Stolen Children

By Gitta Sereny

The Nazis took 250,000 children from their families, intent on"Germanizing" them.
After the war, author Gitta Sereny tried to help them find their way home.


Although I know the year was 1946, I cannot remember the date I met the first two stolen children in postwar Germany. It is dating the events of one's life that is most difficult. We recall the look of houses, of rooms, of landscapes, colors, and we remember faces, voices, movements, temperatures, and feelings, but more often than not it is impossible to put a day, a month, sometimes even a year to these memories.

Still, I'm almost sure it was just before spring in that first postwar year-perhaps already March, perhaps still February that I found "Johann" and "Marie," as I will call them. For as I write I clearly recall that the fields barely showed color and that it was cold and wet the evening I drove to the farm, a large peasant-holding in southern Bavaria. Some Hungarian refugees, who were former slave workers of the Nazis and kindly disposed toward me as a one-time fellow Hungarian, had told me that these peasants, formerly members of the Nazi Party in good standing, had two young children who had appeared seemingly out of nowhere as toddlers a little more than three years earlier, toward the end of 1942.

I was 23, a child welfare officer with UNRRA (the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) and wore the UNRRA khaki uniform. Although we worked under the aegis of-and theoretically in collaboration with-the military government in our area (the U.S. zone of Germany, in my case), it is fair to say that of all the Allied personnel we were the ones most disliked by the Germans and were not too popular with the military government, either. For our principal task was the care of displaced persons-most of them former slave workers of the Nazis-who were despised by many Germans and not liked much more by the U.S. military officials. By this time, 10 months after the end of the war, these occupation authorities were generally not men who had fought the war but administrators who saw their role as getting on with the tidy, respectful Germans and who largely resented the extraordinary powers that UNRRA's moral position conferred on us.

At the end of the war UNRRA was confronted with more than five million slave laborers, from both outside and inside concentration and labor camps. Not unlike the Kosovar refugees in the current Balkans conflict, most wanted to return home by whatever means available, and almost four million quickly walked or were rapidly repatriated, West and East. What remained by the autumn of 1945-when the Soviets were extending their political domination across Eastern Europe-was a highly volatile mass of about one million Eastern Europeans.

Most of them were devout Catholics who, subjected to political pressures from both left and right and torn by conflicting fears and loyalties, did not know whether to go home or emigrate.

These people comprised the core of our responsibility. It fell to UNRRA officers to assemble them in groups of houses or barracks-which they themselves guarded against the incursion of communist liaison officers from the Soviet union-and to provide them and their children with counseling, medical care, educational opportunities, and everything materially necessary for a decent life.

And then there were the missing children. As of early 1946 our Child Welfare Investigating (or Tracing) Officers had the right of entry to any German institution or home where we believed an "unaccompanied" child resided.

Though it was 53 years ago and the farm was of traditional Bavarian design, I might recognize to this day the long, single-story, white-painted building with its uncurtained small windows. As I walked up to the house I could hear stamping and munching sounds of cattle in the large wooden stable adjacent. No one answered my knock, and as I opened the unlocked door and found myself in a dark entry I could smell that slightly acid animal scent that was always present in European peasants' homes.

Only two of the windows I had seen from outside showed light, dim as lights were in German houses that first year after the war. After knocking again I opened the interior door and stepped across the threshold into the kitchen. Inside there were-as I had expected, for I had examined the area records at the mayor's office that morning six people: the farmer and his wife, brown-haired,

46 and 45 years old; his parents, in their sixties but looking a lot older; a husky boy with merry blue eyes and fair hair in a short circular home-cut; and an equally blue-eyed slim and somewhat smaller girl, with equally blond but long, tightly braided hair, who looked younger than the boy. Oddly enough, I remember being surprised when she smiled at me. These two children, the registration papers had told me, had been born in 1940 and were therefore both six years old.

I had planned to arrive when they would all be there together. Although I hoped the children would be sent to play or to bed before I started asking my inevitably distressing questions, it was essential for me go see them first within the family circle. As I had expected, they were at table; the fare, manifestly meager, as it would have been even on a fine farm that first postwar winter, was soup, rye bread and lard, beer for the men, wager for the women and children. While I reminded myself not go read too much into their reactions-for no one in occupied Germany in those days would have readily welcomed an unexpected uniformed stranger-there was no mistaking the adults' particular unease at my arrival.

