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French WWII babies shed shame, find roots

Many French children of the war are only now learning about their fathers, as their mothers die and letters and mementos of their wartime loves come to light.
France Children Of War
Jean-Jacques Delorme holds a photo of himself with his German half-sister and half-brother in Caen, France. Delorme was born in October 1944, the son of a French woman and an officer in the German army occupying France. David Vincent / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ugly words on the playground were his first hurtful clue.

At age 12, a furtive glance at a medical record deepened Jean-Jacques Delorme's doubts about who he was. Throughout adulthood, he unearthed relics of his long-hidden history.

He was the product, he discovered, of a shame-tainted liaison between his French kitchen servant mother and an officer in the German army occupying France — one of an estimated 200,000 such children, many of whom grew up stigmatized, their identities confused.

Now, in a striking example of the healing powers of the European Union, Delorme and others like him are being offered dual German and French citizenship in a belated effort by both countries to come to terms with the past.

For Germany it is a simple matter of atonement for invading France and subjecting it to four years of brutal occupation. But France also feels a need to atone — for the ferocious score-settling that followed its liberation, in which supposed collaborators were summarily executed and women accused of "horizontal collaboration" with the enemy had their heads shaven, were paraded through jeering crowds and were jailed.

Mother among the 'shaven'
In the Normandy town of Lisieux, liberated by Allied forces after the D-Day invasion of 1944, Delorme's mother became one of those "shaven women."

"We in France have yet to work through our memories of the war. I regret that France never had its own Nuremberg trials," Delorme said, referring to the prosecution of Nazi war criminals. In France, he said, "Everyone was a collaborator until April 1944; then they all became resistance fighters."

"The truth is more difficult," he said.

Delorme grew up sifting for truth amid layers of lies and silence.

No one told him of the humiliation of his mother, "whose only crime was to love someone." The man she married adopted him, yet shunned him. Schoolmates and even his own uncles called him a "bastard" or "son of a Boche," a slur word for Germans.

Delorme didn't understand the words — "I thought it just meant 'idiot'" — but he knew how it felt to be an outcast.

His suspicions about his real father were aroused when he was 12, but it took more than 10 years before he confronted the family at a Sunday dinner.

"I said, 'I'm an adult now, I deserve to know. Who is my father?'" he recalled.

'My papa had a face'
His mother stormed out. His grandmother summoned him to an old wardrobe, where she extracted an envelope from under a pile of sheets.

Inside were photographs: A grinning brunette woman in a tidy double-breasted coat, gazing up at a man with heavy brows, broad shoulders and a military orchestra uniform; the same man in civilian clothes, mustachioed, standing beneath a weeping willow.

"It was a great emotional shock. My papa had a face," Delorme said, stroking his father's carefully combed hair in a yellowed snapshot.

That discovery came in 1967. It would take four decades of searching before he found his father's family, in Mainz in southwest Germany.

Many French children of the war are only now learning about their fathers, as their mothers die and letters and mementos of their wartime loves come to light. Many don't research their history until relatives with lingering animosity toward Germans or ambivalence about their own collaboration are dead.

Today, France and Germany have the same currency, they have troops in Afghanistan, their border is barrier-free, and they share diplomatic chores.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, born six months before Germany invaded France, has a German diplomat working in his Paris office.

But Kouchner recognizes that many wounds have not healed.

"France and Germany have remained up to now deaf to the distress of the last innocent victims of a conflict that they never saw. ... These children-turned-adults are asking us 60 years later to recognize their value, their lives and above all their identity," he said in a speech last year that set the German citizenship offer in motion.

"This identity, made of war and of suffering, of love and hatred, is also the identity of Europe."

'We cried a lot'
In February German lawmakers approved a law offering citizenship to those who can prove their fathers served in German wartime forces. Eleven have since received citizenship, according to the German Embassy in Paris. Delorme submitted his application in August. It is not an attempt to relinquish his Frenchness — all applicants keep their French nationality.

It took months of efforts, aided by dedicated researchers and the WASt military archives in Berlin, for Delorme to track down the man in his mother's photographs.

He learned that his father, Hans Hoffmann, was a married man when he met Delorme's mother in 1941, and had a family back in Mainz. In 2006, Delorme found his half brother and half sister and visited them.

The picture of Hoffmann under the willow tree convinced them; they had a near-identical photo.

"I speak no German. They speak no French. We stayed up until 3 in the morning," reconstructing their father's wartime double life, Delorme said. "We cried a lot." They took him to the grave of his father, who was killed in a clash with American troops days before the Germans surrendered in May 1945.

Delorme has formed an association for others like him, and they gather annually in Caen, the Normandy city where he lives and which was heavily damaged in the war.

"All that goes unsaid in families, the well-guarded secrets ... leave a feeling of guilt," said Denise, a participant in the latest meeting, describing her mother's affair with her German father in a textile factory near the English Channel port of Le Havre.

'At ease'
Her mother told the story in fragments over the years — "a sentence here, a sentence there" — but ordered her not to let her adoptive father know. Denise is not seeking German citizenship, and did not want to be identified by her last name because her family members still don't know her real father was a German.

The German citizenship offer for now only extends to France, home to the largest number of German-fathered war children. But across Europe, up to 800,000 people are believed to have been born of German occupiers, and others are hoping the French program could lead to a Europe-wide gesture to recognize the children of war.

Those people who win German citizenship are entitled to German pensions and other benefits, but German officials say no one has asked for any so far, and besides, French benefits are comparable to those in Germany. Applicants themselves say they are not in it for money, only for recognition of their German identity.

Delorme's mother died in the 1990s. He has no children of his own and spends part of every Christmas holiday season, including this one, with his newly found siblings in Mainz.

He wears a pin of interlinked German and French flags and is optimistic about getting German citizenship.

But he has already found what he was looking for throughout his life.

Though he never knew the man under the willow tree, Delorme said, "I feel French and German."

"I am at ease."