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Germany

After life of rejection, GI children search for their roots

After World War II, Allied soldiers in Germany fathered at least 200,000 children, often seen as enemy offspring. Late in life, many are seeking closure by tracing their families. David Crossland reports from Berlin.

Ute Baur-Timmerbrink, 68, never met her real father. He was an officer in the U.S. Army who had a love affair with her married mother for a few months after the end of the Second World War.

Her mother never told her she was illegitimate, and neither did her stepfather, a German soldier who returned from a prisoner of war camp in 1948 to find a child of almost two in the house. She finally found out when she was 52. But she had suspected something was wrong from an early age.

"My stepfather didn't like me coming too close to him, which I couldn't understand as a child," Baur-Timmerbrink told DW. "And my parents used to argue a lot. He accepted me more or less over time and he became a devoted father, but I sensed that I was somehow in the wrong place, that things were different, from other families."

They moved from the province of Upper Austria to North Rhine-Westphalia in western Germany.

"My mother must have still clung to her great love. She would often rave about the wonderful time she had in Austria when she worked for the Americans. During their arguments I would often hear my stepfather say 'What did you do in Austria?' I never understood what he was talking about."

Baur-Timmerbrink is one of hundreds of thousands of children fathered by soldiers of the Allied armies that occupied Germany after the war. The lowest estimates put the figure at 200,000, plus tens of thousands in Austria.

'Children of the enemy'

In a way, she was lucky. She grew up in a stable home and her birth certificate stated her stepfather as her biological father, so she didn't suffer the stigma that befell so many others: being illegitimate, being the child of the foe, even being seen as the result of rape or prostitution.

"It's a fact that the children of Allied soldiers were regarded as children of the enemy for decades after the war," she said.

They were labeled "Ami bastard," "monkey" or "Russenkind." It was especially hard for the children of African-American soldiers or of French colonial troops because their skin color betrayed them, and their lot was compounded by racism.

Ute Baur-Timmerbrink

Baur-Timmerbrink was relieved to finally locate her biological father

The children suffer to this day. A 2013 research project in which 146 grown children of Allied soldiers were interviewed found that they were plagued by traumatic memories and depression to a far greater extent than average for their age group.

"Some wounds can't be healed by time," said Heide Glaesmer, a psychologist at the University of Leipzig who co-led the project. Around half of the interviewees said they had traumatic experiences, compared with the average of around 20 percent for their age group. The proportion suffering from depression and other disorders was almost 14 percent, against just under five percent.

Being stigmatized compounded their often difficult childhood circumstances. Many grew up in relative poverty, in children's homes or with frequently changing guardians, or they were ostracized within their families.

The children of Russian soldiers were particularly hard hit because of resentment over mass rape and looting committed by members of the Soviet armed forces, and because Nazi propaganda that had labeled Russians as subhuman was still embedded in many minds, said Glaesmer.

After the war, Germany was divided into four zones of occupation: Americans in the south, British in the north, French in the south-west and Soviets in the east. Berlin was divided into four zones. Initial bans on fraternization between troops and civilians were circumvented and in some cases lifted.

The Americans became especially popular because they were well-stocked with urgently needed goods. They tended to be easygoing, had a culture that many locals came to admire, and were quick to recruit local women as secretarial staff, interpreters, cleaners and seamstresses.

Roots becomes more important

Seventy years after the end of the war, the children are pensioners. But despite the distance of time, many now feel a pressing need to find their true families.

"Many only start looking when their mothers have died or are very old because they don't want to broach taboos and cause family conflicts," said Glaesmer. "There are other reasons. Their own children have grown up, their careers are ending or over and they have the time and energy to find their true biography."

Baur-Timmerbrink did just that. Her parents died in 1974 and 1981 and took the secret to their graves. But her doubts kept gnawing at her. Then, in 1998, on her 52nd birthday, she talked about her past with a friend whose mother had known hers. That night, in a tear-choked voice, the friend revealed what she been sworn never to divulge: that her biological father was an American soldier.

It spurred her into action. She contacted the US embassy, which advised her to get in touch with the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. But she was thwarted because she didn't have the soldier's proper name.

"So I went to the town where I was born and looked for people who knew my mother. Some recognized her from photos. The breakthrough came after I looked in the town where my father had been stationed. Someone handed me photos of a man who looked like me and one of my sons."

She contacted GI trace, a British organization that helps people to locate GI fathers stationed in Britain in the run-up to the Normandy invasion. "They did an overlay with photos of my father and me and my son, and the resemblance was unmistakable."

Careful approach

After three years of research, she had found him. He was a first lieutenant in the military administration and a veteran of the Allied campaign to conquer Italy. He was a married man when he met her mother. His name was James. She is intent on shielding his identity and won't reveal his surname, only the first letter, G. She won't even reveal where she was born or the nearby town where he was stationed.

"He rented my mother a flat and they had an affair in the summer of 1945. He was transferred back to America in early 1946. He knew my mother was pregnant, but he never saw me.

Two German women speak to a GI

American soldiers were especially popular

"I never met him but I wrote to him twice. The first time he sent me a friendly letter back. He was 86 then. The second and last time he was 87. He didn't tell me 'yes, you're my daughter,' but I didn't ask him directly. I went about it sensitively and just asked if he knew my mother. He was evasive, he said he had known two other women well but not my mother.

"In his last letter he wrote that I shouldn't interfere in family affairs. He died shortly afterwards. I think he just didn't want to be confronted with this at his age, and he was very ill. He had no other children so there were no siblings to contact."

'Standing on two legs'

Ever since then, Baur-Timmerbrink has devoted her life to helping other "Besatzungskinder," or "children of the occupation," to find their fathers. It's honorary work - GI trace asked her to help deal with requests from Germany - and she has used her contacts to unite some 200 families so far.

"The fathers are usually dead, but I often manage to find siblings who are prepared to contact the child in Germany or Austria. Often they already know about them because the fathers talked, or they found photos or letters after their death that make clear there must have been a child."

"I get several requests for help per week. People are looking more now, it's partly because the Internet makes it easier. But it's mainly because at a certain age, all the old questions that have nagged one all one's life come back up."

US authorities are the most helpful. The US government pledged in 1990 to assist the children of GIs to find their fathers. Britain, France and Russia provide little or no official help, said Baur-Timmerbrink.

She has written a book about her experiences and those of other children. "Wir Besatzungskinder - Töchter und Söhne alliierter Soldaten erzählen" ("We children of the occupation - Daughters and sons of Allied soldiers tell their stories") was published in March and is attracting a lot of media attention.

"A man I helped find his family years ago said to me: 'At last I can stand on two legs. I spent my whole life standing on one leg.' I think that's a fitting image. You lack something. You keep thinking where is the other side of me. Finding the truth makes people very happy. More importantly, it gives them peace of mind because all these unanswered questions are over at last."

Her book is likely to increase her workload. "I hope it will encourage mothers to break their silence," she said. "We're not condemning them, on the contrary, we sympathize with them. This isn't about guilt, it's about restoring one's identity."

Even though it's tiring work, she has no intention of stopping. "I can't. There's no one else with the contacts and the experience."