Helmut Olsen has thirteen siblings. But he’s never met half of them.
Helmut, the oldest of the bunch, was born in the spring of 1945 in a town just outside of Pasvik, Norway. His parents met around the wartime hospital where his 20-year-old mother worked as a cleaner.
His father was a driver in the SS army, which had been occupying Norway for over four years. “He had a lot of free time, which is what you need for making babies,” Helmut says with a wry smile.
Helmut is one of the estimated 10 000 to 12 000 children in Norway who have German – though more specifically, Nazi – fathers. The Nazi regime deemed Norwegians racially pure enough for soldiers to father children with. There are supposedly 200 ‘war children’ in Sør-Varanger alone, though Helmut believes the actual number to be far higher.
“I counted for myself how many people I know that have German fathers and I came to some 25 to 26 people,” says Helmut. But with history moving further away from WWII and with many still unwilling to speak about their pasts, the people who can tell the stories of Norway’s ‘children of shame’ are dying out.
“Nazi” is a forever-tainted moniker and it doesn’t come as a surprise that hundreds, maybe thousands, of Norwegians have hidden their true heritage – some for over 70 years.
“Today when you hear ‘SS’ you think about the concentration camps and the horrific stories from the eastern front and everything,” says Rune Rautio, senior advisor for Akvaplan Niva and WWII historian. But he says the word didn’t have that connotation in Norway during the war. “At that time nobody had any kind of idea about that and the ‘SS’ troops.”
Helmut, for one, understands why the children or their mothers or their families buried the truth. Some, he said, made a pact not to ever talk about the oldest child having a German father.
“The idea of the Germans was that [Norwegians] should be included in the Third Reich because we were the same Nordic race,” says Rautio.
German soldiers stationed in Norway were encouraged to fraternize with the local women who were often more curious than wary of the occupiers.
“You’re sitting here in the middle of nowhere and suddenly you have nice looking guys – 18, 19, 20 years old – coming all the way from Germany,” says Rautio. “It was a confusing period.”
In addition to the influx of soldiers it was also made clear by the Nazis that any woman who carried a German-fathered child would be compensated well. Better food, shelter in special maternity homes and generous financial support was offered to the mothers of the “Lebensborn” children.
At the height of the war these children were given preferential treatment and regarded as the symbols of the new Aryan race. When the war ended, so too did their revered status.
Many German-fathered children were taunted relentlessly and became one of the most discriminated-against groups in Norway. A half-German child brought “shame on the family name,” says Helmut. Many of the women who had coupled with a German soldier were ostracized from their communities, had their hair publicly shorn to humiliate them and mark them as traitors or were followed by whispers of “tyskerhore” - German whore.
The ‘Mother’s Monument’ is a statue that pays tribute to the contributions and suffering of mothers during the war. It was erected in 1994 during the 50th anniversary of the liberation. (Photo: James Thomson)
Helmut and his mother were lucky to escape much of the community’s wrath.
“Svanvik was a small place [and] there were not so many people living there. The nearest neighbors knew what was going on, but people did not talk about it,” says Helmut of his mother’s affair and subsequent pregnancy. “There were some who did not like it, but the neighbors took care of each other. But of course it varied. Down here, in Kirkenes, people [were] more alert, paying more attention to what other people were doing.”
As far as Helmut knows his mother, Haldis, escaped much of the anti-Nazi fury that swept through Norway after liberation, insulted in the small community where she raised her son.
As life would turn out Haldis married a Norwegian man and had six more children. And upon his return to Germany Helmut Sr married as well and also had a brood of six.
Helmut Sr also knew of the son he had fathered in Norway. “When my mother lived, she would help me write letters,” says Helmut. “She knew German well.” But Helmut would never get to meet his father.
When he was 13 his aunt got a message that his father had died in an accident and suddenly Helmut’s primary German link was gone.
“I have never met anyone from my family in Germany,” Helmut says. “It never came to that. It is a shame to say that today, but…I talk to my brother on the phone sometimes and we send each other Christmas cards.”
Some of Norway’s wartime mothers tried to start fresh in Germany away from the local disapproval. Many returned in disgrace a few years later to a less-than-welcoming community with a German-speaking child in tow. These women and children had it the worst.
“Especially the kids who came back from Germany had a hard time,” recalls Helmut. “Some of them had kept their father’s family name, which made it even more difficult for them. Bullying started in school; in many cases the teachers were the ones bullying.”
Human rights tribunals and various lawsuits have shed some light on the plight of the German-Norwegian children. Some have told stories alleging mental and physical abuse: years in orphanages or locked in mental institutions and of being used as live subjects for medical tests – all sanctioned, they claim, by the Norwegian government.
Many of the children developed substance abuse problems, according to their lawyers, and some committed suicide.
Some settlements have been made over the years and a formal apology was secured in 2000. But for the most part the truth of the German-Norwegian children continues to be hidden and many still prefer to look away than acknowledge what was done.
“We still need to be reminded about what happened then,” says Helmut.
“If you try to push history aside, you risk that it will come right back at you and hit you in the head. We forget too much of history. Experiences come from history, and we have to try to learn something.”
Special thanks to Trude Pettersen for translations.