Although my father grew up in Brooklyn, his family had a plan to survive the anticipated Nazi invasion of the United States during World War II. His Polish-Jewish father had seen enough violence against his people to never feel completely safe, even in his new homeland. My father was a toddler and the plan included his adoption by the Kihl family, German neighbors in their two-family house.
My father told me of this many times as I was growing up in New York City in the 1970s. This was more than family history; it was a warning: We are Jewish and must always have an escape plan.
A few years ago, I watched an Amazon series called The Man in the High Castle, based on the Phillip K. Dick novel, which brought to the small screen my worst nightmare. An alternate history, the show is set in the 1960s after the Germans have won the war and most of the United States is part of the Reich. In one episode, a beautiful German woman explains that she was bred through the Lebensborn Society, where SS officers impregnated “racially valuable” young women. I was nearly certain this was a fictional element of the show, like the episode where the Nazis blew up the Statue of Liberty. If the Germans had really created a breeding program, wouldn’t everyone know about it?
That night I sat down at my computer and began to search for the Lebensborn Society. I found that it was a secret Nazi program that began in 1935 as a maternity home for single mothers with Aryan pedigree as well as a breeding program as for German young women. I came across a faded black-and-white image of four Lebensborn nurses, each gazing adoringly at the newborn cradled in her arms. Then there was a photo of a group of young women wearing swastika-embroidered tank tops and black athletic shorts lined up for inspection by a Nazi matron who seemed to be admiring one of the girls’ voluptuous form. Another photo featured a baby-naming ceremony where infants were welcomed to the Nazi Party by soldiers who laid swords on their bellies.
The Lebensborn Society, which translates to “Spring of Life” in English, existed in the same world as Nazi death camps. In its ten years, approximately 30 homes were in operation by the end of the war and had produced nearly 20,000 children. I couldn’t help digging deeper, watching Nazi propaganda films and more recent documentaries about adult children of the Lebensborn Society.
I soon found that the Lebensborn Society took an even darker twist once the war began in 1939. Lebensborn architect Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler added a new, more efficient way to create “child-rich” German families where every mother earned her Mutterkreuz medal for raising four or more healthy children. German soldiers were ordered to kidnap Aryan-looking infants and toddlers from countries they occupied, mainly Poland. Often the children were orphans, their parents killed by the very Nazi soldiers that snatched them. Other times, babies were torn from their mothers’ arms and loaded into military vehicles headed for Germany. Once the children were brought to their new homeland, the Party sought to “Germanize” these approximately 200,000 children before placing them for adoption. With infants, the process was often as simple as a name change, but toddlers had to be taught basic German language and customs before being placed with their new families. Some children, especially older boys, refused to adapt, and were sent to concentration camps and murdered.
I wanted to learn more about the young women who volunteered for the breeding program. Why did they agree to have sex with SS officers they had never met before? Why were they willing to give up their babies to high-ranking Nazi officials and other German families in good standing with the National Socialist Party? How had they become so indoctrinated that they viewed having a child for Hitler as their patriotic duty?
In writing the novel CRADLES OF THE REICH, I created three female characters who land at a Lebensborn home: two expectant mothers and a nurse, each representing one of the faces of German citizens during the Third Reich. Ordinary Germans could have chosen university student Gundi Schiller’s path and joined the resistance. Like Hilde Kramer, an aimless high school student, they might have embraced Adolf Hitler’s movement. Or, like nurse Irma Binz, Germans could have decided to keep their heads down, focus on their lives, and assume that reports of persecution of Jews and other minorities were exaggerations from the Lugenpresse, the lying press. In CRADLES OF THE REICH, I bring together these three strangers at the bucolic Heim Hochland (High Home Country) Lebensborn home in Bavaria, where each woman has an agenda at odds with the others’.
Though CRADLES OF THE REICH is a work of fiction, Heim Hochland was one of the actual maternity homes; and I featured historical figures, including Nazi Party officials such as Lebensborn physician SS-Oberführer Gregor Ebner and Women’s League leader Reichsfrauenführerin Gertrud Scholtz-Klink.
Gundi, Hilde, and Irma are fictional characters, but Hilde was inspired by a real Lebensborn volunteer, Hildegard Trutz. A true “Hitler Girl,” Trutz claimed that her time at in the Lebensborn Society was the best in her life. Like all Lebensborn homes, the palatial Bavarian castle where Trutz lived was furnished with artwork and antiques looted from Jewish homes. In an interview after the war, Trutz fondly recalled that at this luxurious estate, the food was excellent and there were plenty of servants. She proudly delivered a baby that was the product of a Lebensborn-arranged liaison with an officer she described as handsome though dull-witted. She was happy to see her baby adopted by a good German family. Hilde was the most challenging character for me to develop because it meant trying to embody someone who would have viewed my family as untermenschen, sub-human. I hoped to understand how she became a torch-wielding participant in the November, 1938 pogroms the Nazis dubbed Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. I wanted to examine a young woman’s path to becoming a true believer without making excuses for her heinous acts.
In writing the nurse, Irma’s, character, I consulted written accounts of Germans who were initially indifferent to the plight of Jews but eventually had their consciences resuscitated. What would that take?
