World War II babies fathered by German soldiers in occupied Europe

Jean-Jacques Delorme's French mother met his father, a German soldier, during the occupation of Paris.
Jean-Jacques Delorme's French mother met his father, a German soldier, during the occupation of Paris. (Courtesy Of Jean-jacques Delorme)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 10, 2009

NICE, FRANCE -- Jean-Jacques Delorme was 23 before he got the truth.

After years of mystery, during which his mother maintained a stubborn silence, Delorme's grandmother reached into a big armoire and pulled out a yellowed envelope filled with photos of a German soldier. He had been his mother's lover during the occupation of France in World War II.

"That's when I understood everything," Delorme recalled, choking up at the memory of that anguished afternoon in 1967. "At last I had a father."

Historians estimate that more than 800,000 children were born to German soldiers enforcing the four-year Nazi occupation of Europe, about 200,000 in France alone. Like Delorme, most were raised behind a veil of secrecy and shame, derided in school and unable to understand what they had done wrong. Many of their mothers had been shaved bald and paraded naked through the streets after the Germans retreated. Others, like Delorme's, were jailed as traitors.

More than six decades later, with the children in their 60s, the beginning of a change is in the air. Some of Europe's war babies have begun to talk among themselves, lamenting the shame they were made to feel. A growing number have decided to seek out their German families and fathers.

The revelation by Delorme's grandmother was only the beginning of a decades-long search, of harassing German archivists, of begging historians for clues, of following false leads. His mother, singed by postwar imprisonment as a collaborator, was no help. Delorme pushed on, however, and three years ago completed his family tree at last:

His father, he discovered, was Hans Hoffmann, a baker from Mainz. During the war, Hoffmann played the cello in a Wehrmacht orchestra dispatched to entertain occupied Paris, where he took a French woman as his mistress. Then, as the Third Reich crumbled, he was killed in a Bavarian village on April 25, 1945, resisting an onslaught by U.S. tanks.

"I did not find peace [with the discovery]. Peace is too strong a word. But I attained a certain degree of serenity," said Delorme, now 65 and retired from the French postal service in Menton on the French Riviera. "All of a sudden, I had my father, aunts, cousins. The whole family."

To help people like himself who are coming to terms with their origins, Delorme founded Hearts Without Borders. The three-year-old organization, with 300 members -- all children of German soldiers -- provides phone numbers that war babies can call to talk about what it was like growing up behind the veil. The group held a convention last month in Caen to exchange stories and listen to historians describe where they fit in.

"What we have lived through and the deprivation we felt all our lives push us to make our voices heard," said Gerlina Swillen, a Belgian secondary school teacher and researcher at Vrije University in Brussels. "We do not wish any child to have to go through this."

Swillen said people have begun to speak out now in part because they dared to do so only after the deaths of their mothers. In addition, she said, social attitudes have changed, lessening the stigma, and German archives have become more readily available to outsiders in recent years.

Swillen said she had long suspected something was amiss in her past. She discovered that her father was a German soldier -- one of an estimated 20,000 in Belgium -- only when her mother told her in 2007. Her mother had corresponded with her former lover after the war but destroyed the letters when she married a Belgian man. The veil descended after that.

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