSTER (ph): Yes.

ROBERTSON: You must have known something was going to -- it was important.

OSTER (ph): Yes, I knew that, uh-oh, this I shouldn't tell Sienna (ph).

ROBERTSON (voice-over): Sis was just eight, too young to understand the grown woman she called sister was actually her mother, that her loving grandparents had adopted her.

As she got older, she craved answers. Then when she was 16, sitting with her real mother.

OSTER (ph): I called her by her name, and I said, "Actually, you are almost 20 years older than me and you are my sister, I said, but actually you could be my mother. Are you or aren't you?"

"I am," she said, and, "Who told you?"

ROBERTSON: Since then, Sis Oster (ph) has married, divorced, raised her own family, watched her grandchildren grow, learned that her father is dead, and figured out she wasn't alone.

She has joined a campaign to help Lebensborn like herself.

OSTER (ph): A lot of us really, really had bad time. We were shuttled around like cattle, sent to people, they got money to have us. And the teachers and priests and everyone, they also treated us very badly.

ROBERTSON: The Lebensborn were denied basic rights, denied the opportunity to seek child support from fathers in Germany. Many even denied Norwegian citizenship.

OSTER (ph): We had an incident when we went to court. One guy rose from his chair, furious, and said, "You German kids, keep your mouths shut and be quite."

ROBERTSON (on camera): We're talking about a few years ago here.

OSTER (ph): Yes, just a few years ago.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): Now she says she's skeptical the government will do anything more for the Lebensborn.

(on camera): As I look around Norway today, it's really hard to imagine that just 60 years ago this peaceful port was once teaming with German navy vessels and that this town was at the heart of a Nazi war experiment. But what I'm really struggling to come to grips with is that Sis can still find that people hate her for being a German child.


MANN: We take a break now. When we come back, part two of Nic Robertson's report.

Stay with us.


MANN: The Nazis admired Norwegians but detested Poles as genetically subhuman. After they invaded Poland in 1939, they set out to exterminate its Jews, enslave most everyone else and kidnap children for a Lebensborn program of a different kind. An estimated 50,000 youngsters were taken from their parents.

Welcome back.

Poland and Norway were like night and day to the Nazis, very different countries treated very different ways, but even in Norway, the children couldn't have any idea of the fate that awaited them.

Now part two of Nic Robertson's report.


ROBERTSON: To understand why Norwegians could hate the German children so much, I've come to the Norwegian Resistance Museum and I've discovered that just eight months before Sis was born, the first of the Norwegian resistance fighters were executed by the Nazis.

(voice-over): World War II resistance is part of Norway's heritage, part of every schoolchild's education.

(on camera): It really is incredible. I mean, it is not until you have been through the museum that you really understand just how much the Norwegians hated the Nazi. 95 percent of them supported the resistance. Three in every thousand Norwegians were killed.

(voice-over): Small wonder then that Lebensborn Paul Hanson (ph) found little love after the war. The Nazi Lebensborn homes were closed and he found himself in a nightmare.

PAUL HANSON (ph), LEBENSBORN (through translator): What was really bad was that in this room we had to eat and go to the toilet in the same place.

ROBERTSON: This was no ordinary children's home. Paul, who was perfectly sane, was dumped in an insane asylum.

HANSON (ph) (through translator): I just asked the nurse who my mom and dad were and then I was told it was a German soldier. Then I started crying hard.

ROBERTSON: He was 23 by the time he got out. He had no formal education. He tracked down his mother in East Germany, but she wanted nothing to do with him.

As we talk, I realize he's not so much bitter as hurt. Mentally and physically. He's labored hard all his life, his shoulders injured.

HANSON (ph) (through translator): I've been very lucky. I haven't experienced pedophilia or other such things. So I have been lucky. There are many others who have been exposed to worse things.

ROBERTSON: He found other Lebensborn and joined Sis's annual gatherings. He relied on her and the group for help.

OSTER (ph): The scientists said that we had more diseases than others. The percentage of death is higher. The percentage of bad schooling is higher.

ROBERTSON: Some Lebensborn have done well. Anni-Frid Royce (ph), the dark-haired singer in Abba is one. Sis understands well why Royce (ph) may not make this her cause.

(on camera): This is where Sis is pinning her hopes of getting a decent compensation. The Justice Ministry. I'm going to see the minister.

(voice-over): So far, the government is offering between $3,000 to $30,000, depending on the person's suffering.

