In search of his origins: Lebensborn child Peter Meier. (© Michael Kretzer)
They grew up in SS homes instead of their parents, and most of the “Lebensborn” children are still a mystery to where they came from. But since old documents appeared, some have been rummaging through their past. Of Peter Maxwill
Peter Meier was 75 when he first held tangible evidence of his origins in his hands. On July 9, the postman brought a simple envelope to the pensioner’s apartment in a small town in Rhineland-Palatinate. In it is a red booklet with the words "Sparkasse the capital of movement" on the cover. And underneath a swastika.
73 years earlier, an Austrian captain of the Wehrmacht had created the savings book with the number 116697 / H in Munich. On September 26, 1940, he paid the first twenty Reichsmarks. It was an account for his illegitimate son, whose upbringing he gave to the SS association “Lebensborn" had left. In this story, the son is said to be called Peter Meier.
The 75-year-old man does not want to read his real name in the newspaper. Because there are grotesque myths surrounding the shelters run by the NSDAP. From “Mating Homes" and "human breeding" is then said, the historian Joachim Fest even called the Lebensborn once "state brothel organization".
The reality, as scientists have long since proven, looked much more sober: in the homes, parents and single parents were able to give birth and give up their children, while the Nazi state was able to educate the younger generation in its own way. Up to 12,000 adolescents lived in Lebensborn-Heimen between 1936 and 1945, the majority of whom were born out of wedlock – and therefore undesirable.
In order to secure these children a living without parents, the SS created savings books for them. The fathers had to pay in. According to the historian Volker Koop, the association usually claimed ten Reichsmarks a month in order to later ensure maintenance, training or dowry. For example, German fathers bought themselves free from the duties towards their children, who then grew up mostly with foster parents who were loyal to the line or in one of the 22 Lebensborn homes operated throughout Europe.
A year and a half ago, more than 400 of these savings books appeared by chance, the find triggered a nationwide search for the owners. After people like Peter Meier. Meier had known of his biological father’s existence since March 30, 1957, the day he left home.
At that time his mother pushed him a letter that reads "To read in a quiet hour" into his hand, from which he learned that “Daddy" only his stepfather and himself had grown up under SS supervision. It wasn’t until 1943, at the age of five, that his mother brought him back to him. In the meantime, she had married another man, whom Peter Meier would in future call "Daddy" should call. He never met his biological father, who died in Vienna in 1971. And his mother was silent on the details, like many relatives of Lebensborn children.
That’s how the search for traces began for Meier. “I then went to Carinthia, where my paternal grandparents are said to have lived", he says today. However, he did not find any clues to his origin, “I didn’t even know where to look". Decades passed in which Meier pushed the topic aside. It was only after he retired that he resumed searching in the 1990s. “You have to grow old to be interested in your own origins", that’s how he sees it today. "I finally wanted to dig up my own roots, curiosity drove me."
Gradually, the pensioner learned from search services, authorities and historians that he was three years old from the North German Lebensborn branch “Friesland" to the Bavarian home “Hochland" had been brought. Then he should have lived with foster parents. For years, Meier collected letters and photos from his childhood, but many details only came with the red savings bank book in July. And certainty.
At first glance, Meier’s savings book reveals only banalities: in 1941 there were almost 250 Reichsmarks on it, two years later 886.85 Marks. But for Meier the red booklet means much more: “I now know that I was actually with foster parents between 1941 and 1943", says the retired professional soldier. During this period, money was regularly withdrawn from his savings book, apparently the expense allowance for his foster parents.
Meier admits that the savings book does not reveal much about his father’s human side, preferences or character traits. “But now I finally know exactly when I was where in my first years", he says, and: "I finally have the confirmation of my confused story in black and white."
Rare finds such as these passbooks can give Lebensborn children information about their origins. In the meantime, those affected have organized themselves, a group of elderly Lebensborn children are looking for their roots all over Germany. They belong to the "Circle of Friends for Lebensborn children" or the association “Lebensspuren" and they have a common goal: They want to use insurance files, savings accounts and contracts to approach the riddle of their origins.
The control center of the researching Lebensborn children is hidden in a small house with a bay window and front garden on the eastern edge of Bremen. A woman with gray hair has been collecting forms and black-and-white photos there for ten years: Ingrid Schmidt – she too is actually called differently, she was also born in a Lebensborn home.
