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Germany

War's Forgotten Children Break the Silence

The traces of World War II have faded but not disappeared for Germans. Many who were babies or children during the war are still suffering from the trauma they experienced 60 years ago.

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Children went back to school after the war but not to a normal life

In his speech commemorating the liberation of Buchenwald concentration camp, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder said remembering Germany's past -- national socialism, war and genocide -- was part of Germany's identity and, at the same time, "a permanent moral responsibility."

Yet there is a significant part of this past that has been neglected. "It is surprising that the generation of children, who were born during the war and spent a large part of their childhood in the war, have until recently been remarkably silent about their biographies and appeared unaffected," said Dr. Michael Ermann, head of the War Childhood Project at Munich's Ludwig-Maximilians-University.

"Their speechlessness found a counterpart in the little interest that the public showed for their fate," Ermann told German radio Südwestrundfunk.

It is only in recent years that historians, psychoanalysts and German society are taking a closer look at these "Kriegskinder" or children of war. An international convention on the generation of war children is meeting in Frankfurt this week to discuss the damage that the war and its effects had on people's souls.

A robbed childhood

Dr. Hartmut Radebold, a former professor of clinical psychology at the University of Kassel and the founder of Germany's geriatric psychotherapy, said these children were subject to suffering in three major areas.

"They faced violence, they had to deal with separation and loss of loved ones, and they had to come to terms with losing their homes, safety and security," said Radebold.

Vertriebene aus Polen bei ihrer Ankunft in Deutschland.

Many children had to flee their homes

The psychiatrist Helga Spranger, one of the founding members of the war child association Kriegskind.de and herself a war child, described the lives of children during the war in The International Journal of Evacuee and War Child Studies.

"Children were separated from their parents, orphaned, evacuated by force, displaced, kidnapped, shot at, bombed, wounded, mutilated, raped, expropriated, blackmailed, adopted by force, drafted at an early age and forced into labor," Spranger wrote. "In short, they suffered from stress for months or years and were basically robbed of their childhood."

The horrors these children experienced continued to brew under the surface. "It costs endless energy to keep it inside for decades," said Ermann.

Haunted by memories

In recent years, an increasing number of war children have suffered from agonizing health problems, as their trauma finally rises to the surface. According to Radebold, many are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"They are haunted by their memories and the terrors they experienced and are overwhelmed by them," he said. Symptoms include jumpiness, restlessness, sleep disorders or withdrawal.

Messerschmitt Flugzeug während des 2. Weltkrieg

The sound of a plane can often trigger the trauma

There are also many images that are burned into their minds, which trigger their trauma, said Spranger. "Aside from the basic feelings of fear of death or abandonment, disgust and wishes of escaping, lasting horrifying impressions are hidden in the memories for a lifetime," said Spranger, such as the smell of burned houses, animals and humans after firebombs, hearing sirens or the shooting of weapons.

But despite their anguish, many war children have still been hesitant to talk. Sabine Bode, author of the book "Die vergessene Generation" or "The Lost Generation," looked at the stories of these war children to trace how their experiences shaped their lives. She said her search for stories was tough.

"Most of the people I spoke to fended off my questions with remarks like 'others were much worse off than I was' or 'it didn't hurt us'," said Bode. "I rarely heard anyone complain about their fate. I have the impression that despite the frequently observed trait that Germans like to see themselves as victims, former war children of all people were in no way whiny about their past."

History is a clogged toilet

There are several reasons why these stories are only coming to the surface now. Many experiences were "re-awakened" through the images of other more recent wars, such as in Kosovo or Iraq.

That fact that these war children have reached retirement age also plays a role. "In old age, you can't repress things as easily anymore," said Bode. A profession also acts as a stabilizing factor for someone's identity, said Radebold.

"So when these war children retire, they have more time on their hands to think and with this time, come the memories," he said. In certain cases, trauma can be reactivated.

"This means that old memories are reawakened through a siren or an airplane that sounds similar to the ones during the war," said Radebold.

Buchcover: Grass - Krebsgang

"Crabwalk" by Günter Grass was published in 2002

But Bode said that war children also needed a form of "permission" to open their souls. And this was given to them by Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass. "He said, we also have to attend to Germans' problems after the war," said Bode.

"History or, to be more precise, the history we Germans have repeatedly mucked up, is a clogged toilet. We flush and flush, but the shit keeps rising," Grass wrote in his book "Crabwalk," published in 2002.

Click here to read more about the war children.

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