I went around the table holding out my hand to each of them. No one stood up, but everyone except the old man shook hands, the grownups and the boy limply, the little girl pumping my hand playfully up and down. The grandfather almost childishly hid his right hand behind his back and asked with what I thought was justifiable gruffness. "What do you want?"

"Just talk go you for a bit," I answered, handing the children each a chocolate bar. It was when the little girl, beaming, said, "Danke," and I stroked her face, that the farmer's wife said sharply, "Geht zu Bett" (Go to bed), and the two children shot up to obey. I said, "Gute Nacht, Marie. Gute Nacht, Johann."

"Gute Nacht," Marie whispered as she slipped by me, throwing herself into her mother's arms while stretching out one hand toward her father, now standing up next to her. "Guat Nacht, Vater. Guat Nacht, Mutter," said Johann in Bavarian dialect. Giving me a suspicious sidelong look, he briefly rubbed his head against his grandfather's stubbly cheek, while the farmer took the small girl out of her mother's arms and hugged her once, tightly.

Children always sense atmosphere. "Muatta?" Marie said suddenly in Bavarian in a questioning voice, as she stopped on her way to the door. "The grandmother got up then and pushed them ahead of her out of the room.

It is strange how clearly I cane to recall, once I searched my memory, that first sight of the two children and the words they spoke, their loving ease within the family.

Ever since the establishment of a Central Tracing Bureau in Arolsen, the small town in the British zone of Germany where UNRRA's local headquarters were based, information had been coming in from parents, relatives, and even villages, mostly in Eastern Europe, about children, some younger than two years old, who had been taken away by the Germans. And slowly, as information, reports, and instructions trickled out to individual teams following high-level UNRRA meetings, the word "Germanization" crept into the vocabulary.

Various attempts had been made since September 1945 to conduct a census by asking German agencies and institutions as well as individuals to report the presence of any "unaccompanied children of United Nations and assimilated nationality." By January 1946, 6,600 unaccompanied children (and by June 8,500) had been identified in the three western zones of occupation. They were mostly illegitimate and half German, some of them fathered by German occupation soldiers abroad, others the product of relationships between German girls and foreign slave workers in Germany. But the almost complete lack of response to our queries from German families tended to support the insistent claims by the countries of Eastern Europe and the Balkans that many thousands of children had been kidnapped by the Nazis, whose purpose had been twofold: to deplete the populations of the countries Germany was conquering and to replenish Germany's own population with "racially valuable children."

It was difficult at first for us to believe that this could have happened. Who would have taken babies or toddlers away from mothers? How could it be done? How could anyone, even bigots gone mad, believe they could discern "racial values" in young, undeveloped children? Above all how, in practice, could there now be large numbers of foreign children -- at least some of whom would have to be old enough to have memories- living, , basically in hiding, within the German community?

Over the months the Central Tracing Bureau received tens of thousands of snapshots of babies, toddlers, and older children with descriptions of when and how they had disappeared from their homes or schools. The vast majority of the inquiries came from Poland, the Baltic borderlands and the Ukraine. A house-to-house census was considered a last resort, as it was feared that (in the words of one notice from UNRRA headquarters) it could panic both "children and the adults caring for them and serve as advance notice to families who intend to conceal children." But UNRRA teams were directed to appoint child welfare investigating officers and to seek and follow information from all sources.

The notice giving these instructions, which was publicly posted all over the Western-occupied zones, was specific: "Any person who willfully delays or obstructs a Child Welfare Investigating Officer in the exercise of any power...or who fails to give such information or to produce such documents or records as aforesaid, or conceals or prevents any persons from appearing before or being examined by a Child Welfare Investigation Officer, shall upon conviction by a Military Government Court suffer such punishment (other than death) as the Court may determine."

