Created by Heinrich Himmler, the Lebensborn program abducted as many as half a million children from across Europe. Through a process called Germanization, they were to become the next generation of the Aryan master race in the second phase of the Final Solution.
In the summer of 1942, parents across Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia were required to submit their children to medical checks designed to assess racial purity. One such child, Erika Matko, was nine months old when Nazi doctors declared her fit to be a “Child of Hitler.” Taken to Germany and placed with politically vetted foster parents, Erika was renamed Ingrid von Oelhafen. Many years later, Ingrid began to uncover the truth of her identity.
Though the Nazis destroyed many Lebensborn records, Ingrid unearthed rare documents, including Nuremberg trial testimony about her own abduction. Following the evidence back to her place of birth, Ingrid discovered an even more shocking secret: a woman named Erika Matko, who as an infant had been given to Ingrid’s mother as a replacement child.
Hitler’s Forgotten Children is both a harrowing personal memoir and a devastating investigation into the awful crimes and monstrous scope of the Lebensborn program.
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Tim Tate is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and bestselling author of nonfiction books, including Slave Girl. His films have been honored by Amnesty International, the Royal Television Society, UNESCO, and the International Documentary Association.
Ingrid von Oelhafen (Erika Matko) is a retired physical therapist living in Osnabruck, Germany. For more than twenty years she has been investigating her own extraordinary story and that of Lebensborn.
ONE: August 1942
TWO: 1945—Year Zero
SEVEN: Source of Life
EIGHT: Bad Arolsen
NINE: The Order
THIRTEEN: Rogaška Slatina
Blood runs through this story. The blood of young men spilled on the battlefields of war; the blood of civilians—old and young, women and men—that ran in the gutters of cities, towns, and villages across Europe; the blood of millions destroyed in the pogroms and death camps of the Holocaust.
But blood, too, as an idea. The Nazi belief—absurd and obscene as this seems today—in “good blood,” precious ichor to be sought out, preserved, and expanded. And with it, the inevitable counterpart: “bad blood,” to be identified and then ruthlessly eradicated.
I am a child—a German child—of a war based on and steeped in blood. I was born in 1941 in the depths of the Second World War: I grew up in its wake—and under the shadow of its brutal and even more prolonged progeny, the Cold War.
My history is the history of millions of men and women like me. We are the victims of Hitler’s obsession with blood, as well as the beneficiaries of the postwar economic miracle that transformed our devastated and pariah nation into the powerhouse of modern Europe.
Our story is that of a generation raised in the shadow of bloody infamy, but one that found a way to struggle toward honesty and decency.
But my own story is also that of a much more secret past: a history still cloaked in silence and shrouded in shame. It is a warning of what happens when blood is worshiped as the vital essence that determines human worth, and—by extension—used as the justification for the most terrible crimes man has inflicted upon man.
For I am a child of Lebensborn.
Lebensborn is an ancient German word, twisted and distorted by the word-smelters of National Socialism into a uniquely disturbing shape amid the vast and bizarre vocabulary of Hitler’s Reich. What did it mean in the mad lexicon of Nazism? What does it mean today? To find the answers—to uncover my own story—has taken me on a long and painful journey: a physical journey, to be sure, which has led me across the map of modern Europe. An historical expedition, too: one that has required an often uncomfortable return to the Germany of more than seventy years ago, and into the troubled stories of those countries overrun by Hitler’s armies.
But the search for who I am, and who I have been, has also forced me to make a psychological voyage into everything I have known and grown up with: a fundamental questioning of who I am, and what it means to be German.
I will not pretend that this is an easy story: it will not—cannot—always be easy to read. But as—if—you do, please keep in mind that neither has it been an easy story to live.
I am not, by nature, overtly emotional. The expression of emotion—such a commonplace in twenty-first-century society—does not come effortlessly to me. I have, I think, spent my life attempting to suppress my inner self, to subordinate my feelings to the circumstances in which I have grown up, as well as to the needs of others.
