France finally acknowledges its war children

The offspring of German soldiers and French women born during the occupation were cruelly shunned

When Jean-Jacques Delorme was growing up in Lisieux in Normandy in the 1940s, schoolmates called him a "bastard" or "son of a Boche" – a slur word for German. He didn't really know what it meant, but it made him feel like an outcast.

Life had been different from the outset. After his birth in October 1944 it had been his grandmother who cared for him until he was five years old. But it was only decades later that he learnt why his mother was absent at that time: she had been sentenced to one year in prison, for so-called collaboration horizontale. She had also been given five years of dégradation nationale – essentially, a loss of certain rights – for her crime of indignité nationale, sleeping with the enemy.

Mr Delorme was not alone. He is one of 200,000 children who grew up in France the offspring of German soldiers who occupied the country during the war. After the war ended, supposed collaborators were executed, while women who had been "collaborating horizontally" had their hair shaved, were paraded through jeering crowds and jailed. Mr Delorme's mother was one of those "shaven women".

Mr Delorme faced silence and secrecy when he tried to find out who his father was. His suspicions had first been raised when he was 12 years old. "My sister was born and my mother gave me the livre de famille – or 'family book' – to register her birth," he remembers. "I noticed a note in the margin by my name, saying I was illegitimate by my father.

"My mother had married when I was four, and I had taken her husband's name as he officially recognised me as his son. I asked my mother, but she wouldn't tell me. Nobody would tell me. I sensed I was different from my brothers and sisters, so I asked my mother again when I was 17. She was enraged, and walked out slamming the door behind her."

It was only when he was 21, had completed his military service and gone to work in Paris that Mr Delorme found the truth out about who his real father was. "I asked my grandmother. She pulled out an envelope, yellowed with age, from her wardrobe. 'Your mother asked me to destroy its contents, but I didn't in case you ever wanted to know,' she told me. I opened the envelope and there were a good number of photos of my mother with a German soldier."

Then his mother, who had been a kitchen servant during the occupation, finally revealed his birth father's name: Hans Hoffmann.

"I thought it would be quite simple to find him then, but the name is common, like Jean Dupont in France," Mr Delorme told theFrenchPaper. "And all the German archives had been destroyed in the bombing."

His search for his father was to last a full 40 years, and it was only in 2006 that he finally discovered his father's fate, thanks to the help of a French friend and a German friend. A musician as well as a soldier, Hoffmann had been a violinist in the orchestra of the German governor of Paris, Dietrich von Choltitz. He was killed near the end of the war, on 25 April 1945, in fighting with American troops. "A month after discovering my father's history, I also learnt that I had a brother and sister, Dieter and Annegret, in Mainz," says Mr Delorme, who has since set up the support network Coeurs sans Frontières for children of the war. "We spent 11 days together in January 2007, and we went together to visit his grave near Bavaria."

In recent times, the status of these often forgotten children of the war has changed. A year ago, the German authorities offered double nationality to French people with German soldier fathers. The French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, who was born six months before Germany invaded France, is credited with helping to set the German citizenship offer in motion. "France and Germany have remained up to now deaf to the distress of the last innocent victims of a conflict that they never saw," he said in a speech. "These children turned adults are asking us 60 years later to recognise their value, their lives and, above all, their identity."

Mr Delorme is one of 18 people who has so far taken advantage of this change and adopted German nationality. "It seemed logical. I'm French-German and my nationality now reflects it," he says. In addition, the German consulate is currently treating some 60 applications for naturalisation. For now, the offer of German citizenship extends only to France, home to the largest number of German-fathered war children. But across Europe, up to 800,000 people are believed to have been born of German occupiers, and others are hoping the French programme could lead to a Europe-wide gesture to recognise the children of war.

Those people who take German citizenship are entitled to German pensions and other benefits, but German officials point out that no one has asked for any so far. As French benefits are comparable to those in Germany, there is little financial advantage in taking citizenship. In any case, applicants themselves say they are not in it for money, only for recognition of their German identity.

One of them is Daniel Rouxel who was the first son of a German soldier to take dual nationality when the law changed in April last year. The son of a French mother and a Wehrmacht officer, the 66-year-old felt that he had finally gained a legitimate identity. "I'm German. I'm not a bastard any more. I'm a child like all the others," he told journalists at the time. "At last I've got the second half of what was so cruelly missing." During the war, Mr Rouxel's mother had worked in the canteen of a German airbase at Pleurtuit in Brittany where his father, Lieutenant Otto Ammon, was stationed.

His father was killed in the war and his mother struggled to look after him, so Mr Rouxel's grandmother took him into her home. Even here, the blond-haired boy was treated like an outcast: forced to sleep in a chicken coop by his grandmother, refused communion by the priest and bullied by other children living in her Breton village. The rejection of Mr Rouxel's heritage throughout his childhood perhaps explains why he so swiftly applied for German nationality, beside French, when the law changed. He says: "When I was two my father held me in his arms. He fed me from the bottle and before he was killed had written to his family, to tell them he had a child in France. His family wanted to do what was needed to raise me in Germany, but my mother refused. When I was 12, I met my German family. They treated me with warmth."

While Europe is becoming more open to the subject of parentage during the war, it still carries a stigma, Mr Delorme believes. "Many people are scared to discover that their father was a Nazi," he says. "But we are not responsible for our parents.

"In France, we have yet to work through our memories of the war. I regret that France never had its own Nuremberg trials. Here, everyone was a collaborator until April 1944; then they all became resistance fighters. The truth is more difficult."

Norway's children

It is not just in France that children of soldiers faced discrimination: many of the 800,000 children born to mothers across Europe who were perceived to have been sleeping with the enemy faced similar abuse.

In Norway, more than 10,000 babies were born to German fathers. Heinrich Himmler actively encouraged the German troops to have liaisons with Norwegian women. Each child in this "experiment" was given a number and the Germans offered support for the births. But after the war, many of the so-called Lebensborn – or Fountain of Life – children were treated with cruelty.

Bjorn Lengfelder, whose father was a German soldier, recalls: "There was a hatred directed at us children. A small brother and sister, five years old, were placed in a pigsty for two days. Then they were scrubbed down with acid till they had no skin left 'because we have to wash that Nazi smell off you'."

Gerd Fleischer, Lebensborn No 2,620, was beaten by her stepfather for being a Nazi child. In 2007, she joined a campaign for compensation from Norway's government.

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