Gathered at the Royal Christiania Hotel overlooking rain-swept Oslo, the men and women with their name tags and windbreakers could pass for a perfectly ordinary party of over-sixties on an outing.
But these 30 or so Norwegians, about to set out on a day cruise, were anything but ordinary.
There was Paul Hansen, who grew up in a mental home even though there was nothing wrong with him. There was Tove Laila Strand, sipping a drink and looking as fragile as the single orange zinnia on her table. Her parents used to beat her with a clothes hanger.
Downstairs in the lobby, Hugo Frebel, a large, amiable 62-year-old, started to tell his story, then lowered his voice and glanced around. "People are listening," he said, and led his guest upstairs to the company of the few people who can possibly understand what he has been through -- the League Lebensborn of Norwegian Children of War.
Of all the victims of World War II who still gnaw at Europe's conscience, these are the last and in many ways the saddest. They are the children born of Adolf Hitler's dream of breeding a master race by pairing German soldiers with women from Northern Europe deemed to meet the blond, fair-skinned "Aryan ideal."
Their parentage condemned many of them to the margins of society. It denied them an education or cost them their marriages. Only now, as the 60th anniversary of the war's end approaches, is the government offering them a measure of compensation.
"I was a German baby. Worse than an insect," Frebel recalled. "They threw stones at us. In the winter, we had to shovel snow out of the living room because people had broken the windows with rocks."
During the five-year occupation, tens of thousands of children across Europe were born of relationships between German soldiers and local women. But in Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium, there was a more sinister side to the liaisons. It was called Lebensborn, or Fountain of Life.
The program had been set up by the German SS chief Heinrich Himmler in 1935 to propagate Aryan children. After the Nazis overran Germany's neighbor states in 1940, German occupation soldiers were encouraged to find suitable local mates. Once pregnant, the women could turn to one of 10 homes, which would eventually register about 8,000 Lebensborn children. The first opened in March 1941.
A Lebensborn home was used not as a breeding facility, as some people have believed, "but more as a care facility," said Stein Larsen of the War and Children research project in Bergen, a city in western Norway.
Lebensborn mothers were cared for and gave birth in the homes. They could then choose to keep the baby or have it adopted by a staunchly Nazi family in Norway or Germany. But only those who met the Nazis' race criteria were accepted.
After the war, Hansen was one of many Lebensborn children who were put in mental institutions, even though their only abnormality was having a German father. Hansen is 62 now, and the memory still brings him close to tears. "Why the hell did they send us there?" he said. "What did we do wrong?"
Norwegian society has long preferred to dodge the question.
When the Lebensborn finally started coming out of the shadows and organizing a few years ago, the government said it was too late to investigate their postwar treatment. The courts threw out their class action suit because the statute of limitations had expired.
In 2002, however, parliament ordered the state to make amends, and last July the government made an offer: as much as 200,000 kroner (then about $32,000), depending on how much suffering the victims could document.
Frebel was furious.
"The compensation offer was a slap in the face," he said. "I'll be damned if I'll sit in front of a government panel and let them decide how much I suffered."
Norway is so far the only Lebensborn-affected country to make such an offer. Denmark has at least 5,000 so-called German Babies.
Some have formed an association, more to trace their biological roots than to seek compensation, because there were few reports of government abuses in Denmark and the children's ancestry was kept hidden.
But for some, a deeply guarded family secret became the shock of their lives, revealed by accident.
"It could be a family member who was drunk at a family gathering or an angry mother shouting at her child," Arne Oeland, a Lebensborn child who chairs the association Children of War -- Denmark, said in Copenhagen.
"It was terrible. Afterward we had to live with the horrible descriptions that our father was a German war criminal and our mother was a prostitute," he said.
Albert van Aldijk was born in May 1942 in Haarlem, near Amsterdam, to a Dutch mother and a German navy officer. He said there were at least 15,000 German Babies in the Netherlands, many of whom are still afraid to come forward.
Van Aldijk, like many, was given his mother's Dutch name, he said.
Outside Germany, Norway was the jewel of the Lebensborn program -- and the postwar hatred of its children was the greatest.
Hundreds of Norwegian resistance fighters had been killed on missions, or tortured and executed. Norwegians felt betrayed by their German-appointed puppet ruler, Vidkun Quisling, whose name has become a dictionary synonym for a traitor. Anything German was regarded as tainted.
"For half the population, we were the German bastards. For the other half, the religious half, we were the immoral love children," said Bjoern A. Drivdal, secretary of the League Lebensborn.
In the hotel, as the war babies gathered to board a Denmark-bound ferry on which they would hold the annual meeting of their organization, the stories emerge one by one:
* Hansen, born in a Lebensborn home to a German Luftwaffe pilot, Paul Lissak, was institutionalized from age 3 and released 20 years later. "It seems that I sustained some damage there," he said in quiet understatement, his eyes blinking rapidly. His mother had moved to Germany and he visited in 1965 after his release, but felt he was an intruder. His father had been dead for 12 years. "Our mothers were bitter, but we were the ones who got the blame."
Without much education or job training, Hansen ended up working as a janitor at a college.
* Tove Laila Strand's German father, Werner Perku, was killed in action and she was taken in by his parents in Germany. She was happy then, but after the war the Norwegian government repatriated her to her mother and her mother's new husband, both of whom hated the girl. "That's when hell started," she said. "They would beat me with a clothes hanger. One would hold me and the other would beat me." Twice divorced, she has two children and lives on a disability pension.
* Egil Paul Gustavsen, a housepainter, remembers an uncle who kept dogs and "would train me as if I were one of the dogs." But he never quite knew why. Even after he discovered his father was a German soldier who had returned to Germany, he didn't think much of it. But after the father died, he visited his half sisters in Germany. They took one look, brushed his birth certificate aside and said they saw their father in him. Gustavsen had finally found a family of sorts, and they're still in touch. "Now," he said, "I am also not afraid to show who I am."
* Jan. G. Lehmbecker, born of his mother's adulterous fling with a German soldier, was a living humiliation to his stepfather. "He didn't want a 'German devil' having his name." So he joined the merchant marine at age 15.
So did Frebel, born to German army Capt. Ernst August Frebel. "Most Norwegians go to sea. We war babies fled to sea," he said.
Frebel and his half brother, also the son of a German soldier, grew up with their mother in Krampenes, a village of about 100 people in the Norwegian Arctic.
There were whispers of "German Baby," and even before starting school, he learned who his father was. Years later he tracked him down in Germany, but "he wanted nothing to do with me," Frebel said.
He found refuge in the wilderness, and occasional companionship with the Sami, the indigenous reindeer herders of the Arctic. They had something in common: The Sami, like the war babies, were shunned by mainstream society.
The hurt continues.
"My aunt said to me a week ago, 'I won't give you a share of my inheritance because your father was German.' I said: 'It was not my choice. I had no say in who my parents were.' "