By Mary Wiltenburg and Marc Widmann
The Internet ad sounds hopeless. Seeking: A dark-haired American GI who was stationed in Schweinfurt, Germany, in February 1952. First name, Charles. Last name, unknown. The ad goes on to say that if anyone knows Charles, or if they have any other relevant information, they should contact his son.
Today, Herbert Hack is 54 years old. By day, he drives a taxi through the streets of Berlin. By night, he is consumed with painstaking paperwork: The hunt for Charles.
In his modest home, photos cover the kitchen table, showing American GIs in Frankfurt in the early 1950s. A few bored faces, circled in blue, remind Hack of himself as a young man. But all have the wrong names, so the search continues.
Hack's story is a common one here. According to the Federal Statistics Office, at least 66,700 children were born to Allied soldiers and West German women in the decade after World War II. In the former East Germany, at least that number are thought to have been fathered by Soviet troops. The true figures are probably much greater. Faced with the double stigma of illegitimacy and "fraternizing with the enemy," many mothers hid their children's paternity.
And few fathers stayed around to meet the kids they sired in former enemy territory. Shipped on to Korea, or home to Texas or Arkansas, they left behind young, often destitute women, who were cursed as "sluts" and "Ami-lovers" ("Ami" is German slang for American) -- and babies, who were branded as "bastards."
Now, as they near retirement age, these sons and daughters are scrambling to find their American, French, British, Belgian, and Soviet fathers. "A lot of people are now searching," says Heinrich Rehberg, head of research for the German Red Cross. "We get requests almost daily."
These occupation babies face plenty of obstacles: decades-old shame and secrets, dead-end paper trails, and their own despair. Still, many persevere. Rehberg isn't surprised that hundreds are now grappling with their painful pasts. "Many started to search in their youth, but hit a wall," so they focused on the future, on jobs and families, he says. "Now, with everything else in order, they're beginning in earnest." And time is running out if they hope to find their parents alive.
Pursuing a gut need
At first, Erich Hones's mother lied to him. His father was a soldier, she said, killed in the war. But the dates didn't add up, and as he grew older, he came to doubt her story. Then, when he was 21, she gave him a scrap of paper she had stored away in 1946. On it was an address in Florida. Hones sent a letter, but got no reply.
Not until 2000, when his own children were grown and Hones was seriously ill, did he take up the search again. As he lay in bed, "physically just about gone," the question plagued him: What if his father were still alive? "It was a gut need," he says, "I had to look for him."
The health inspector bought a modem, and scoured the Internet. He went to the city archive in Fritzlar and studied the battle plans of Americans troops from the spring of 1945 -- orders his father must have followed. But he was soon limited by his English. An online search service seemed like the best option.
On the Web, the father-finding business is booming. Agencies with names like "Searching For You" and "Wiedersehen macht Freude" ("Reunion Brings Joy") are springing up left and right, all reporting increasing demand.
The field includes some dubious entrepreneurs, many of whom require handsome sums before beginning a search. "They're making a killing," says Rehberg, explaining that some dishonest firms fuel false hopes to keep their clients paying.
This February, Herbert Hack sent all the information about his father to a search agency in Frankfurt am Main that boasted "experience and expertise." It offered Hack a bargain: 560 euros ($740) to find his dad.
Four months later, he got an e-mail. "We have discovered that you are the descendant of Charles G. Amos," it said. The soldier had been killed in the Korean war. Hack asked the agency for a photo. A short time later, he received a shot of a gravestone with a barely distinguishable face on it. This, a letter claimed, "could be your father's brother."
Hack paid the bill. Soon after, he learned from a US military archive that, at the time of his conception, his supposed father wasn't even stationed in Schweinfurt. "It was a total scam," he says.
Even without such disappointments, searches can be demoralizing to undertake alone. Children of unwed soldiers get little support from the German Foreign Office or the embassies of former occupation powers. And some overseas military archives are legally inaccessible to them because of their illegitimacy.
In a French archive in Colmar, several thousand paternity files of French occupation troops are shelved by the names of their offspring. It's a gold mine for people seeking their roots -- if they can wait. Under French law, the files are sealed until they turn 60.
The majority of American military records are stored at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. There, thanks to a 1990 court ruling, an archivist dedicates half of every week to "war babes" cases. Niels Zussblatt gets 800 requests a year, 70 percent of them from Europe.
Some he can answer only with a letter of apology. In 1973, a fire destroyed between 16 and 18 million files, many of them from the postwar period. "I'll still pull files and find them charred around the edges," says Dr. Zussblatt.
Searching for the Big Bang
The descendants of Red Army soldiers have perhaps the hardest time, as Cora Anselmi knows only too well. In her apartment in the south-western German town of Bad Rappenau, she has filled a file cabinet with her grandfather's paper trail. A friend translated communications with Russian Federation military archives, she says, "but all they said was, they don't know anything either."
The 32-year-old childcare worker wants to fulfill the wishes of her own father, who died of a heart attack two years ago. When she read his diaries, she was shocked to learn how badly he had longed to know his father. "It weighed on him his whole life," says Anselmi.
The most important ally in Anselmi's search lives 10 miles (16 kilometers) away. After decades of silence, her grandmother, Ruth Reich, is glad to reminisce openly about Andrei Yessayan, her one great love.
