Some 200,000 children of French mothers and occupying German soldiers are still a taboo topic, despite years of reconciliation efforts between the two countries. With her new book, Josiane Kruger has broken the silence.
Taboos remain more than 60 years after France was liberated from Nazi occupation
While growing up in a village in eastern France, Josiane Kruger always felt a bit different from the other children. She didn’t have a father at home, only a mother and grandmother. In her autobiography, which was released Thursday in France, Kruger recalls when her schoolmates called her a "boche" -- the French swear word for a German.
Finally Kruger's grandmother told her the truth: her father had been a German soldier. Before her birth, he was transferred from France to the Russian front and had not been heard from since.
"My grandmother often told me what a lovely couple my parents were and how nice and good-looking my father was," said Kruger, 56 years after learning the truth about her father. "I couldn't understand why I should be ashamed of him."
Nevertheless, for the majority of Kruger's village and for much of France, her father was a member of the occupying forces.
Covering up a "mistake"
"Born of Forbidden Love" by Josiane Kruger was released this week in France
At that time, the Vichy regime instituted the right to anonymous birth as a way of implicitly encouraging French women to cover up their "misconduct" with German soldiers. Their babies could be given up for adoption immediately after they were born and never learned the names of their birth parents.
After the war ended, anger grew in France over the occupation. Collaborators became targets of revenge, including those French women who had had relationships with Germans. They were bullied, their hair was shorn, they were driven naked through villages and forced to turn their children over to orphanages.
Though Kruger and her mother were not made to endure this treatment, she suffered in other ways: "During my youth, I lacked everything, especially love and recognition."
She was 14 when she discovered her father's address and secretly wrote him a letter. After visiting for three days, he disappeared from her life again, this time for good.
Mijo Panier, whom Kruger met and befriended while doing research for her book, first met her German father at the age of 62.
Allied troops successfull invaded the Normandy coast on June 6, 1944
"This picture of me and my father is the most beautiful picture I have," she said, holding up the photograph. "Everyone says we look alike and I'm most proud of that."
A rare happy ending
Through Kruger only saw her father once, his wife and two sons have become like family to her. Most stories of other wartime children don't have such a happy ending. That the adult children have started searching for their lost fathers is only a recent development.
Four years ago, a television documentary brought the topic of "war children" into the public eye and triggered an avalanche of inquiries at the Wehrmacht archive in Berlin.
Kruger, Panier and more than 170 other wartime children have gotten together and organized a kind of support group for people with similar histories called l'Amicale nationale des enfants de la guerre.
Schröder (r) was invited to the celebration of the 60th anniversary of Normandy
"I often get telephone calls from people who tell me quietly that they belong to this group but don't want their families to find out," said Kruger. "They're afraid of being rejected."
On the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, Kruger wrote to Claude Chirac, French President Jacques Chirac's daughter and PR manager, asking her to take advantage of the occasion to rehabilitate the enfants maudits or "cursed children" of the war.
It was in that year, 2004, Gerhard Schröder became the first German chancellor to be invited to the anniversary celebration of the Allied landing in Normandy, a symbolic step in French-German reconciliation.
Taboo topic contradicts national legend
An answer never came from Chirac. Kruger suspects that the existence of the wartime children is seen as a threat to the national legend that all French citizens fought against the Germans during the war. "Our parents are accused of making a serious mistake," she said. "That's nonsense -- they loved each other and that's all. I think it's wonderful that there were still love stories even during the war."