Growing up in New York, I listened to my father tell me about how his family prepared for the looming threat of Adolf Hitler’s invasion of the United States. The Kihls, my family’s Christian German neighbors, offered to adopt my father, a toddler. My Aunt Bernice, a young teen, could pass as Gentile, so a Catholic church offered her a spot at a convent upstate where they planned to hide nine Jewish girls. Sadly, my Aunt Rita, the middle child, had polio and walked with a limp, so even if righteous Gentiles wanted to help, there was no hope for her.
From a young age, I understood that Hitler’s plan to create a so-called master race meant the genocide of the Jewish people. Only much later in life, I learned that the Nazis also had a secret breeding program to create two million new children to populate the expanding Reich.
Heinrich Himmler launched the Lebensborn Society, which aimed to produce German children in three ways. The program began as a maternity home for unwed, German young women who met the Nazi criteria – no Jewish or Untermenchen (subhuman) blood for three generations, good mental and physical health, and certain facial structures and coloring. Then the Nazis began recruiting “racially valuable” women to have sex with SS officers. And finally, Nazi soldiers kidnapped blond-haired, blue-eyed infants and toddlers from countries Germany invaded, and brought them to the Fatherland for “Germanization.” In each case, the goal was for “good” German families to adopt these children. In the end, the Lebensborn Society bred 20,000 babies and stole 200,000, half from Poland alone.
The Lebensborn Society was a puzzle piece missing from my overall understanding of a tragic period. I felt compelled to dig in and study the program, but also grappled with some guilt about it. With so many compelling and important stories about victims and survivors, shouldn’t I explore material that centers them? Why study Nazis?
If I hadn’t asked myself these questions, I could always count on my mother to do so. “You’re researching Nazis?” she cried over the phone. “Why should we read about them?”
My mother is right. Nazis are evil, but I also believe that part of never forgetting about the Holocaust is examining antisemitism, so we can recognize its early warning signs. I spent the next couple of years researching the Lebensborn Society, a program that promoted Aryan superiority by weaponizing fertility and childbirth.
Since the end of World War l, the German birth rate had been declining. Additionally, the Reich was “reclaiming” territory it lost in the Great War, so it needed more people to populate these regions.
One of the first steps in convincing young women that having a “child for Hitler,” as they called it, was to make large families the norm. Outside the program, married women with four or more healthy children were characterized as “child-rich” and awarded the Mutterkreuz, the Mother Cross service medal. Women who birthed or adopted four or five healthy children received a bronze medal; mothers of six and seven received silver; eight or more children earned a gold Mutterkreuz.
Though fascinated, I wrestled with more guilt. Why even think about Nazis and their plan to produce babies? As a Jewish person, shouldn’t I focus on survivors like Dr. Edith Eger, who survived Auschwitz by dancing for Dr. Mengele? Why not research heroes like Witold Pilecki, who infiltrated Auschwitz to organize a resistance movement? I have read Dr. Eger’s moving memoir The Choice and Jack Fairweather’s inspiring account of Pilecki’s work in The Volunteer. Both should be required reading.
In reading Martha Hall Kelly’s The Lilac Girls and Louise Fein’s Daughters of the Reich, though, I realized that there is also great insight to be gained from delving into the warped psyche of characters who were seduced by Hitler. To understand one’s enemy is to be better equipped to defend against him.
Stories about the survivors, heroes, and victims of the Holocaust must remain at the center of the discussion about this dark period of history. There is also something to learn through literature that examines the villains and bystanders of the Holocaust.
When I finished my draft of Cradles of the Reich, I sent a copy to my mother. She said that her favorite character was Gundi, the Gentile German woman who wanted to convert to Judaism. And she said that Gundi’s boyfriend, Leo’s Jewish family, felt familiar to her. But most importantly, she said she now understood why a historical novel about a Nazi breeding program was important to the overall understanding of the period.
Jennifer Coburn is the author of Cradles of the Reich: A Novel, along with a mother-daughter travel memoir and six contemporary women’s novels. She has contributed to five literary anthologies, including A Paris All Your Own. Learn more about her at jennifercoburn.com.