The pair met at a New Year's ball in Leipzig in 1945. All night, the Soviet officer stood in the doorway and watched the young German dance. "Naturally he walked me home," says Reich. "He took a look at our house and said he would come back tomorrow."
He did -- and kept coming back. Nearly every evening, he brought food for the hungry family. Soon, the sheltered German had fallen in love with the proud, impeccably dressed Armenian. "It was the Big Bang," Reich reminisces, "I can't describe it any other way."
When their son came into the world, the soldier held him in his arms and crooned: "My little boy." Reich didn't care what the neighbors said behind their backs. In the street, someone spat on her coat. She brushed it off and kept walking.
But when their son was a year old, Yessayan disappeared. His landlady told Reich he had been taken to a Soviet military hospital for lung treatments. Reich never heard from him again. Nor did she stop missing him. "I still wish that the door would open and he'd be standing there," the 80-year-old says.
No legal recourse
Mothers like Reich had little hope of locating their children's fathers. The Allied military leadership fiercely protected its soldiers from paternity claims and child support payments, whether their relationships had been love, rape, or a common trade -- sex for food. Many commanders sent home soldiers whose girlfriends turned up pregnant. Others sped up the transfers of men who applied for permission to marry their German sweethearts.
Women had no legal recourse. West German civil law required fathers to pay child support, but German courts had limited jurisdiction over occupation troops. In 1950, the Allied High Commission for Germany forbade any "proceedings to establish paternity or liability for maintenance of children" of foreign soldiers. The ban lasted five years, but even later courts had little success holding soldier fathers to account.
Some of their children are still fighting legal battles. Franz Anthöfer has taken his case the farthest -- to his father's grave, and inside it. In 1996, he won permission from a US judge to have the body of former soldier and West Virginia mayor Louis G. Craig exhumed and its DNA tested. The results matched those of the retired Bonn pilot with 99 percent certainty.
But this October, the 55-year-old Anthöfer lost a legal fight to become his father's son. He was too late, the judge ruled; under US law, paternity claims must be filed before a child turns 21. Anthöfer hopes to appeal the decision to the West Virginia Supreme Court.
Such recognition, he says, could help mitigate the pain of his childhood. In the orphanage where he spent time as a boy, other kids called him "Ami-bastard." Caregivers beat him with a whisk broom. "There were the good orphans, who had lost their parents in the war," he says, "and then there was me, who would always be bad."
Anthöfer wasn't the only soldier's son in the orphanages of the young Federal Republic. West German politicians worried vocally about a minority growing there "for whom our social climate is not suitable," as a CDU-member put it in a 1952 Bundestag debate: Mixed-race children, often of African-American GI fathers.
Called "Negermischlinge" ("Negro half-breeds") by neighbors and social welfare agencies, these children faced all the prejudices their white counterparts did, and more. They were nearly three times as likely to be given up for adoption, and rarely found German adoptive families. Their mothers were ostracized, and in some cases fired from their jobs and disowned by their families. Few of these women could hope to marry their children's fathers; until 1948, the American Army was legally segregated, and interracial marriage was forbidden.
Mabel Grammer, wife of a US officer stationed in Mannheim, decided to do something about the plight of these "brown babies." The childless couple took in 12 children themselves, and drew on social and professional contacts to pair some 500 others with African-American adoptive families in the States.
Daniel Cardwell is one of them. Born in Marburg in 1950, he was adopted at age three by a black Army couple who took in a total of five Afro-German toddlers. In the family's Washington, DC, home, the children were forbidden to speak German. "I had to say my food in English before I could eat it," Cardwell says. They were also discouraged from asking questions about their pasts. It wasn't until college that Cardwell began looking for answers.
After 30 years, countless false starts, six trips to Europe, and $200,000, the medical entrepreneur has learned this much: In 1950, a 20-year-old Polish-German named Hedwiga gave birth to a son, Daniel, and left him in a children's home. Three years later, he was transferred to the orphanage from which Grammer was coordinating adoptions. Hedwiga then emigrated to the United States -- looking for his father, Cardwell believes, or perhaps for her son. She found neither, but in 1962 she married. Twenty years later she was found shot in her bedroom; her death was ruled a suicide.
This March, Cardwell surprised her brother Edmund on his rural Wisconsin doorstep. Together the two men visited Hedwiga's grave. In May, Cardwell and his youngest son traveled to Europe to meet a welcoming host of family, including his mother's sister. The newfound relatives now e-mail each other regularly, and are planning future visits. Today, says Cardwell's wife, the father of three is a man much more at peace -- but now the question is: "OK, but where is Dad?"
Last fall, after five years of intensive research with the help of nonprofit GI Trace, Erich Hones got a letter in the mail from the St. Louis archive. It lay on the table for half a day before the Hessen gathered the courage to open it.
In the envelope was his father's last military paystub. A note at the top read: "DIED: 20 Nov 2001." Hones regrets the lost chance to know, and to forgive, his father. "I would've grabbed him and hugged him," he says.
But this fall, Hones got a call from a GI Trace volunteer in Berlin, who asked if he was sitting down. "I've found your half-brother," she said. "He'd like to have contact with you."
Hones sat for two hours, thoughts racing. Then he started drafting a letter.
For the past few months, he has been exchanging letters and pictures with a Florida man named Ricky. His daughter translates for him. The contact is fresh, Hones says, but "warm, and heartfelt." In photos of his father, he sees himself at 18.
He signs his letters with an English phrase that's new to him: "Your brother, Erich."
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