Within moments of arriving at that Bavarian farm, I was certain that this family was aware of these orders and was afraid. Nonetheless, while the grandmother was putting the children to bed, I sat down across from the three others at the kitchen table and gave them copies of the military government order to read.

By the time the grandmother returned it was after seven. "Schlafen's?" (Are they asleep?) the farmer's wife asked. The older woman nodded. I brought out a pad. On the top page were notes about the family that I had made that morning in the mayor's office. I told them that I was a child welfare investigator from UNRRA, and that UNRRA was responsible for all individuals who had been brought into Germany from territories forcibly annexed or conquered by the Germans. That included any children either of whose parents might be nationals of any of the 50 countries belonging to the United Nations and who might have been brought into Germany and might be living there now, in institutions or in adoptive families.

"Our buy fell in Stalingrad," the farmer said immediately. "The Bolsheviks killed him," his father added angrily. During those immediate postwar years, loathing of Russians was the strongest sentiment one heard expressed by Germans. I can't recall the precise sequence of what followed, but I did tell them that everything they would say to me, or to each other in my presence, would be noted and considered in any decisions that might be made. "But always remember as we talk," I said (as I would say repeatedly over the upcoming months to other families we suspected of having been given kidnapped children), "that none of us wants the children to he hurt." They sat stiffly, looking neither at each other nor at me.

I told them I was sorry that their son had died in the war. I said that my understanding was that Johann and Marie had come to live with them less than four years ago. Was it after their son died that they had applied to foster or adopt a child or children? They sat motionless and did not answer.

I said I was sure they loved Johann and Marie and that I could see that the children loved them, too. But it was necessary that they tell me everything they knew about the children. Did they know who their natural parents were?

"They are dead," the younger woman said at once. What had I meant by "children brought into Germany?" she then added.

How did she know the children's parents were dead, I asked.

"They told us," she said.

"Who is 'they'?" I ,asked.

"Die Leut'" (the people), she answered vaguely, then repeated her question. I told them that thousands of Eastern European parents were looking for missing children.

"East?" said the grandfather, and repeating it virtually spat out the hated word: "East?

Our children have nothing to do with 'east.' They are German, German orphans. You need only look at them."

And there it was: "You need only look at them."

In the fall of 1939 Hitler had conquered Poland in a three-week campaign-the beginning of the Blitzkrieg, which within 22 months would give him control over virtually all of Western Europe and large chunks of the East. At the time, Heinrich Himmler gave a speech to a restricted audience of SS officers in which he announced the Nazis' plans for Poland: "In the course of the next 10 years," the SS chief said, "the population of [occupied Poland] will become a permanently inferior race that will be available to us for slave labor. A fundamental question is the racial screening and sifting of the young. It is obvious that in this mixture of people some very good racial types will appear from time to time."

Poland had been cut up into three parts: the eastern section, which went to the Soviet Union, at the time Germany's ally; central Poland, which was dubbed "the General Government" and was administered mainly as a supply area for human stock for Germany's labor needs; and the rich agricultural lands to the northwest, which were named the "Warthegau" and were incorporated into the Third Reich. Within a few short months, the Warthegau was cleared of Poles (and, of course, Jews), the Polish language was prohibited, and street signs were changed into German. By the summer of 1941, the Warthegau had been settled with 200,000 ethnic Germans, and it looked as if it had never been part of Poland. All children of "Nordic appearance" found in orphanages or foster homes were presumed to be German and, with or without surviving family members' agreement, were eventually evacuated to reeducational institutions in Germany.

Between November 1939 and the middle of 1941, both Himmler and RuSHA (the Nazi Office for Race and Resettlement) would time and again take up the theme of "racially valuable" Warthegau and Polish children. "The first condition for [the management of] racially valuable children..." announced RuSHA in a secret paper, "is a complete ban on all links with their Polish: relatives. The children will he given German names of Teutonic origin. Their birth and heredity certificates will be [filed] in a special department."

"We have faith above all in this our own blood, which has flowed into a foreign nationality through the vicissitudes of German history," Himmler added in May 1940. "We are convinced that our own philosophy and ideals will reverberate in the spirit of these children who racially belong to us."

