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Nazi Silver: A present from Guntram's godfather, Heinrich Himmler. Photo by Tamsin Ross Van Lessen.
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Photo by Tamsin Ross Van Lessen
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Only family portrait: Guntram, second from right, pictured with his brother, sister, mother and stepfather in 1952. Photo by Tamsin Ross Van Lessen
This reminds me of the mug shots they took of the Polish children,” says Guntram Weber, 67, as EXBERLINER photographs him. He acquiesces patiently though, posing this way and that – no model, but a man bred to the ‘purely beautiful’ – the child and pride of the bygone utopia of a pure Aryan world. His genes, in fact, were once amongst Germany’s most prized, but his parentage remained a mystery to him for decades. Born in 1943 in the Third Reich’s Posen (now Poznan in Poland), Weber is a child of Lebensborn, one of National Socialism’s most insidious schemes.
“As a child I remember sensing that I wasn’t quite normal,” he says softly, his tall, angular frame perched on the sofa of his homely Kreuzberg flat. “Family members treated me awkwardly.” His mother was ‘his rock’, but he soon realised her husband was his stepfather, not his biological one. The ensuing insecurity tyrannised his youth but was not unusual for a generation shorn of fathers. However the details he would later discover on his identity most certainly were.
Aryan breeding programme
Lebensborn, ‘spring of life’ in old German, was a programme founded in 1935 (see link on the left) aimed at increasing birth rates of Aryan children in the Third Reich. SS officers and other high-ranking Nazis with demonstrable Aryan pedigree were encouraged to sow their seed beyond marriages to create a blue-eyed and blonde-haired master race to perpetuate Adolf Hitler’s Germania. As SS leader Heinrich Himmler, the Lebensborn founder and a key figure in Weber’s life, said: “I want to save every drop of good German blood.”
This meant establishing a network of 26 maternity homes in German territory where racially ‘pure’ mothers could give birth to illegitimate children sired by SS lovers away from society’s stigmatising glare.
Though lurid tales of breeding farms are wide of the mark, the homes provided a refuge for young women – if they could prove heritage back to their grandfather. Children were conceived out of love, by mistake or through naivety. Other women certainly conceived on ideological grounds, but for many the choice was a pragmatic one: the promise of support and secrecy from prying eyes in a conservative society.
Mothers would slip off to the homes to give birth discreetly. There, they enjoyed the best medical facilities and ration-busting supplies of food while their children suffered a harsh welcome to the world, modelled on the Spartan practice of exposure greatly admired by Hitler. “You were separated from your mother as soon as you were born and kept away from her for the first 24 hours of your life,” Weber later learned. “Then you would only be given back to her for 20 minutes every four hours and during that time she was strongly discouraged from talking to you or caressing you.”
Children would spend their earliest months or years at the homes in what amounted to being the Third Reich’s crèche, receiving an SS education and/or awaiting adoption by SS families if their single mothers did not want them. As the war progressed they were joined by Aryan-looking Polish children forcibly sent back from the front to be ‘Germanised’. As Weber’s mother once told him in an unguarded moment: “The relationship between mother and child is a power struggle.” For the SS, a child’s will existed only to be broken.
Kept in the dark
It is a miracle that Weber has a story to recount at all. Without the will to surmount feelings of shame and persevere in his search for answers, he would still be in the dark that characterised most of his life. Even today, tears fill his eyes when he describes the constant struggle he faced, searching for the truth but running scared from it, desperate to dispel lies but aching for an ostensibly normal family life with his parents and siblings: an older sister and half-brother born after the war.
Growing up, Weber remembers the subject of his real father was taboo. Extended family members had been well-drilled by his mother to conceal the truth, explains Weber. “‘It was the war,’ they would say. ‘Things were very confusing. We didn’t see much of each other – you will have to ask her.’”
It wasn’t until he turned 13 that his mother agreed to tell him his father’s story. “‘Well Guntram,’ she said,” Weber remembers. “‘You are old enough to know the truth about your father now.’ Then she gave me a name, told me when his birthday was, when they’d been married, and that my father had been a truck driver for the Luftwaffe, far away from the front who had died driving over a landmine. She added that he certainly wasn’t involved in killing anyone.”
This sort of story was doing the rounds in various households around Germany at the time. “I should have been suspicious,” Weber admits. “But so many kids were told lies about what their parents did in the war and it just wasn’t the done thing to question them.”
Curiosity gnawed at him, but his courage to confront doubts waxed and waned. His mother’s story rang increasingly hollow with no photos or documents to back it up and Weber became convinced his father had been a Nazi. Worried, he would inspect his facial features in the mirror and pore over history books in the school library looking for men who bore him some resemblance. For a terrible period he even feared Josef Goebbels might be his father.
The mysterious silver cup
An incident in his teens brought him closer to a no-less-harrowing truth. “My mother had a strongbox in the bottom right-hand corner of her wardrobe. One afternoon when she was out, I decided to look in. I had terrible qualms about it though,” he confesses. “I knew I was breaking the trust between us and she was my only security in the world.” Inside Weber found the first clue to his real identity: a small silver cup.
“We were a fairly poor family at the time,” he explains. “Like many others, my mother had lost everything during the war, so to find a silver object in the house was extremely unusual. I picked it up carefully and discovered my name on it. ‘Oh!’ I thought, ‘what’s this?’ Because there was also another name there. ‘Guntram Heinrich,’ it said. I’d never heard that before. And on the other side it read: ‘From your godfather, Heinrich Himmler.’ It was a revelation Weber could hardly comprehend: “I even told myself this ‘Guntram Heinrich’ must be someone else,” he says. “Besides, I couldn’t ask my mother about it as I had betrayed her trust.”
The silver cup is tarnished now, but Weber swears he will never honour it with a clean, nor shall he ever let it touch his lips. Holding it is troubling enough – the aged artefact is the nearest thing Weber has to an umbilical cord, tethering him to the deeds of men whose boots he was supposed to fill one day. “For a while with my first wife I even used to joke about that,” he says. “‘If Hitler had won, I would have been made Governor of such-and-such a place,’ I would tell her.” By then, Weber had another piece of the puzzle.
More clues and false promises
In 1966 his older sister needed her birth certificate in order to get married. Their mother, obfuscating, said there was no hope of finding it, but an enquiry at her place of birth turned up the unexpected news that she had been born the illegitimate child of an army officer. Her records were miraculously still intact and being four years older than Weber, she twigged she had been born in a Lebensborn home.
The word entered the siblings’ discourse for the first time. Weber inferred that he too was one, albeit from a different father, but before he could summon the strength to question his mother, he moved to the US in pursuit of love, staying there for eight years until his wife’s tragic death in a car crash. He returned to Germany with a son of his own and started teaching writing workshops for disadvantaged children in Kreuzberg.
As more information about Lebensborn trickled into the public domain, Weber occasionally grappled with the unknowns of his past. In 1982 he decided to confront his mother one day during a long car journey. He pulled off the road and forced his mother from the car. Finally, says Weber, he had her, “where she could not escape”. Despite her angry protestations stranded by the roadside, “my mother uttered three sentences that I will never forget: Firstly, ‘I don’t want to talk about that.’ Secondly, ‘People will throw dirt at you.’ And thirdly, ‘I will write it all down for you.’ This was a promise. Suddenly I felt OK, knowing she would eventually give me the truth.
“But she didn’t do it,” he says bitterly. “She couldn’t bring herself to do that for me and she died two years later. I’m stark raving mad at her for that.”