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Independent on Sunday (London)

February 2, 2003, Sunday




BYLINE: JULIA STUART Facing the future, clockwise from left: Paul Hansen outside his former Lebensborn home; Gerd Fleischer, a war children seeking compensation; Agnes Moller Jensen; Solvi Kuhrig Henningsen; and pictures from the Norwegian National Archive of a Lebensborn Photographs by Tom Craig

As a child growing up in Norway, Tove Laila Strand learnt to take the pain of being whacked with a wooden clothes hanger. It was the names her mother and stepfather called her during the assaults that hurt her more. "Hit me all you want, but please don't call me a German child," she would beg. For children born of a Norwegian mother and a soldier from the occupying German forces, this was a particularly vindictive insult. Today, sitting in a cafe in Oslo, the 61-year-old grandmother's eyes fill with tears as she recounts eight years of abuse, which included being repeatedly raped by her stepfather. "It wasn't that strange," she says. "I was, after all, the child of the enemy."

Some weeks ago, Laila Strand was spat at while shopping in Oslo. That too made her cry. No doubt she had been recognised from her recent television appearances as one of an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 "war children" born in Norway. Such was the level of abuse meted out to them after the war that, last December, Norway's parliament finally agreed to formally apologise and award them compensation. If Laila Strand and other claimants consider the amount to be insufficient, they will take their case to the European Court of Human Rights. Norway declared itself neutral at the start of the Second World War, but was invaded by Germany in April 1940. The following June, the country's government, king and crown prince fled to London to continue their fight against Hitler, and the remaining troops capitulated. A Nazi government was formed under the auspices of the leader of the Norwegian National Socialist Party, Vidkun Quisling, whose name became a byword for traitor.

That December, Wilhelm Rediess, the chief of the SS and German police in Norway, wrote to SS leader Heinrich Himmler about the increasing number of relationships between Norwegian women and occupying troops. "Individual cases are already arising... of Norwegian women, made pregnant by Germans, seeking the aid of the German Reich, above all on the ground that they are despised and boycotted by the Norwegian population because their pregnancy was caused by a German", he wrote. It was a matter of particular interest to Himmler. In 1935, concerned about the falling birth rates among Aryans in Germany, he set up the Lebensborn (Spring of Life) association to care for unmarried, racially valuable pregnant mothers. The mothers, who otherwise may have had an abortion, checked into specially set up secretive maternity homes, where they received free, high-quality nursing and medical care. Some Lebensborn mothers had their children adopted, and the Lebensborn placed them with staunchly Nazi families.

As the vast majority of women in Norway were Nordic - the purest Aryans in Nazi terms - the fraternising mothers could not have been more racially valuable. In his letter, Rediess noted that only a small proportion of the German fathers wanted to marry the pregnant women and bring them back to the German Reich. There was another potential problem. If they failed to do anything for Norwegian mothers, they could increase the number of opponents to Germany's occupation. To add to the "stock of racially valuable blood in our racial community", Rediess suggested establishing German- controlled maternity homes.

In March 1941 - six years after the scheme had been set up in Germany - the Lebensborn arrived in Norway, the first of such ventures outside Germany. Hotels and villas were requisitioned and around 10 centres were established. As well as paying all the costs for the birth, the association gave the mothers substantial child support, and money for clothes and a pram or cot.

Most mothers took their children home, some took them to Germany to live with the father's family. Around 200 children were adopted by families in Germany and 100-odd were taken in by Norwegian couples.

It was the most successful Lebensborn outside Germany (there would eventually be two such homes in Austria and one each in Belgium, Holland, France, Luxembourg and Denmark). By the end of the War, 8,000 children had been registered. Many more were born outside the scheme by women who refused to reveal, or could not prove, the identity of the father, making the estimated number of war children in Norway as high as 12,000. It is believed that around 10 per cent of all Norwegian women between 15 and 30 had a German boyfriend during the war.

There have been claims that the homes operated as "stud farms". However, Kare Olsen, an historian at Norway's National Archives and author of Children of War, The Norwegian War Children and Their Mothers, dismisses this idea. "Having read through hundreds of files in the Lebensborn archive, I am convinced that nearly all the women had their children as a result of a normal' relationship," he says. "The soldiers were encouraged to be polite and behave well towards the Norwegians, who were considered to belong to the same race as them. It was largely a peaceful occupation. Many of the soldiers came from cultivated parts of Germany to the farming areas of Norway and were seen as exciting strangers."

