The Children of the Nazis' Genetics Project
While much of Nazism was associated with destruction, it's racist ideological core was also preoccupied with creating or restoring racial purity, including through the Lebensborn program which viewed officers of the SS as the fathers of a new Aryan vanguard.
At the small elementary school in Jouy-sous-les-Côtes, in northeastern France, Gisèle Marc knew the rumor about her: that her parents were not her real parents, and her real mother must have been a whore. It was the late 1940s, just after the war, a time when whispered stories like this one passed from parents to children. Women who were said to have slept with occupying soldiers—“horizontal collaborators”—had their heads shaved and were publicly shamed by angry crowds. In the schoolyard, children jeered at those who were said to be born of “unknown fathers.”
The idea that Gisèle might have been abandoned by someone of ill repute made her terribly ashamed. At the age of 10, she gathered her courage and confronted her mother, who told her the truth: We adopted you when you were 4 years old; you spoke German, but now you are French. Gisèle and her mother hardly ever talked about it again.
Gisèle found her adoption file, hidden in a drawer in her parents’ room, and from time to time she snuck a look at it. It contained little information. When she was 18, she burned it on the stove. “I said to myself, If I want to live, I have to get rid of all this,” she told me.
Gisèle is 79 now, and she does not regret burning the papers. For a time, she was able to put aside questions about her origins. At 17, she took a job in a children’s home and hospital and realized she had found her calling. She spent her career working mainly in day-care centers, and eventually founded her own. In 1972, she married Justin Niango, a chemistry student from the Ivory Coast. They bought an old hotel just behind Stanislas Square in Nancy and turned it into a house.
I visited Gisèle there in June. It was easy to imagine the vibrant family life that once took place inside: her children—Virginie, Gabriel, Grégoire, and Matthieu—running up and down the stairs and playing instruments in their rooms. At school, they were sometimes the only Black kids in their class. Gisèle has a lot of stories about the cruel comments made through the years; all the stories end with her confronting the culprit.
Gisèle held off on telling her children that she had been adopted, because she was worried that the revelation might weaken their bonds with her parents. Sometimes, though, the secret “burned a bit.” She knew she would share it eventually.
When her mother died, in 2004, she gathered her children and told them. They were shocked, and asked questions whose answers she did not know.
After years of denial, Gisèle longed to find those answers. She remembered the name and place of birth that had been listed in her burned adoption file: Gisela Magula, born in Bar-le-Duc, in northeastern France. She started her research there, and went on to write to the Arolsen Archives, the international center on Nazi persecution, in Germany, to ask if there was any mention of her in the organization’s extensive records.
In March 2005, Gisèle received a reply: She had not been born in Bar-le-Duc after all, but near Liège, Belgium, in a Nazi maternity home at the Château de Wégimont. That home and others like it had been set up by the SS, an elite corps of Nazi soldiers, under the umbrella of the Lebensborn association, through which the regime sought to encourage the birth of babies of “good blood” in order to hasten its ultimate goal of Aryan racial purity.
Everything Gisèle believed about herself wavered. The family she’d spent her adult life defending against racism, she realized, descended from one of history’s darkest racial projects.
Nazism was an ideology of destruction, one that held as its primary aim the elimination of “inferior races.” But another, equally fervent aspect of the Nazi credo was focused on an imagined form of restoration: As soon as they came to power, the Nazis set out to produce a new generation of pure-blooded Germans. The Lebensborn association was a key part of this plan. Established in 1935 under the auspices of the SS, it was intended to encourage procreation among members of the Aryan race by providing birthing mothers with comfort, financial support, and, when necessary, secrecy. The association’s headquarters were in Munich, in the former villa of the writer Thomas Mann, who had left Germany in 1933. In 1936, it opened its first maternity home, in nearby Steinhöring.
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