OOD BINAR DORUM (ph), NORWEGIAN JUSTICE MIN.: The Norwegian government found it proper to apologize and also to pay a sum of money and say that that is (INAUDIBLE) of a real meaning of apologizing towards you, because of the behavior of the society as such and the authorities. We apologize.

ROBERTSON (on camera): Is that sum of money the last and final word? Will it change?

DORUM (ph): That's the final word.

ROBERTSON: Seems Sis was right. The government has gone as far as it is prepared to go. Perhaps not the happy ending she might have hoped for.

(voice-over): But her story is far from over.

OSTER (ph): I want to know if I have any sisters, brothers, cousins, whatever.

ROBERTSON: She may make a trip to her father's grave in Germany.

OSTER (ph): If I go.

ROBERTSON (on camera): If you go.

OSTER (ph): If I go, then I'll research and see if they are still taking care of the grave. Then I want to find out who is doing that.

ROBERTSON: I think that is very brave of you.

OSTER (ph): No, it's not brave. It's not, really. It is curiosity.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): But I'm still trying to piece together Sis's life. I go back to the harbor.

(on camera): When you see where Sis's mother lived, right here, it is almost no surprise that she fell for a German sailor. At that time, the German navy would have been moored right here, making her an obvious target for their Lebensborn program.

(voice-over): Sis has convinced me, though, she was born out of love; for her, bittersweet.

OSTER (ph): I hope, in the name of whatever, that no one ever, ever will suffer like this again, ever.

ROBERTSON: Nic Robertson, CNN, Oslo, Norway.


MANN: Now decades later the Lebensborn program remains a footnote, essentially overlooked in our memory of the era. But a short time ago we spoke to Michael Leapman, author of "The Master Race, the Lebensborn Experiment in Nazi Germany."


MICHAEL LEAPMAN, AUTHOR: Well, there were two strands, really, to their program to try to improve the nature of the German race. The Nazi philosophy, as we know, was that the German race, the Nordic race, especially, the German strong, blonde men and women, were the master race, and their plan was to try to make -- was to try to improve the German's racial stock. It was all part of their racial theory. Improve their stock and at the same time eliminate those they thought were inferior stock, who tended to be people from the southern parts of Europe.

So when the Germans invaded Norway, this they felt was an ideal opportunity, Norway being a repository of a lot of tall, blonde people, perfect for their plan. So they encouraged the soldiers who occupied Norway, to have liaisons with Norwegian women and to produce children, and if the children seemed suitably pure racially, they were often taken from their parents and put into these homes called Lebensborn homes, in which they were brought up as Germans. They weren't allowed to have any sort of link with Norway at all. They were supposed to be model Germans. And many of them, of course, did in fact become Germans, and some, I suppose, still nowadays don't know that they were Norwegian.

This was part of the Lebensborn program. The other part was to actually kidnap young children who they thought looked racially pure, and if they were suitable, again, to train them -- to take them to Germany and to take them -- and to raise them as Germans and not to allow them any contact with their homeland at all.


MANN: That era is only dimly remembered, and it seems that depending on who you listen to and who you talk to, it either comes out as some kind of oppressive and Orwellian experiment or something along the lines of the Japanese comfort women program, some kind of strange sexual experiment, or it comes across as some kind of benign and paternalistic effort on the part of the Nazi regime to take care of unwanted pregnancies. I mean, which was it?

LEAPMAN: Well, it wasn't benign and paternalistic at all. It was -- in the 1930s there were these very, what to our modern ears and eyes are very weird racial theories, about the superiority of certain races, and the Nazis took this very seriously. The Nazi philosophy was really based on this, which was why the Holocaust happened and other things, because they were convinced that they were the master race and that all other races were inferior.

And therefore to support this, they had to get more and more people, more and more Germans and other people in northern Europe, to be part of this master race. They wanted to increase their stock. It was a sort of breeding program. And in parts of Germany, not really in Norway, but in parts of Europe they encouraged SS men, who were the elite German troops, to have liaisons with women who looked like good Germans and they built Lebensborn homes in Germany and indeed in Poland Czechoslovakia and other parts of occupied Europe, where these children would be brought up.

It was a deliberate part of the Nazi philosophy, and it was -- and the aim was to increase the stock of good German people who, of course, in their wildest dreams were going to take over the whole of Europe and, indeed, probably the world as well. But they wanted this stock of good German people in order to do this, in order to fulfill what they thought was their historic mission.

