WERNIGERODE, Germany, Nov. 4 — For Guntram Weber, the journey that led to this quaint town of horse-drawn carts and half-timbered houses was long, wrenching, and anything but redemptive.
Four years ago, Mr. Weber discovered that his father was not, as his mother had told him, a young soldier who died honorably on the battlefield during World War II. Instead, he was a high-ranking SS officer, who oversaw the deaths of tens of thousands of people while stationed in what is now western Poland.
“He died peacefully in Argentina, with his old comrades standing at his grave and raising their right arms,” Mr. Weber said, his voice thick with anger and grief. “A racist is forever a racist.”
As Mr. Weber, 63, told his story to a hushed room of mostly gray-haired men and women here, there were sympathetic nods, but little surprise. Most had their own tales of deceit and discovery, life histories that proved to be homespun fairy tales, the dark truth buried under layers of silence.
These are the children of the Lebensborn, an SS program devised to propagate Aryan traits. On this chilly weekend, they gathered here in a corner of central Germany to share their stories, and to speak publicly, for the first time, about the horror of finding out they had been bred to be the next generation of Nazi elite.
“This is the opposite example of the Holocaust,” said Gisela Heidenreich, 63, a family therapist from Bavaria, whose mother was unmarried and whose father, she later discovered, was a senior SS officer. “The idea was to further the Aryan race by whatever means were available.”
Lebensborn, or spring of life, refers to a series of clinics scattered throughout Germany and neighboring countries, to which pregnant women, most of them single, went to give birth in secret. They were cared for by doctors and nurses employed by the SS, the Nazi Party’s feared paramilitary unit.
One such clinic sits at the top of a gentle hill in Wernigerode, a remote town near the Harz Mountains. The building, long abandoned now, was part of a bittersweet homecoming tour for the 40 or so people who turned out for the meeting of an association known as Traces of Life.
To be accepted into the Lebensborn, pregnant women had to have the right racial characteristics — blonde hair and blue eyes — prove that they had no genetic disorders, and be able to prove the identity of the father, who had to meet similar criteria. They had to swear fealty to Nazism, and were indoctrinated with Hitler’s ideology while they were in residence.
Many of the fathers were SS officers with their own families. Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, encouraged his men to sire children outside of marriage as a way of building a German master race.
About 6,000 to 8,000 people were born in these clinics in Germany between 1936 and 1945. Because of the program’s secrecy, most were not told for decades the circumstances of their births or the identities of their fathers, which were not recorded on their birth certificates. Some still do not know the truth.
Only in the last 20 years, as the wall of silence began crumbling, have researchers been able to document the Lebensborn program. They have knocked down some prurient myths: that these clinics were Nazi bordellos, stocked with flaxen-haired breeders ready to mate with SS men.
“The children were conceived in all the usual ways: love affairs, one-night stands, and so forth,” said Dorothee Schmitz-Köster, who has written a book about Lebensborn. “Abortion was not legal in Germany then, and in many cases, the women did not want to keep the babies.”
Some of the mothers gave them up for adoption to SS families. Others raised the children alone, telling them that their fathers had been killed in the war. Having given birth to illegitimate babies in a fervently Nazi setting, the mothers faced a double stigma in postwar Germany.
Many lived out their lives in grim silence, their children say. Some developed psychological problems or turned to alcohol. For the children, the discovery of the truth was equally traumatic.
Mr. Weber, a creative writing teacher in Berlin, is still struggling to come to grips with his recently uncovered roots. Some hints from family members, followed by research, led him to the truth. Among his more unpleasant discoveries: his godfather was Himmler.
“Most grew up knowing they had a secret,” Ms. Schmitz-Köster said. “They were angry at their mothers, because they had been lied to or abandoned. Some feel shame. There are also a small number who are proud of being Lebensborn. They feel they are part of an elite.”
For Lebensborn children born outside Germany, life was even harsher. In Nazi-occupied Norway, for example, the SS established a clinic because Himmler valued the appearance of Scandinavians. Those babies, born of Norwegian mothers and German soldiers, were branded as children of the enemy after the war, and faced pitiless discrimination.
Other children who met Himmler’s pernicious racial standards were kidnapped as infants from their families in Nazi-occupied countries and sent to Germany, where proper Nazi families raised them.
If anything, the reunion served as proof that racial engineering has its limits. The Germans here looked no different from those at any other gathering of Germans in their golden years: the men with salt-and-pepper beards and balding pates, the women with eyeglasses and frosted hair.
“I’m really an exception,” said Ms. Heidenreich, a tall woman with long blond hair and bright blue eyes.
Ms. Heidenreich, the first of the Lebensborn children to write a book about her experience, argues that the program, sinister as it was, has echoes in today’s world. With advances in genetics, she notes, discriminating parents will soon be able to select traits in their unborn children.
Given that possibility, she said, the evils of the Nazi era must not be allowed to recede into the history books. “If we start engineering blond-haired, blue-eyed babies, can we blame just Hitler?” she said.
Ms. Heidenreich was born in a clinic in Oslo, although her parents were German. Her mother chose to give birth there to get as far away as possible from the village in Bavaria where she had grown up. Ms. Heidenreich was not told about her background but became suspicious after watching a television documentary about the Lebensborn children.
Today, she has trouble reconciling the kindly figure her mother became in later years with the committed Nazi she had been. “She was a lovely grandmother, even if she was a horrible mother,” she said.
Not everybody has had a fraught experience. Ruthild Gorgass, who was born here, said her mother told her about the circumstances of her birth when she was a teenager. Ms. Gorgass had some contact with her father, a manager for a chemical factory, who had another family.
Her mother left her a photo album with an account of her stay in Wernigerode. She had recalled it as an idyllic time, though she had expressed distaste for her daughter’s naming ceremony, in which the baby was placed before an altar bearing a swastika.
“I was really lucky because I had a talkative mother,” said Ms. Gorgass, 64, a retired physical therapist.
As she thumbed through the album, she put on a pair of reading glasses. Peering over them, she said with smile: “My eyes aren’t perfect. We’ve got all the same illnesses and disabilities as other people have.”