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.The German response
Georg Lilienthal, director of the Hadamar Memorial to Nazi "euthanasia" victims in Germany, said few Germans are willing to talk about the issue despite the stirrings in countries that were occupied. Many German soldiers who fathered war babies had wives and children back home. In most cases, the fathers are dead by now, he noted, but some war babies have been welcomed by their half brothers and half sisters, while others have been rejected.
"More time needs to pass," Lilienthal added.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner recently asked the German government to grant citizenship to French war babies who seek it after tracing their filiation. A half-dozen have since obtained German passports, and more than 20 others have applied, including Delorme. Similar facilities will be made available soon to German soldiers' children in other countries, Lilienthal predicted.
"Acknowledging German citizenship for these people is an important decision, a very important symbolic act, by the German government," he said. "The problems and difficulties these children have had throughout their lives continue to traumatize them today."Painful childhoods
Delorme had been curious about his parentage since discovering on his family ID card, at age 12, that he was "legitimized" by his mother's postwar husband. He asked what it meant, but no one would tell him.
"From then on, there was a bee in my bonnet," he recalled.
He repeatedly asked his grandmother, who had raised him, and his mother about his origins. From his grandmother, he got evasion. From his mother, he got anger and silence.
At school in a small Normandy town, meanwhile, he was taunted as the child of a German. The truth began to take shape as he grew older; the worst was confirmed with his grandmother's belated decision to show him the photos.
"We were the children of monsters," he said, recalling the hatred of Nazis as he grew up in postwar France. "I was a bastard by my mother, and what's more, I was the bastard of a kraut. Whenever I spoke about my origins, people pulled away from me. So I took the habit of keeping quiet about it."
Delorme's mother died in 1994, but by then the research was well underway. After years wasted following the lead of a "cousin" of his father's who turned out to be no relation, Delorme finally found out about the army orchestra and contacted an archivist in Berlin, who came up with a list of its members.
In 2007, Delorme traveled to Mainz to meet his half brother and half sister.
Until then, his siblings had no idea of their father's relationship in occupied France. But after some awkward moments, Delorme said, they welcomed him as a member of the family. The three have started exchanging Christmas presents. They recently decided to visit each other once a year, alternating between Germany and France.
Delorme said, however, that he will keep his name, that of his grandmother and grandfather -- and his mother. It will stay on his French documents and eventually go on his German passport, he said.
Smiling, he added, "I'll use the German passport in France and the French passport in Germany, just to get back at them all."
Special correspondent Shannon Smiley in Berlin contributed to this report.