Eventually all Polish children between the ages of two and 12 were examined and segregated into two categories: "racially valuable or worthless," as Himmler once wrote. Children found to be racially worthless were either sent home or, if old enough and capable, sent to Germany to work. Those with racial potential were taken to one of three centers in the Warthegau, where further tests were conducted.

Children between the ages of six and 12 found to be of "racial value" were sent to institutions in Germany to be Germanized. Those between the ages of two and six, who would eventually be given to "childless families of good race" for adoption were first sent for a period of observation to a home run by the Lebensborn ("Spring of Life") Society.

Conceived in 1935 as one of the most progressive of the Nazis' many social organizations, Lebensborn was run through "homes" that were set up around Germany to provide periods of respite for overburdened mothers and to care for pregnant single girls and illegitimate children -- not, as has often been claimed, to operate principally as breeding farms for SS men.

By 9:30 that night I had the family's story. It hadn't been the death of their son in 1942 that had prompted them to apply to adopt a child. It had been the accidental death four years earlier of their younger child, a daughter then 15, who had been killed in an auto accident. Her name was Irmi; a photo was brought out for me to look at. She had been a fine-looking young girl, proud in her BDM (Bund Deutscher Madel-the girls' equivalent of the Hitler Youth) uniform. She had been on an outing at a BDM holiday camp that summer, the father said, when the brakes had failed on a bus that was carrying 35 girls down a mountain road. Eighteen of the girls had died. The farmer's wife cried softly. Their boy, then 17, enthusiastic and bright, had just been accepted into a -- momentary hesitation -- leadership school, he continued.

"An SS school?" I asked.

"A good school," he answered sharply. The father said he knew I wouldn't understand, but it had been a great honor for the boy, the family: Yes, they could have asked to have him returned home after the death of their daughter; there were provisions for that -- the party cared, he said stubbornly. But Franz was so longing to go. And besides, the father continued, he and his wife had still been young in 1938; at the end of that year they even thought they might be having another baby. It was when his wife miscarried at the end of the year and they were informed that her childbearing years were over that they first considered adopting. Shortly afterward they filled out an application, though without much hope of success, because there weren't many spare babies in Germany then.

By the end of 1939 they still had nothing but an acknowledgment from the authorities to whom they had applied for a baby girl. But early in 1940, the farmer told me, they heard that many German children were being found in Polish orphanages with false Polish birth certificates that had been issued -- so they had heard -- to rob them of their German past. That was when they had written again.

"And we said that, with the war and all, and our boy in the service, we'd happily take two children, a boy and a girl, and that they could he twins." the farmer explained. Irmi had been a twin, he added; her brother had died at birth.

The role Lebensborn played in the theft and Germanization of possibly a quarter of a million mostly Eastern European children was abominable. It was no doubt because of Lebensborn's existing facilities, combined with the organization's sterling reputation, that the SS decided in the winter of 1941 to make Lebensborn the executant of the "Germanization" project. By late 1941 large Children's Reception Centers (used for the initial sorting of children by "racial experts") and smaller homes (where selected children spent several months being taught the German language and Nazi ideals) had been set up in Germany and virtually all the conquered territories.

After long preparation and a considerable number of kidnappings in Rumania, Yugoslavia, and the Warthegau, the project was launched in Poland in the winter of 1941 via a secret order signed by Lieutenant General Ulrich Greifelt, head of the central office of the SS in Poland.

There were, the order said, "a large number of children in [Poland] who by reason of their racial appearance should be regarded as children of Nordic parents....The children who are recognized as bearers of blood valuable to Germany are to be Germanized." Greifelt continued, "My representative will inform the Lebensborn Society of the children aged between two and six who have been recognized as being capable of Germanization. The Lebensborn Society will in the first place transfer the children to one of its children's homes. . From there the Lebensborn Society will see to the distribution of these children among [selected families] with a view to subsequent adoption.... These children are to be treated as German children even before the granting of German nationality.... Particular care must be taken," the order concluded, "to ensure that the term 'Germanizable Polish children' does not come to public knowledge.... The children should rather be described as German orphans from the regained Eastern territories."