One woman who found herself captivated was Agnes Moller Jensen, now 79, who met her German lover, Toni Mensch, in a coffee shop in Larvik, where she still lives. She was 20 and he was 24. "I just liked him, as you would anyone," she says. Many of her friends also had a German boyfriend. "People didn't like it so we hid by taking trips to the woods. People didn't dare say anything at the time. That started in 1945 although the war ended in that year, many of the occupying soldiers were unable to leave Norway until 1947 ." The couple had a child, Bjorn Toni, but didn't marry as Moller Jensen would have lost her Norwegian citizenship. The pair kept in touch until Mensch's death last year.

The Norwegian government in exile in London, who had heard of these liaisons, warned of the consequences through BBC broadcasts. One stated that: "Women who do not reject contact with Germans, will have to pay a dreadful price for the rest of their lives." Another declared the women imbeciles.

When the war ended, many Norwegians needed no further encouragement and took it upon themselves to cut off the hair of many of the "German whores". Though the women hadn't broken any law, several thousand were arrested and many interned. A large number lost their jobs, some just for having been seen talking to a German. "The reaction against these women was far stronger than those who collaborated economically," says Olsen.

While this was echoed across Europe, what appears to be unique to Norway was the rabid hatred also shown to the resulting children. Immediately after the war, letters and articles started appearing in the Norwegian press condemning them. In July 1945, one writer in Morgenbladet feared the boys would "bear the germ of some of those typical masculine German characteristics of which the world has now seen more than enough". Many insisted that the children would grow up to become a "fifth column", and there were loud calls for them and their mothers to be sent to Germany. In August 1945, the Norwegian government brought in a new law stating that any women who had married a German soldier would lose her citizenship and be sent to Germany. Several thousand were duly sent packing.

Perhaps the cruellest claim was that many of the children were mentally retarded. Else Vogt Thingstad, a doctor who took part in a meeting on European war children in Zurich after the war, wrote an article in Arbeiderbladet in December 1945 claiming that many of the "German women" were retarded "... and that we therefore expected their children to a large extent to have hereditary weaknesses". One doctor said these children had as much chance of growing into normal citizens as cellar rats had of becoming house pets.

Twenty-seven children in Godthaab, the Lebensborn home just outside Oslo, were considered to be mentally retarded. Seventeen of them - including Paul Hansen (see below) - were sent to Emma Hjorth, the state asylum nearby. The rest to other institutions. Many spent their lives there, a situation believed to have been repeated in other parts of Norway. In 1990, one of the doctors at Emma Hjorth said: "If the children had got the possibility of a new start and a normal life in 1945, they probably would have grown up normally."

At one stage, Norway's Children of War Committee, set up by the Ministry of Social Affairs after the War to decide what should be done with these children, offered all 8,000 to representatives from Australia, who had approached Norway looking for new immigrants. The idea was abandoned.

In the end, around 3,000 children grew up with their single mothers, and between 2,500 and 3,000 were raised by their mothers and stepfathers. Around the same number were adopted. About 100 lived with their fathers in Germany, and several hundred grew up in orphanages or other institutions in Norway. Many mothers tried to conceal their children's heritage, by giving them their own surname or that of their stepfather.

But for some, there was no escape. "If the mother was a German whore' then the child was the same, and you were free to do whatever you wanted with them. Nobody cared," says Tor Brandacher, spokesman for the War Child Organisation Lebensborn. "Everybody hated them, everybody beat them, everybody sexually abused them, everyone urinated on them. Every perversion known to man was performed on them," he claims. "One boy was raped by nine men, who then urinated on him to clean him up. Another woman told me that when she was four, and in a foster home, she would be hung up inside a barn and when the farmer needed oral sex he just opened the door and helped himself."

