A group of Germans who as children were selected by the Nazis for their Aryan qualities as part of Adolf Hitler's quest to build a master race were gathering publicly Saturday for the first time to discuss the secretive program.
The so-called "Lebensborn children" were part of a lesser-known side of Nazi racial experiments. While millions of Jews and others deemed "undesirable" were being slaughtered, thousands of children were carefully selected for Aryan physical qualities and given to families of SS members to be raised.
"I was ripped away from my mother," remembered Folker Heinicker, 66, during an emotional tour of the grounds of the "Harz" Lebensborn home that the Nazis operated in the eastern town of Wernigerode.
He is one of about 60 people who make up the group Lebensspuren, or Traces of Life, founded last year. Some two-thirds of the group's members are Lebensborn children, and it is the first time their meeting will be open to the public.
Many are trying to make peace with pasts they long kept cloaked because of shame. They are also asking questions, tracing their roots and demanding that the truth be told about SS chief Heinrich Himmler's Lebensborn, or "Source of Life," program.
Heinicker, was taken from his parents in Ukraine in 1942 at age two and transported back to Germany where he was placed with a wealthy couple.
His experience with his adoptive family was not bad — they had the money to pay for extra help for him to help cope with a learning disability — and he still refers to them today as "my parents."
But he has never been able to locate his biological parents, and his broken past has haunted him through his life, he said.
"There was always a feeling inside that something was not quite right," he said.
In addition to being the temporary residence for people like Heinicker, the Harz Lebensborn home — a green-shuttered brick and wooden building that looks the same today as it did more than six decades ago — served as a place for Aryan women to give birth to their children.
Some were the wives of SS men, but around 60 percent were unwed mothers selected for the Lebensborn program who were required to leave six weeks after they gave birth. Their offspring stayed for up to a year, pending adoption.