"It is true," the farmer's wife said, not long after her father-in-law's outburst. "'They were found in the Eastern territories, but they were German orphans. They told us that very clearly."

And of course they might have been --there had always been many ethnic Germans in western Poland. But I pointed out that if the children were now six they would have been going on three when they came to the family. How did they seem to their new parents after what must have been a big change in their lives? Shy? Happy? Did they speak well? (I meant, but didn't say, did they speak German well?)

The grandfather, who would remain angry throughout, complained about the questions. They were just small children then. What's shy? What's happy? If I wanted to know about happy, all I had to do was look at them: "Happy as the day is long they are," he said. What tricks was I playing?

But by that time, well into the second hour of my visit, as far as the farmer and hip wife were concerned the atmosphere had changed. Somehow, without exchanging a private word and without any more encouragement from me than common courtesy, they appeared to have persuaded themselves that rather than attacking me they needed to get me onto their side. But the farmer's wife was an honest woman. "I don't know how happy they were," she said thoughtfully. "Marie wanted a lot of cuddling and Johann..." she stopped and looked at her husband.

"Well," he said. "they were in a new place."

"He was often naughty at first," she continued.

"Not for long," the grandfather muttered, and spread his right hand. "He knew pretty quickly what was good for him."

For the first time the farmer's wife laughed. "Come on, father," she said. "You make yourself out an ogre." The truth was, she said, that Johann had taken to the grandfather, who almost immediately started taking him along on his chores. "Still do," the old man growled. I asked again whether they spoke a lot, and she said that Marie, yes, spoke "like a baby, you know, but Johann..." Again the grandfather interrupted. "Silly question. He talks like a water mill now," be said firmly. "What does it matter how they talked when they came from the orphanage?"

The grandfather was right, the younger woman said: That was then and this was now. "And you know now, don't you, Fraulein, that they are ours? That they were given to us?"

Yes, I told them, I believed the children had been given to them. "And that they are German," the farmer said. They could be, I said. I'd be glad if they were. We would find out, but it was likely to take a long time and I hoped they could just go on being happy together.

Following that, a wooden plate with sliced rye bread, some rough country cheese, glasses and a bottle --I was sure it was precious -- of red country wine were produced, and the farmer's wife took me to see the children asleep next to each other, under their big featherbed. They were happy, loved and happy, and I felt vaguely ashamed when she handed me a photograph of them I had asked for, taken just days after they had arrived, at Christmas 1942, with the family. I knew she thought I wanted it to help me remember the children, who were so pretty.

It was the last time I saw those farmers. The photograph was sent to Arolsen, where reports had come in that three families in different parts of Poland were searching for twins who had been taken from them when the children were two or three. The photo was copied and sent to the families. The couple who recognized the children as theirs -- young farmers in a small village not far from Lodz -- were able to prove the twins' identities, as was required, by citing a small birthmark Marie had on the inside of her right arm. (A bitter irony: Had that tiny mole been any bigger, Marie would not have been thought worthy of Germanization in the first place.)

I had been transferred away from the area by then. And so it was someone else's painful task four months later to verify that Marie was this little girl with the birthmark -- and to take the children away.

A painful task indeed. I only had to do it once, but I will never forget the inconsolable grief of the couple who loved the five-year-old I had to take from them, and the wild anger of the child, who had no memory of his birth parents or native language, and for whom his German parents were his world. In the time I was involved with different aspects of the identification of stolen children, I never handled or heard of a single case in which the German foster or adoptive parents had treated the kidnapped child with anything but love. Nor were they aware, at least as far as we could determine, of the methods by which the child had come to them. The Nazis committed a double infamy here: first in stealing children from their parents in conquered lands, and second in deceiving their own people about the integrity of their actions.

By the early summer of 1946, by which time a good many German documents had been discovered and quite a number of older kidnapped children who could provide us with information had been found, we had learned a great deal about the process of Germanization.

