Tomorrow Elliott & Thompson are releasing the paperback edition of Hitler’s Forgotten Children by Ingrid von Oelhafen and Tim Tate, a powerful first-person account from a child of the Lebensborn: the Nazis’ program to create an Aryan master race.
The publisher has kindly offered a free copy to one of my readers.
Here’s a bit more information about the book, adapted from the press release:
Forcibly adopted into a Nazi family as part of the Lebensborn program, Ingrid’s heartbreaking story is a quest for identity and an important historical document touching on the untold stories of thousands like her.
By the 1940s, Himmler’s breeding program had failed to provide adequate numbers of ‘racially pure and healthy’ children, so Lebensborn sought to boost the flagging German population by sinister means. Children in the occupied territories were examined and any exhibiting ‘Aryan’ qualities were forcibly taken from their parents to be raised by the regime.
In 1942 Erika, a baby girl from Yugoslavia, was examined by the Nazi occupiers, declared an ‘Aryan’ and removed from her mother. Her true identity erased, she became Ingrid von Oelhafen. Later, as Ingrid began to uncover her true identity, the full scale of the Lebensborn scheme became clear – including the kidnapping of up to half a million babies like her, and the deliberate murder of children born into the program who were deemed ‘substandard’.
We learn of Ingrid’s subsequent troubled childhood in Germany; first during the war, then a harrowing escape from the GDR, time in children’s homes and the shock of discovering as a teenager that she was adopted. Later, the search for the truth took her to Nuremberg Trials records and, ultimately, back to Yugoslavia, where she discovered the full story: the Nazis substituted ‘Ingrid’ with another child who was raised as ‘Erika’ by her family.
And here’s an exclusive extract:
Cilli, German-occupied Yugoslavia, 3–7 August 1942
The schoolyard was crowded. Hundreds of women – young and old – clutched the hands of their children and found what space they could in the packed courtyard. Nearby, Wehrmacht soldiers, rifles slung over their shoulders, looked on as the families slowly drifted in from towns and villages across the area. These women had been summoned by their new German masters, ordered to bring their children to the school for ‘medical tests’. Upon arrival they were arrested and told to wait. Otto Lurker, commander of the police and security services for the region, watched relaxed and impassive – his hands resting comfortably in his pockets – as the yard filled with families. Once, Lurker had been Hitler’s gaoler: now he was the Führer’s leading henchman in Lower Styria. He held the rank of SS-Standartenführer – the paramilitary equivalent of a full colonel in the army – but that summer’s morning he was casually dressed in a two-piece civilian suit.
Among them was a family from the nearby village of Sauerbrunn. Johann Matko came from a family of known partisans: his brother, Ignaz, had been one of those lined up and shot against the wall of Cilli prison in July. Johann had been dragged off to Mauthausen concentration camp. After seven months in the camp he was allowed to return home to his wife, Helena, and their three children: eight-year-old Tanja, her brother Ludvig – then six – and nine-month-old baby Erika. When all the families were accounted for, an order was given to separate them into three groups – one each for the children, the women, and the men.
Under Lurker’s direction the soldiers moved in and pulled children from the grasp of their mothers; a local photographer, Josip Pelikan, recorded the harrowing scene for the Reich’s obsessive archivists. His rolls of film captured the fear and alarm of women and children alike: his shots included scores of toddlers held in low pens of straw inside the school buildings. As the mothers waited outside, Nazi officials began a cursory examination of the children.
Working with charts and clipboards, they painstakingly noted each child’s facial and physical characteristics. These, though, were not ‘medical tests’ as any doctor would know them: instead they were crude assessments of ‘racial value’ which assigned each youngster to one of four categories. Those who met Himmler’s strict criteria for what a child of true German blood should look like were placed in Category 1 or 2: this formally registered them as potentially useful additions to the Reich population.
By contrast, any hint or trace of Slavic features – and certainly any sign of ‘Jewish heritage’– consigned a child to the lowest racial status of Categories 3 and 4. Thus branded as Untermensch, their value was no more than future slave labour for the Nazi state. By the following day this rudimentary sifting had finished. Those children deemed racially worthless were handed back to their families. But 430 other youngsters, from young babies to twelve-year-old boys and girls, were taken away by their captors. Marshalled by nurses from the German Red Cross, they were packed into trains and transported across the Yugoslavian border to an Umsiedlungslager – or transit camp – at Frohnleiten, near the Austrian town of Graz.
They did not stay long in this holding centre. By September 1942, a further selection had been made – this time by trained ‘race assessors’ from one of the myriad organisations established by Himmler to preserve and strengthen the pool of ‘good blood’. Noses were measured and compared to the official ideal length and shape; lips, teeth, hips and genitals were likewise prodded, poked and photographed to sort the genetically precious human wheat from the less-valuable chaff.
This finer, more rigorous sieving re-assigned the captives within the four racial categories. Older children newly listed in Categories 3 or 4 were shipped off to re-education camps across Bavaria in the heartland of Nazi Germany. The best of the younger ones in the top two categories would – in time – be handed over to a secretive project run by the Reichsführer himself. Its name was Lebensborn and among the infants assigned to its care was nine-month-old Erika Matko.
If you’re interested in winning a paperback copy of Hitler’s Forgotten Children, simply leave a comment to that effect below. The competition will be open through the end of Friday the 12th and I will choose a winner at random on Saturday the 13th (announced via the comments and a personal e-mail). Sorry, U.K. entries only. Good luck!
I was delighted to be asked to participate in the paperback release blog tour. See below for details of where other reviews and features will be appearing soon.