Heinrich Himmler’s “Fountain of Life”

From 1939 to 1940, as the German military seized Poland as a territory, an estimated 10,000 Polish children had been quietly spirited away and a closer look would reveal that the majority of the captured kids shared a similar set of characteristics — real or perceived Nordic purity, or the ideal appearance promoted under the Nazi regime that was destined to become Germany’s master race. Kidnapping or otherwise acquiring blonde-haired and blue-eyed children was at the heart of a secret program known as Lebensborn, or the “Fountain of Life” from which would spring a dominant race of Nordic superhumans.

Lebensborn was initially a state-sponsored initiative that was the brainchild of Heinrich Himmler, a high-ranking member within the Nazi party, Adolf Hitler’s right-hand man, and a leading progenitor of the Holocaust. It was officially implemented on December 12, 1935 with the intent of increasing the sluggish birthrate among native Germans, and Nordic women from Nazi-occupied countries that passed the program’s criteria for racial purity as outlined in the Nuremberg Laws that had been put into effect that same year. It aimed to encourage women to birth the next generation that would, in time, inherit the world formed under the Third Reich. It served also as a multi-functional eugenics program intended to aid the wives of SS members, offer security to unwed pregnant women, select wives for Aryan bachelors, and to provide adoption services to couples wanting children. Lebensborn facilities were erected mainly in Germany, with a few branches in Norway, Poland, and other Nazi territories. The doors to Lebensborn were open to all women who could prove their Nordic heritage, and began as a welfare program to assist the wives and families of SS members. Eventually, the program expanded to include maternity homes made to provide accommodations and assistance to German mothers and their children, and to allow unwed pregnant women a comforting safehaven away from the struggle of social stigma. In Germany, a total of ten Lebensborn facilities were created (some from homes and business buildings stolen from Jews) with the first being established just outside of Munich. Women also applied to Lebensborn for the purpose of matchmaking with eligible SS officers, with only about 40% passing the program’s strict racial requirements and background check; blonde and blue-eyed applicants were preferred, and were required to submit family history proving their purity for at least three generations prior. The women were also sworn to honor and obey Nazi doctrine and were exposed to ample propaganda during their stay at the facilities. After becoming pregnant by their lover, the women were then placed in one of the Lebensborn homes and given the prenatal care they would need to ensure their child would be born healthy. 

In most cases, the women in Lebensborn were volunteers, ready and eager to give themselves and their children as a contribution to the greater good of Hitler’s Aryan vision. But others, particularly the unfortunate women captured during Nazi territorial expansion, were sometimes coerced into having children as a means to the end of achieving the program’s end goal of inflating Germany’s population to 120,000,000. During the invasion of Norway in 1940, Himmler took special interest in the country’s past as a land of Nordic warriors. As part of Lebensborn, nine facilities were established in Norway and SS officers were encouraged into relationships with Norwegian women, and the children of these unions were sent to Germany to be adopted by a designated couple. 

 Lebensborn was closely tied with another master plan, labeled as Generalplan Ost, a Nazi campaign to push eastward into Slavic nations to purge the natives and create new, habitable land in which to settle the growing German population. As the Nazis advanced into Poland in late 1939, SS officers were given the order to select and capture Polish children with Nordic features from their parents and relocate them into Lebensborn centers. An estimated 200,000 children were taken during the invasion, where they were evaluated based on anthropometric data such as eye color, hair color, and skull shape, and were classified accordingly into one of three categories: desirable, acceptable, and unwanted. If the children were deemed undesirable, they were immediately sent to concentration camps. The fortunate children that passed were kept within the facilities to be given to German families seeking to adopt, where they would undergo the process of “Germanization” if they were between the ages of 2 and 6, as this age group was thought to be the most pliable and receptive to transformation as citizens for the Reich. Under the care of their foster families, they were given German names and would be re-socialized to assimilate themselves within their new culture. Older children were placed into boarding schools to be indoctrinated with themes of national pride and the honor of having German heritage. Any records indicating their original ancestry were destroyed and they were coerced into forgetting their past lives with their families, with the staff working to convince the children that their parents had abandoned them. Any unruly or excessive resistance of the Germanization process resulted in incorrigible children being sent to the concentration camps with the other undesirables as punishment. 

Towards the end of World War II, the documents with the information of the Lebensborn children, including those that were kidnapped, were mostly destroyed as the allies began to encroach, and it can’t be known exactly how many children were born or taken into the program. During a post-war trial under The United States of America v. Ulrich Greifelt, an eastern branch of the Lebensborn program was charged with the kidnapping of 10,000 foreign children, but the leaders were acquitted due to a lack of evidence. With all of the information regarding the program lost, all that remained were abandoned facilities and the children’s testimony; but that was not the end of the injustice suffered by the victims of Lebensborn. Some abducted Polish children returned to their country, but most never saw their families again — only around 15% were reunited. In the years after the war, and in Norway in particular, the children born to Nazi fathers were severely ostracized and labeled as “rats” by their own government. Many mothers from the program fled with their children to surrounding countries, with some choosing to settle in Sweden, and some families were deported back to Germany. In 2008, a group of these children sued the government for its supposed complicity in the program, with the case being dismissed and the accusers being awarded $8,000 in reparations to ease their suffering. 

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