But this is a story that, I believe strongly, needs to be heard. More, much more, it needs to be understood. It is not unique, if by that we mean that there are others who have endured much of what has shaped my life and times. But, perhaps in defiance of the strict definition, there are, in life, gradations of uniqueness: and so, while I share a common thread with thousands of others who passed through the vile and perverse experiment of Lebensborn, to the best of my knowledge no one else shares the particular twists of fate, history, and geography that have defined my seventy-four years on earth.
Lebensborn. The word runs through my life like the blood coursing through my body; a mysterious and powerful river, its route and progress obscure to the naked eye. To see it, to understand it, demands much more than a superficial examination: to find its source—and thus the roots of this story—requires a deep and intrusive investigation into the most hidden places.
And we must start in a town and a country that no longer exist.
Men . . . must be shot, the women locked up and transported to concentration camps, and the children must be torn from their motherland and instead accommodated in the territories of the old Reich.
REICHSFÜHRER SS HEINRICH HIMMLER,
June 25, 1942
CILLI, GERMAN-OCCUPIED YUGOSLAVIA:
August 3–7, 1942
THE SCHOOL YARD 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 order of 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 jailer; 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.
Yugoslavia had been under Nazi rule for sixteen months. In March 1941, as the surrounding countries of Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria joined the Reich’s alliance of Balkan nations, Hitler put pressure on the kingdom’s ruler, the Regent Prince Paul, to fall into line. The prince and his cabinet bowed to the inevitable, formally tying Yugoslavia to the Axis Powers: but the Serb-dominated army launched a coup d’état, replacing Paul with his seventeen-year-old second cousin, Prince Peter.
News of the revolt reached Berlin on March 27. Hitler took the coup as a personal insult and issued Directive 25, formally designating the country as an enemy of the Reich. The Führer ordered his armies “to destroy Yugoslavia militarily and as a state.” A week later, the Luftwaffe began a devastating bombing campaign while divisions of Wehrmacht infantry and tanks of the Panzer Corps swept through towns and villages. The Royal Yugoslavian Army was no match for German’s Blitzkrieg troops: on April 17, the country surrendered.
The occupying troops immediately set about fulfilling Hitler’s instruction to dismantle all vestiges of the state. Sixty-five thousand people—primarily intellectuals and nationalists—were exiled, imprisoned, or murdered, their homes and property handed over to the new German masters. The Slovene language was prohibited.
But for the rest of 1941 and throughout the first half of 1942, partisan groups, led by the Communist Josip Broz Tito, fought a determined campaign of resistance. Germany retaliated with a brutal crackdown: the Gestapo swooped on fighters and civilians alike, deporting thousands to concentration camps across the Reich. Others were selected to be executed as a warning against resistance. In a nine-month period beginning in September 1941, 374 men and women were lined up against the walls of the prison yard at Cilli and summarily shot. Photographers recorded the murders for posterity and propaganda.
On June 25, 1942, Heinrich Himmler—the second most powerful and feared man in Nazi Germany—issued orders to his secret police and SS officers to eliminate partisan resistance.
This campaign possesses every required element to make harmless the population which has supported the bandits and provided them with human resources, weapons and shelter. Men from such families, and often even their relatives, must be shot, the women locked up and transported to concentration camps, and the children must be torn from their motherland and instead accommodated in the territories of the old Reich. I expect to be provided with a special report on the number of children and their racial values.
Against this bloody backdrop, 1,262 people—many the surviving relatives of the partisans executed as an example to the rest of the population—assembled in the school yard that August morning to await their fate.
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 and he had been dragged off to Mauthausen concentration camp. After seven months he was allowed to return home to his wife, Helena, and their three children: eight-year-old Tanja, her brother Ludwig—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; Pelikan also snapped off shots of scores 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 down 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” that 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”—caused a child to be consigned to the lowest racial status of Categories 3 and 4. Thus branded as Untermensch, they had no value except as future slave labor for the Nazi state.
By the following day this rudimentary sifting was finished. Some children—those 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. Rounded up by nurses from the German Red Cross, they were packed into trains and transported across the Yugoslavian border to an Umsiedlunslager—or transit camp—at Frohnleiten, near the Austrian town of Graz.
