Giving a name to forgotten Nazi victims
The Nazis abducted seven-year-old Tamara in 1943. The German occupiers had already murdered her parents, and after first being put into children’s homes in western Ukraine and in the Wartheland, in Poland, she was placed with a foster family. The foster parents, Emma and Oskar, were originally from Leipzig but had subsequently resettled in Kalish, in the Wartheland. They were told that Tamara was a German orphan from Odessa, in the Ukraine, whose parents had been shot by the Russians – a customary lie told in order to conceal the fact that a child had been abducted.
A great many children from Bohemia, Moravia, Belarus, the Ukraine and Slovenia suffered the same fate as Tamara in the Second World War. An organized programme of child abduction and enforced Germanization was a central element of the Nazis’ racial policy between 1939 and 1945. “The children who were abducted are still today a forgotten group of victims,” says Dr. Isabel Heinemann, Professor of Modern History at the Department of History at Münster University. She is conducting a research project into the paths their migration and their lives took. She estimates that 20,000 Polish children, 20,000 “Germanized” children from the Soviet Union, and 10,000 children from western and southern Europe suffered the same fate. “The children from those times, who are now adults, want to know where they came from,” says Heinemann. “We cannot uncover the fate of every single one of them, however. Names were changed, identities are unclear.”
Enforced Germanization of children deemed to be “racially superior”
Shortly after the German attack on Poland, the Führer and Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, declared in a speech to the Reichstag on 6 October 1939 that he was planning a “new ordering of ethnographic conditions” in Europe through forced displacements and re-settlement. Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, had the details drawn up in a so-called “General Plan for the East”. This included the “hunt for good blood” – the Germanization of children deemed to be “racially superior” and who were torn from their families by the SS. Orphans and children like Tamara, whose parents were murdered as “partisans”, attracted particular attention. Younger children were offered to SS families for adoption, older ones were to be brought up in so-called “German boarding schools”. The SS deliberately concealed their true identities and proclaimed them to be “German children”.
After the end of the war, some of these children were registered in the occupation zones in the western half of Germany, in the so-called Children’s Register of the International Tracing Service (ITS) set up by the Allies in 1948. This register included unaccompanied, non-German children from the western occupation zones, as well as children who had been subjected to enforced Germanization, the children of people forced into slave labour, and juvenile victims of forced displacement. The aim at the time was to enable as many children as possible to return to their home countries and their families. In the case in particular of children who had been subjected to enforced Germanization, this was a difficult task because of their concealed identities.
Collaborating with the Arolsen Archives – International Center on Nazi Persecution, and working with her PhD student Marcel Brüntrup and a number of masters students, Isabel Heinemann is conducting research into more than 55,000 files. The Centre for Digital Humanities at the University of Münster, and the working group headed by Prof. Lars Linsen at the Department of Computer Science, are also involved in the project. “Although there were some individual projects in the past in which researchers analysed some of the files, no one has yet studied the complete dataset,” says Heinemann. “For the first time, we want to reconstruct the paths that these children’s displacement and migration took and make them visible. Of the 55,000 files, we can make detailed studies of only around 17,000, because there are a large number of duplicates and cases with not enough data. Researching into the stories behind each case is often detective work.”
Opening up the Arolsen Archives provides new research opportunities
For some years now, the digitized documents on victims and survivors of the Nazi regime in the Arolsen Archives have been openly accessible. In May 2019 the International Tracing Service was transformed from an investigative body to an archive and was renamed “Arolsen Archives – International Center on Nazi Persecution”. “Until the Arolsen Archives were opened, they were a kind of black box for us researchers,” says Isabel Heinemann. For historians, access to these files opens up opportunities for gaining new information – even 75 years after the end of the Second World War. “Nazism will always be a field of study for us historians – necessarily so, because it is an integral part of German history,” Heinemann adds.
She and her team aim to visualize on a website the results of their findings on child abduction by the Nazis. Showing individual cases in an anonymized form, the children’s nationalities and geographical origins, the circumstances of their abduction, the journeys they made, and their post-war stories will all be documented. In this way, systematic details and patterns can be discovered. Isabel Heinemann has already applied for funding for this comprehensive project.
It was in 2005 that Tamara told Isabel Heinemann about her enforced Germanization as a child. Today she is still active in the Association of People Persecuted by the Nazi Regime in her local region. Heinemann’s work entails not only investigating the historical facts, but also empathy and respect. “Again and again, witnesses from that time contact me. With my research, I would like to give them a voice.”