Six Nazi organizations and one ministry had been involved in this program, which was doubtless conceived by Himmler (and, like all major decisions, approved by Adolf Hitler) and operated under the umbrella of the SS. The Office for Repatriation of Ethnic Germans, the Reich Security Office, and the Reich Commission for the Consolidation of the German Race played important administrative roles. The Nazi People's Welfare Association supplied the dreaded "Brown Sisters," who in an odious attempt at reassurance played the good cops when they accompanied the SS men on their expeditions to abduct the children. The Office for Race and Settlement decided the children's suitability for Germanization on the basis of measurements of 62 parts of their bodies. Then, of course, there was Lebensborn, which operated pretty Children's Homes all over Europe and was in charge of "reeducation." Finally, the Ministry of the Interior lent the criminal undertaking legal status by conferring on the Lebensborn Society the right of civil registry and guardianship, enabling the organization to issue official birth certificates with (invented) places and dates of birth and (false) names, and -- the ultimate form of control -- to act as the stolen children's legal guardian.

The procedure, carried out in stages, was identical in all countries where children were abducted, but the largest number of children (estimated at 200,000) were taken from Poland. In the Warthegau, as soon as all Poles had been ejected, the children, mostly boys, were taken, primarily from institutions or ethnic German parents who refused to sign documents of allegiance. In the General Government, where the program began somewhat later, most of the children were taken from their families.

On secretly designated days, children were picked up off the streets, or from playgrounds, schools, and homes. Unless the child was pretty, healthy, and well built, and had blond or light brown hair and blue eyes, he was eliminated from the selection. If he was chosen in this first stage, his parents were told that he would be returned home after physical and IQ exams that would decide his future schooling. Children were then taken by train to one of the reception centers in the Warthegau (now German territory well out of reach of parents), which had been specially installed for Germanization. If they were young, children whose IQs were below the minimum required for Germanization would be returned home; if older and physically fit, they were sent to Germany to work. And even if they were of the right coloring and build, if they were found to be physically unfit or racially "tainted," they would end up in a children's ghetto in Lodz, where according to postwar Polish records most of them died. Those deemed qualified after about six weeks of tests were issued new birth certificates with German names -- which were frequently --no one knows why -- close translations of their Polish names, and their parents were notified that they were being sent to Germans for their health. Subsequent inquires by parents were not answered. Small children were then placed in Lebensborn homes in German until they were considered ready to be placed in families, while older ones were sent in small groups to so-called "Heimschulen" - state boarding schools run by Lebensborn but staffed and supervised by the SS-- where they received the physical and ideological education given to native German children.

According to testimony in the Nuremberg trial of Lebensborn officials in 1947, all German documentation of the kidnappings and reassignments was ordered destroyed in April 1945. In telling the story of the process of Germanization, I am therefore relying on the nearly identical accounts given to me by five 10- to 12-year-old boys I worked with during a six-week assignment at a special children's center in the early summer of 1946.

At that center psychiatrists and other staff members experienced in child trauma worked to help the children overcome the pain of separation and to reawaken memories of their original families in the youngest. Children 12 or older who had been brought in for forced labor (they were usually 14 to 16 by the end of the war) had all remained aware of their identities, and while they spoke some German they retained their native languages. As proof of just how effective Germanization had been, this was not true of those who had been 10 years old when taken. It was, though, easier to bring back memories in children that age than in the youngest ones. For the youngest, we found that the most effective reminders were songs. Even though songs were part of German family culture (and group singing a vital part of Nazi youth education), in a number of cases the sound of Polish nursery songs and children's prayers brought back images of home.

The 10-to 12-year-olds with whom I worked had all been taken away from their families in Poland in late 1942. They remembered that it had been during the runup to Christmas, and that they had stayed for a month or two in two children's reception centers in Brockau (Bruczkow) and Kalisch (Kalisz) -- they only remembered the cities' German names.

Their strongest memories were of having "good food" but being cold, especially at night when the bedroom windows were always open-a practice manifestly new to these Polish country children. They remembered that in Kalisz each room had had four beds except for two dormitories that had had 10 beds each, "for bigger boys." The "Brown Sisters" had taken care of them. Had they been nice? I asked. "Except when they were horrid," one of them said; he remembered getting a beating with a switch on his bare bottom because he and a friend had sung a Polish ditty after lights-out. During those first weeks they'd had German language, history, and geography lessons for several hours, every day. Outside the school rooms they could speak Polish, except during mealtimes, when "quite soon," they said -- they had to speak German or be silent. There were "lots of doctors in white coats but also in uniforms," and they had "lots" of medical examinations.