In a children's home in Trysil, youngsters were force-fed until they vomited, and were made to eat the vomit, says Brandacher. A war child himself, he started researching the subject in 1987 when adoption laws changed to allow people to know the identities of their biological parents. Elsewhere, he says, people came to the homes at night, paid staff half a ham and a bottle of alcohol, and were let in the back door to abuse the children. One group of men branded a girl's forehead with a swastika. It has also been claimed that 10 of the war children were subjected to official experiments with LSD. Four or five are said to have died as a result. At least six are believed to have committed suicide - the most recent, a former academic at Oslo University, died last November.

Agnes Moller Jensen's son, Bjorn Toni, drank himself to death at the age of 37. "They called him terrible things in school and all the time he was growing up," she says. "It built up inside and he tried to forget it by drinking. I can't describe the pain of losing him. But I don't regret what I did. There was nothing wrong with my son. There was something wrong with the people." Nearly 60 years after the war, Moller Jensen - known locally as the Mother Teresa of Larvik for her work with homeless people - is still discriminated against. Like all women who had a relationship with the enemy, if her Norwegian husband dies, the state will not pay her his war pension.

For some, the torment is still to come. After the War, 30 children found living in a home in Germany were secretly sent by the Norwegian authorities to Sweden. Their names were changed and they were adopted by couples who were told that their parents were resistance fighters or that they were Jewish orphans. "One woman, a war child, suffered great psychological trauma when she found out the truth," says Lars Borgersrud, who is working on a research project funded by the Norwegian government. "The majority probably don't know even today. I know their true identity, but it's not my task as a historian to inform them as it will create a huge change in their lives." Some mothers fled with their children to Sweden after the War to escape harassment. One such woman was the mother of Frida Lyngstad, of Abba, whose father was a German soldier.

Brandacher believes the "whore children" were treated so badly because of the nation's guilt over the occupation. "Around 250,000 men volunteered to work for Nazi Germany. Norway was the biggest collaborative state that has ever existed in Europe," he says. "There was full employment and a building boom like none other in Norwegian history. The resistance in Norway was a joke. After the war people needed somebody to hate to get rid of all the shame they felt."

After appeals for redress failed, in 1999 seven war children started legal proceedings against the state claiming that it had violated the European Convention on Human Rights, seeking between pounds 50,000 to pounds 200,000 each. They have since been joined by a further 115. "The stigmatisation, the shame, the oppression was so absolute it took us 50 years to come forward," says one, Gerd Fleischer.

Prime minister, Kjell Magne Bondevik, apologised to the war children in his New Year's speech in 2000. Last December, Norway's Supreme Court determined that the case fell under the statute of limitations. On the same day, the country's parliament unanimously voted, however, to pay compensation and to formally apologise. The details are still to be decided by the government.

Finn Kristian Marthinsen, a member of the Justice Committee that recommended to parliament that the war children be compensated, said: "Norwegian society has to say that we are sorry. It was wrong because these children did nothing criminal. It is a black spot on the history of Norway."

Randi Hagen Spydevold, lawyer for 122 claimants, says she will wait to see the government's proposals before deciding whether to take their case to Strasbourg. "This is an embarrassment for Norway. It seems that parliament has been shamed into action," she says.

Gerd Fleischer, whose Norwegian step-father, a former member of the resistance, was particularly violent to her, believes the state felt compelled to act because of embarrassing international press coverage. "There has not been much public pressure inside Norway about this. The press has written about it, but very silently. It started coming out in the foreign media and then the Norwegian embassies starting reporting back.

"Norwegian society is not an inclusive one. The same discrimination exists today. It has only changed focus. Before it was the Sami, the German children and the gypsies. Now it's the dark ones. But officially racism doesn't exist in Norway. We don't do those bad things here," says Fleischer.

While most in Norway support parliament's decision, in some cases, the hatred lingers. When Laila Strand appeared on television, a neighbour, whom she considered a very good friend, ignored her. When asked what was wrong, the woman sneered: "I don't say hello to whore children and my tax money will certainly not go to paying your compensation." Kristian Marthinsen has been accused of being a traitor. "There are still people who call me or write saying that I'm not a supporter of Norway because I'm giving the children of the enemy a kind of reward," says the MP.

For a number of war children, finding their German relatives has finally given them a sense of identity and a unique source of comfort. Solvi Kuhrig Henningsen, 59, still lives in Sandefjord where she grew up and keeps her past quiet as she still feels hostility. She was mistreated by her stepfather, her mother turned to drink and her neighbour refused to allow her to play with her daughter.