And with Gundi, I found it enlightening not only to read about the Nazi resistance movement, but to study the work to dismantle white supremacy in the United States today. One of my favorite exchanges to write was when well-intentioned but naive Gundi asks her Jewish love interest to teach her about the plight of the Jews so she can help. He lets her know that it is neither his job to educate her, nor is it hers to be his savior.
To further help me understand the ethos of the German Reich, I formed an unlikely friendship with 88-year-old Rolf Schultze, a neighbor who shared his childhood memories in Berlin. He was part of the Deutsches Jungvolk, the junior arm of the Hitler Youth, and his honest account of his early love for Hitler was enlightening. Rolf and his elementary school friends were told they were special, the great hope for the future of their nation. As an old man on his front porch in San Diego, Rolf’s voice quivered as he recalled walking with his father on Müller Strasse the morning after Kristallnacht. The seven-year-old boy asked his father why the windows of a haberdashery were broken, why some stores had been vandalized. Rolf’s father shook his head, signaling that his son should not ask such questions.
In my effort to ensure the novel’s cultural and linguistic authenticity, I reached out to best-selling author of THE READER, Bernhard Schlink, who graciously supported my effort to shed light on this little-known, but important part of German history. Among his many insights was letting me know that Gundi’s search for her Jewish classmate should end after her first visit to a kosher butcher shop. (I would have had her try every store on the block, which would have been dangerous for an Aryan in 1939, lest she be suspected of being a “Jew-lover.”) On a lighter note, Bernhard also introduced me to many German colloquialisms, including the dated slang “rumsen,” meaning sex, which is used throughout this novel.
Meetings with older members of the German American Society in San Diego also helped me glean insight into German life during the 1930s. Most of the members were more than willing to share their childhood memories and answer my questions about German customs. They confirmed that a teenager might indeed roll her eyes at her mother. They also told me that Germans did not eat popcorn at the movie theatre. A white-haired woman in her nineties quipped, “Who had food?!” Understandably, a handful of members were suspicious when I told them about the subject of my novel. At a luncheon, a woman snapped, “We’re not all Nazis” before leaving the table. One the whole, the group was gracious and welcoming, especially Board Member Monika Parme who extended herself generously to help with this project.
I tried to provide the novel with historical accuracy by reading textbooks and documents, and taking courses through the Museum of Jewish Heritage and Tel Aviv University. I consulted with experts like Professor of Nazi Propaganda Randall Bytwerk, who was a wealth of information on numerous practices and events, including Adolf Hitler’s fiftieth birthday celebration. These details were especially helpful when writing the scene where Hilde desperately tries to impress a high-ranking SS officer by speaking knowledgeably about the event. Architectural historian Charles Belfoure helped me identify building styles so I could design accurate cityscapes. German food historian Ursula Heinzelmann and her wonderful book Beyond Bratwurst helped me set the table with meals people in that era favored and clear it of “trivial” foods like cubed cheese.
There were some questions that could not be answered, though. In the final days of the war, the Nazis burned records from the Lebensborn Society, so I could not confirm the exact number of Lebensborn homes, babies born, and children kidnapped. There are several conflicting accounts, some claiming that sex parties and liaisons did not occur at all. Others say they participated in such breeding efforts and clearly recall their sexual encounters that were for the express purpose of breeding “a child for Hitler.”
Sadly, many anti-Semitic elements in CRADLES OF THE REICH are real, such as Der Giftpilz, the picture book likening Jews to poisonous mushrooms that Hilde’s co-worker reads to her young children. The board game Juden Raus (Jews Out!), tucked away in the recreation room at Heim Hochland, is something many German families had in their homes. Also real are the racial screening tools described in the opening chapter where Gundi is examined by Dr. Ebner. The eye-color buttons, skin-matching swatches, and the skull-measuring calipers all can be found today at The Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.
As infrequently as possible, I took creative license to better serve the narrative. For example, young women in the Lebensborn Society were given pseudonyms for their stay. However, juggling two names for each resident became clunky and confusing, so I chose to have characters address each other by their real names. The Neues Volk article on disabled people that Hilde sites actually ran in May 1939, not April 1939 when the scene takes place. Also, there is nothing to suggest that Reichsfrauenführerin Gertrud Scholtz-Klink or the Women’s League had any involvement in the infamous Aktion T4, the murder of physically and developmentally disabled people. I felt it was important to spotlight this horrific program since it was part of the Nazi plan to create a so-called mater race.
Although my initial interest came from a small detail of a television show, once I learned it was a real Nazi program, the Lebensborn Society grabbed hold of me and did not let go until I had researched and written this novel. I love reading historical fiction because it allows me to learn about history through the more intimate lens of personal relationships. It is my hope that this novel about three German women provides fodder for discussions about the social environments that allow women’s bodies to be politicized and commoditized.
CRADLES OF THE REICH covers a dark period of history, but I hope readers will be heartened by how the connections women forge can carry us through the most harrowing of times, and sometimes even drive us to act with heroism we hadn’t realized we were capable of.