Was that frightening?

"No, it was silly," one of them said. "We had to be all bare, and they kept measuring every bit of us."

What was it they measured?

"Oh, everything. They just went on and on."

(The decisive characteristics for being placed in the top racial categories, aside from a child's hair and eye color, were the shape of the nose and lips, the hairline, and the toe and fingernails, and the condition of the genitalia. Important too were reactions to neurological tests, and personal habits: Persistent uncleanliness and, of course, bedwetting, farting, nail-biting, and masturbation-which older boys were told on arrival was forbidden -- were, if repeatedly observed, automatic disqualifications.)

Did their guardians hurt them in any way?

"Hurt? No, they didn't hurt me. Why should they hurt me?" In these Germanized children there was quite a lot of defensiveness, and many of their memories-particularly of the years in Lebensborn homes and schools in Germany and Austria that followed the first initiation -- were joyful. "We did lots of climbing and obstacle courses and we learned to march. We sang around campfires. Yes, it was strict, but the [German] boys were nice."

Had they been homesick?

They looked at each other, almost puzzled. It had been so long ago. "When we were small, perhaps," the oldest one finally said of that time, so long ago, when he was eight. He shrugged. "Then no more." But yes, he added later, he remembered some Polish, even though there had been severe punishments for speaking it, and he remembered his mother, though his father hardly at all. "It'll be funny to have a mother," he said, and laughed a sort of half laugh.

In the summer of 1946 I was assigned for about six weeks to a Special Children's Center in Bavaria and there -- I recount with sorrow -- I was brought face to face with Johann and Marie. I had not known they were there, and UNRRA had forgotten my involvement with them. The two children's appearance -- their faces were sallow, and there were shadows under their eyes -- and Johann's reaction to me and Marie's awful apathy shook me to the core. Marie was scrunched up in a chair, her eyes closed, the lids transparent, her thumb in her mouth, but Johann raced up as soon as he saw me, and shouted hoarsely, "Du! Du! Du!" (You! You! You!) hit out at me with feet and fists. If I had not found out that they were due to leave for Poland three days later I would have requested an immediate transfer in order to protect them from having to see me. The staff tried to console me; sadly, they were only too familiar with children's reactions to being separated from their German homes. Like other distressed children before them, Johann and Marie had been kept at the center beyond their scheduled departure date, in the hope that they could be helped through this second loss in their young lives before they had to confront the emotional expectations of their natural parents. Nothing had helped, however: Johann had become increasingly defiant, with more moments of the violence he had displayed toward me, and Marie no longer spoke and had reverted to babyhood, wetting her bed and taking food only from a bottle. The decision to send them home, with their Polish parents informed of their condition and one of the center's German-speaking therapists accompanying them- for, of course, they now spoke no Polish- was a kind of last resort that had worked in previous cases, with the parents' tenderness giving them relief. Reluctantly, that night, following the direction of the resident psychiatrist, who thought it couldn't harm and might even help, I held Marie in my lap and gave her her bottle. She lay there, her eyes shut, the only movement in her lips, which sucked, and in her small throat, which swallowed. I held her until she was asleep. It helped me, but, I fear, not her. What are we doing? I asked myself. What in God's name were we doing?

This was the question that so often occupied us. What was the "right" solution to this human conundrum? Should we return the children to parents who longed for them, but also to an impoverished and largely destroyed Eastern Europe, and to an ideology unacceptable to many of us? Or should we leave them with their loving German second families -- our only-just-past enemy, with their lingering love for Hitler -- who had obtained them as beneficiaries of a crime of truly Biblical proportions? What was in the best interest of the children? The question became even more disturbing when we learned late that summer of 1946 that Washington was considering issuing a fanatically anti-Soviet order (and seeking agreement to it in Britain) to resettle all children of Russian origin -- including those from the contested Ukrainian and Baltic border regions -- in the U.S., Australia, and Canada, instead of returning them to their homes and a life under the Soviets.