On the dining table, next to the coffee cup, there is a bulging file folder in which the elderly woman with the blue turtleneck sweater and the gold-rimmed glasses flips through hectically. Like many Lebensborn children, the 70-year-old still does not know where exactly she spent her first years. That is why she has been researching for years – looking for a little more certainty.
An important part of the puzzle in this research is the savings books. It is a real stroke of luck that hundreds of them have recently appeared: In November 2012, a few Lebensborn children had accidentally learned from the research of a French journalist who, during research in Munich, came across two wooden boxes full of strange savings books. Instead of the names of the owners, he only found the remark “Lebensborn e.V." Thereupon the Lebensborn children around Ingrid Schmidt and the association sent “Lebensspuren" several envoys with dozens of powers to the Bavarian capital.
There they met Eva Eberwein. At the Catholic Youth Welfare Service (KJF) in the Archdiocese of Munich-Freising, the lawyer is responsible for those wooden boxes in the basement of the church social service provider. The Lebensborn children learned from Eberwein that there were actually 414 Lebensborn savings books in the KJF archive. Total value: more than 57,000 euros.
For Eberwein it is a chain of coincidences that today she is responsible for this money. Because the Catholic youth welfare, she attaches importance, “had absolutely nothing to do with this Nazi organization before 1945". Only after the war did the American occupiers hand over the savings books to the KJF. From there, a man named Andreas Fendt was responsible for the bank accounts. His task: He should return the books to rightful owners on request before the money would automatically fall to the Free State of Bavaria after 30 years.
Fendt had the savings books converted from Reichsmark to D-Mark, Fendt saved the money from state access by transferring it to a collective account in the 1970s, Fendt searched for the rightful owners of the savings books via the Red Cross and the International Tracing Service. However, because he could not commission professional investigators to search, only a few affected parties reported: the KJF did not even issue 6000 marks and 55 of a total of 469 savings books until 1985. “Afterwards, these two wooden boxes were forgotten", says Eberwein. “They were just some kind of direct savings books in the basement."
According to Eberwein, data protection was responsible for this. The lawyer also explained this to the Lebensborn children, who asked her about the savings books in the summer: she was allowed to see the list with the Do not publish or publish names of all owners. Everyone had to ask her if one of the savings books was in his name. For this, however, all of the Lebensborn children still alive would have to know about these savings books – although many have no idea that they were brought up in the care of the SS association.
Eberwein knows about this dilemma, but points to the legal hurdles. And on the moral side: what about those who would only learn from the savings book that they grew up with the SS, that they possibly had different parents, another childhood? “Everyone has to decide for himself how he deals with his past", that’s why Eberwein says. "We cannot talk about the fate of others People decide."
When the traveling envoys of the Lebensborn children presented their powers of attorney last summer, Eberwein was therefore only able to return three savings books to the rightful owners – one of whom was Peter Meier. But the research of the Lebensborn children did not end there. Because while her colleagues in Munich were on the trail of the savings books, Ingrid Schmidt had long since taken up another track.
She had learned from friends of Lebensborn that there were not only savings books, but that the Nazi state had also concluded insurance contracts for the offspring in large numbers. They were called “ward money insurance", "Dowry insurance" or "subsidiary insurance" and should secure the children financially, similar to the savings books.
Since Schmidt has known about it, she has also wanted to bring these contracts together with the now graying Lebensborn children. She wrote letters to the general association of the German insurance industry, to the Federal Financial Supervisory Authority, to 15 insurance companies.
She asserts that it is not about money, she hopes for new snippets of information: “As a rule, the father paid into the insurance", the elderly woman knows and adds: “Those who have such a contract can hope for references to their father." It therefore wants to bring as many savings books and insurance contracts to the rightful owners as possible. But time is getting short: she herself is 70 and is already one of the younger Lebensborn children. "I have to try now or never", she says. "It is our last chance." She will probably continue to search for small truths with great effort.
In any case, this effort was worthwhile for Peter Meier, because he had made peace with his earliest childhood. “The passbook is the first proof that my real father somehow took care of me", Meier says, “That’s why it’s an important piece in my story." And now the money from his savings book has also reached him.
After all, there were more than 1,000 Reichsmarks on it in 1945, at that time a small fortune. However, the currency reform of 1948 with its drastic exchange rate of 1:10 left its mark: In July, the Catholic youth welfare service transferred 130.58 euros to Meier’s current account.
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