They did not stay long in this holding center. By September 1942 a further selection had been made—this time by trained “race assessors” from one of the myriad organizations 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 was used to reassign the captives to the four racial categories.
Older children newly listed in Categories 3 or 4 were shipped off to reeducation camps across Bavaria in the very 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 a nine-month-old baby called Erika Matko.
It is our will that this state shall endure for a thousand years.
We are happy to know that the future is ours entirely!
TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, 1935
AT 2:40 A.M. on Monday, May 7, 1945, in a small, redbrick schoolhouse in the French city of Reims, Generaloberst Alfred Jodl, chief of operations for the German Armed Forces High Command, signed the unconditional surrender of the Thousand Year Reich. The five terse paragraphs of this act of capitulation handed over Germany and all its inhabitants to the mercy of the four victorious Allied Powers—Britain, America, France, and the Soviet Union—from 11:01 p.m. the following night.
A week earlier, Hitler and most of his inner circle had committed suicide in the bowels of the Berlin Führerbunker. His chief henchman, SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler—the man in charge of the entire Nazi apparatus of terror—was on the run, disguised in the coarse gray serge of an enlisted soldier and equipped with forged papers proclaiming him to be a humble sergeant.
It was over; six years of “total war” in which my country had murdered and plundered its way across Europe were finished. Now we had to live with the peace.
Who were we that May morning? What was Germany—once the begetter of Bach and Beethoven, Goethe and Schiller—in the aftermath of the brutality of the Blitzkrieg, let alone the filth and genocide of the Final Solution? What would peace look like to the victors and to the vanquished? Those would prove to be two very different questions, linked by a common answer.
A new term was coined to describe our situation in 1945: die Stunde Null. Literally translated, this means “zero hour”; but for the smoldering remains of Germany—a country of ruins, shame, and starvation—it was more accurately “year zero”: both an end and a beginning.
What did it mean to be a German from 11:01 p.m. on Tuesday, May 8, 1945? To the Allies—the new owners of every meter of turf and of every individual life from the Mass in the west to the Memel in the east—it meant subjugation, suspicion, and suppression. Never again, said the four occupying powers, would the poisonous twin rivers of German nationalism and militarism be allowed to rise up and flood across the continent. There would, within hours, be mechanisms and procedures put in place to enforce this noble ideal—systems that, though I was too young to know then, would direct the course of my life.
TO GERMANS, THIS existential question of identity meant something different again. Something much less philosophical, something that could be categorized as the three P’s: physical, political, and psychological. And of this trinity, the greatest—the most pressing—was undoubtedly the physical.
Germany in May 1945 was a wasteland; a tortured tundra of blown-up bridges, torn-up roads, burned-out tanks. In the dying weeks and months of his Reich, consumed by madness and impotent rage, Hitler had issued orders to create “fortress cities.” The Fatherland, he pronounced, was to be defended to the last drop of pure German...
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Book Description Caliber, United States, 2016. Hardback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. Created by Heinrich Himmler, the Lebensborn program abducted as many as half a million children from across Europe. Through a process called Germanization, they were to become the next generation of the Aryan master race in the second phase of the Final Solution. In the summer of 1942, parents across Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia were required to submit their children to medical checks designed to assess racial purity. One such child, Erika Matko, was nine months old when Nazi doctors declared her fit to be a Child of Hitler. Taken to Germany and placed with politically vetted foster parents, Erika was renamed Ingrid von Oelhafen. Many years later, Ingrid began to uncover the truth of her identity. Though the Nazis destroyed many Lebensborn records, Ingrid unearthed rare documents, including Nuremberg trial testimony about her own abduction. Following the evidence back to her place of birth, Ingrid discovered an even more shocking secret: a woman named Erika Matko, who as an infant had been given to Ingrid s mother as a replacement child. Hitler s Forgotten Children is both a harrowing personal memoir and a devastating investigation into the awful crimes and monstrous scope of the Lebensborn program. INCLUDES PHOTOGRAPHS. Bookseller Inventory # AAS9780425283325