For months already, many UNRRA workers had been concerned about unofficial "advice" from above not to allow Soviet liaison officers into DP camps and not to expose unaccompanied children to them. While the Soviet officers' addresses were posted in the camps for those who might want to visit them, they were not allowed in, as their presence would have been too inflammatory. But some of us, feeling not only that the Soviets had as much right to their children as anyone else but also that we needed their help to locate parents, had ignored this advice, at least regarding the youngest unaccompanied children. Continual changes in the rulings we received over the months were confusing and disturbing, and we were finally convinced that no one in authority understood either the political complexities or the human conflicts that surrounded us and our charges.

At the point when the appalling-to us-news of the projected new order for overseas resettlement reached us, I knew of seven children under 10 in Special Child Centers in my region alone whose Ukrainian parents were waiting for them and who, with therapy and language lessons, were being prepared for going home. There were of course many others both in the U.S. and British zones of occupation. How could anyone think of ordering that children who had twice suffered the trauma of losing parents, home, and language, should, like so many packages, be transported overseas and dropped into yet other new and entirely strange environments?

With several others-and with the help and approval of the UNRRA director for the U.S. zone, John Whiting-I embarked on a campaign to defeat this plan. Working out of his office in Frankfurt for three weeks, we circulated a protest: petition and sought signatures from all UNRRA field workers, made hundreds of phone calls to teams as well as to congressmen and LPs in Washington and London, and bombarded both the State Department and USFET (United States Forces European Theater) with letters. Although many UNRRA workers signed the protest, replies from Washington and London were sparse, and said only that our opinion had been noted and that no definite decision had yet been made.

I was growing increasingly frustrated, both with various aspects of the unaccompanied children problem and with the screening process for displaced persons, which was mostly handled by unqualified GIs. In October 1946, shortly after the latest controversy over the children-the situation was beginning to look insoluble-I left UNRRA to undertake a lecture tour in schools and colleges in America.

IN THE RECENTLY discovered documentation from this period, two things stand out. One is that there is no sign of our extensive official correspondence with Washington and London, all of which was cosigned by Whiting, the highest ranking UNRRA official in the U.S. zone, at the National Archives in Washington, the UNRRA archives in New York, or at the Public Record Office in the U.K. Second, although a ruling about sending the Russian-born children overseas instead of repatriating them was frequently discussed, and many such children were in fact sent abroad, there is no trace of a document actually recording such a ruling. The closest I came to finding this elusive order was a report dated March 19, 1946, by Eileen Blackey, Chief Child Search & Repatriation Consultant at UNRRA headquarters. On pages 10 and 11 of this paper, under the heading "Problems Concerning Nationality Status," she reports on the continuing difficulties regarding a clear directive affecting Ukrainian and Baltic children.

Blackey, who was known to be deeply opposed to the Western resettlement measures and had long lobbied the State Department that UNRRA-and not bureaucrats should be authorized to make final decisions about these children, wrote, "The cable which our Washington Office had reported as being prepared by the State Department for USFET, has [still] not reached them. This is an extremely important cable since it is to recommend to USFET that they not release any policy [regarding nationality and the resettlement of children abroad] ... unless it conforms to the recommendations [against this practice] made by UNRRA... If a directive is actually formulated and in operation prior to July 1st, the chances of it remaining effective [after UNRRA leaves] are quite good. If nothing is in effect by that time, the disposition of the problem may have.. catastrophic results."

About 25,000 Polish children out of the 200,000 reported missing were returned home and, entirely through the initiative of individual UNRRA teams, two transports of just over 100 young Russians slipped through in December 1946. Otherwise, there is no record of how many children of contested nationality there were, how many of them were sent overseas or otherwise resettled, or indeed how many of the stolen children were never discovered and, ignorant of their origins, remained in Germany. I have not solved the question of what was the best solution for these children-and I don't think that anyone can.

But what is certain, and what we should not forget, is that their birth parents have not even been able to mourn for them.


Source: Talk. November 1999. Reprinted by permission of the author.