MANN: When you look even beyond the Lebensborn program, how involved were the Nazi authorities in eugenics? How involved were their scientists? I mean, what kind of effort did they put into it?

LEAPMAN: Well, it was the mainspring, really, of the Nazi movement. Himmler, who was the No. 2 in the Nazi regime, he really was the person who was really fanatical about this. He was the architect of the Lebensborn program.

And it was extremely important to him. He was -- during the war, he was No. 2 to Hitler and he was supposed to be conducting the war. He spent quite a lot of time, actually, visiting these Lebensborn homes, to make sure that his racial purity program was going well. He was really, really fanatical about it. It was his -- it was the force that drove him, really.


MANN: We take a break. When we come back, eugenics and euthanasia.

Stay with us.


MANN: The Nazis committed terrible crimes with strange pseudoscience in mind. Torturing and killing innocent victims. They didn't shrink from cruelty either in the name of eugenics, the effort to improve the human race by selective breeding and culling.

Welcome back.

The Nazis began with laws ordering the sterilization and preventing the marriage of people regarded as genetically unworthy. They created special genetic health courts to enforce the laws. That was only the beginning.

Joining us now to talk about Nazi eugenics is Eric Weitz, director of the Center For German and European Studies at the University of Minnesota.

Thanks so much for being with us.

If you think about eugenics as an experiment in breeding and culling, Lebensborn I guess was the breeding element of that. They did some weeding out or culling of inferior specimens as well. Can you tell us about that?

ERIC WEITZ, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA: That's right. Both the promotion of births among those who were considered genetically superior and the weeding out were two sides of the same eugenics coin.

The eugenics policy was central to everything about the Third Reich and national socialism.

So the first overall eugenics policy you just mentioned. There was a law passed in July 1933, just six months after the Nazis had come to power, that mandated the compulsory sterilization of physically and mentally handicapped people and those who were deemed to be handicapped by virtue of heredity.

MANN: So they were sterilized. What stronger measures, what other measures did the Nazis end up taking over time?

WEITZ: Two years right after that there was an amendment to the law which actually permitted compulsory abortions if handicapped women had somehow slipped through the net of compulsory sterilization. And then just before the outbreak of World War II, the program escalated to the actual killing, first of children and then of adults, who again were physically and mentally handicapped by dint of, or so it was thought, hereditary reasons.

And all of these programs involved the full cooperation of healthcare professionals at every level. They planned the programs. They administered them. They executed the programs.

MANN: Now the Nazis not only inflicted this on other people, but I gather that they believed enough in this to essentially measure themselves. Heinrich Himmler, who was in charge of the SS, I guess used eugenics to determine the staffing for his own units.

WEITZ: Yes, that is correct. He was appointed head of the SS in 1929 by Adolph Hitler. And Himmler then turned the SS into the racial elite of the Third Reich. So there were, for example, height requirements for membership in the SS. Men had to be at least 5 foot 11 inches. They had to be of well build. They were thought to be the ideal arian type. And they also had to demonstrate their quote/unquote "racial purity" as far back as the mid-18th century.

Himmler had actually wanted to run the ancestry checks back to 1648, but he realized that Germany did not have enough documentation for that.

MANN: That almost seems comic. But obviously the murder of handicapped people, the murder of dissidents who were considered antisocial genetically, nothing comic about that. What happened to the people who were responsible for this? Not just Himmler, obviously, people in the highest ranks of the Nazi regime faced the Nuremberg trials. But what happened to everyone who thought up these measures, who enforced them, when the war was over?

WEITZ: Very, very little. Most of them ended up back in esteemed academic positions in West Germany in the 1950s.

It's important to understand that eugenics was not just a crazy Nazi idea. The Nazis implemented eugenics more radically, more thoroughly, in a more deadly fashion than anyone else, but eugenics was a widely accepted scientific set of beliefs from around the 1880s when the term was first invented, until 1945, when the revelation of Nazi death camps and other Nazi atrocities undermined support for it.

But it was not only a body of scientific thought and practice that was accepted in Germany. It was widely accepted all over Europe and North America. In fact, some of the first eugenics legislation was in the United States in various states before World War I. Quite a number of American states also passed laws permitting the compulsory sterilization of the mentally and physically handicapped.

So it was not a unique set of German beliefs.

MANN: Eric Weitz, director of the Center For German and European Studies, thank you so much for talking with us.

WEITZ: Thank you.

MANN: That's INSIGHT for today. I'm Jonathan Mann. The news continues.



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