In 1995, encouraged by her husband and children, she traced eight relatives in Germany. "At last Otto's daughter has found us," was her delighted aunt's reply. Kuhrig Henningsen, whose face still carries the pain of her childhood, says: "I became a new person when I met them because not only did they look like me, they loved me." n

Tove Laila Strand - My German family were angels'

Tove Laila Strand was born in Honefoss, 60km from Oslo, in 1941. Her parents met in a laundry. Her father was sent to the Russian border and was killed in 1942. Her mother stopped caring for her and was convicted for neglect. Laila Strand spent several months in the Lebensborn home in Godthaab, near Oslo. Then, at the age of three, the association sent her to her paternal grandparents in Germany. "They were angels," she says.

In 1948, aged seven, the Norwegian government forced her to return to Norway. Her mother beat her when she spoke German and her stepfather physically, mentally and sexually abused her. Her mother's sister threatened to chop off her head if she visited.

Laila Strand left home at 15, by which time she was vomiting blood. She married at 20 and had two children. She is now divorced, for which, in part, she blames the legacy of the sexual abuse. She stopped working in an office 20 years ago because of continuing stomach problems. She is in regular touch with her father's two siblings. "When I go to my aunt's place it really feels like home," she says.

Karl Otto Zinken - I will never work again'

Karl Otto Zinken was born in Bergen in 1941, the result, he believes, of a one-night stand. When he was a year old, he was sent to the nearby Stalheim Lebensborn home, and returned to his mother when the War ended. She couldn't cope with having a Lebensborn child so sent him to a state children's home. "I sat in a room with six doctors and was told that I was mentally retarded, that I shouldn't have kids and that I was the scum of the earth. Two guys who worked in social services performed oral sex on me, claiming it was therapy. I was about five." After two years, he was sent to a special school where he was bullied.

Zinken spent 12 years in the merchant navy. In 1996 he had a breakdown and lost his job as a salesman. His marriage collapsed and he spent a year in a psychiatric hospital with manic depression. He has been in and out of hospital eight times since.

His mother died in the late 1980s. His father, "a nice man" whom he traced and met in 1997, died a year ago.

"I have no good feelings towards Norwegians," he says, "I feel empty. I will never work again."

Paul Hansen - I never felt loved by anyone'

Paul Hansen was born in 1942. When his mother, who worked in the barracks kitchen in Drammen, told her father that she was pregnant by a Luftwaffe pilot he threatened her with an axe. Hensen was born in a Lebensborn home in Hurdals Verk. His parents split up and he was sent to a Lebensborn orphanage in Godthaab. His mother hated him. "I was the reason she had been kicked out of the family."

When he was three, he was moved to the Emma Hjorth asylum. "The first thing I heard was people screaming. They ate and relieved themselves in the same place - on the floor, on the tables. I was scared to death. People were sitting in chains."

Deemed retarded, he went from one institution to another, most of them for the mentally ill. In 1964 he got a job as a steel worker. That year, he met his mother, who lived in East Germany with her husband. She still hated him. He found out his father had died in 1952.

Hansen is now a cleaner at Oslo University. "The worst thing about all this is that I missed my education. I still can't read or write very well. And I never felt loved by anyone."

Reidun Myking - I have been destroyed'

Reidun Myking was born in 1943, two days after her father was killed at sea. At six months, she was sent to Godthaab, as her mother was too ill to look after her. When the War ended, it was claimed that she was retarded and, at the age of seven, she was sent to the Emma Hjorth asylum where she remembers being put into a straitjacket at night. From there she was sent to succession of institutions, many for the mentally ill.

Myking joined society at about the age of 30. She's worked in an old people's home and for 10 years as a cleaner at Emma Hjorth. She has been hospitalised for short periods for psychosis.

She and Paul Hansen (left) who was with her in a number of institutions, were married for five years from 1975. They didn't have children.

Her mother, who didn't know where she was, was traced Myking just before she turned 40. The pair kept in touch until her death in 1991. "I feel the way I have been treated has totally destroyed my life," says Myking. "I've been on medication for 37 years and I think it's slowed my brain."

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