Crowds turn out in Medina, Le Roy to meet author of book on Holocaust
By Julie Berry, owner of Author’s Note
MEDINA – “Why does a nice Jewish girl want to write a book about the Holocaust?”
So began San Diego author Jennifer Coburn’s presentations this week at both Author’s Note in Medina and the Woodward Public Library in Leroy to rapt – and packed – audiences, eager to hear her describe the research that went into her new book, Cradles of the Reich, a fictional exploration of Lebensborn, the Nazi breeding program conceived with the intention of producing a “racially pure” “master race” to populate Germany.
Fifty-two people attended Ms. Coburn’s lecture on March 20 at Author’s Note, the bookstore on Main Street in Medina, and another 40 people attended the same lecture the following night at the historic Woodward Memorial Library in LeRoy.
20,000 infants were bred through the Lebensborn program, with another 200,000 infants and children captured and kidnapped from combatant nations, if they possessed the desired Aryan characteristics (blond hair, blue eyes, pale skin tone, and a certain size and shape to facial features).
Over half of the children were kidnapped from Poland alone, ripped by soldiers from their mothers’ arms, and then the parents murdered. Children were brought to Germany and put through a process of “Germanization” that included teaching them German and essentially brainwashing them to forget their past lives. Some of the older children, particularly boys, who proved stubborn and defiant in the face of these efforts, were ultimately removed to concentration camps and killed.
Coburn explained how she stumbled upon a mention of the Lebensborn program and decided she had to find out if it was real. As she researched, she realized that, while there were nonfictional accounts of the program, no novel had yet been written, so she decided to write the book she would have liked to read, examining the program through the lens of the women involved, and their relationships.
Some women were coerced into the program, especially if already pregnant, but most participants were eager to be involved. Applicants were screened for racial features, and their family trees examined for race and for physical and mental health history. Only 40% of the applicants were admitted to the program. Political fervor may have motivated some participants, but the promise of abundant food, milk, recreation, and rest probably motivated more of them, especially during a time of rations, poverty, and hunger for most Germans.
The Lebensborn program ran from 1935 to 1945, and was the particular project of Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the Schutzstaffel (or SS, the “Protection Squadron” that began as Hitler’s bodyguards and swelled to become a paramilitary organization throughout Germany). Himmler hoped to breed 10 million “racially pure” children for Germany and place them by adoption with “suitable” German families.
Each infant in the program was presented with a silver mug inscribed with their name, and with a message from Himmler, their “godfather.” Less than 20% of the children of this program ever knew their origins. For many of them, discovering a silver mug in a trunk in the attic after a parent’s death and wondering, “Why is Himmler my godfather?” was their first step toward discovering their true stories.
Himmler, one of the most powerful men in Germany during the Reich, was also one of the chief architects of the Holocaust, with direct responsibility for the concentration camps. Death camps and breeding houses might seem very different, Ms. Coburn explained, but they’re two sides of the same eugenics coin to create an Aryan race.
Cradles of the Reich follows three women: Gutti, a university student and classic Aryan beauty who is recruited (and essentially forced) into the program as an unwed pregnant mother. Unbeknownst to the program officials, she is carrying the child of her Jewish boyfriend, and is secretly a member of a Resistance movement. Irma, a nurse, is a bystander to the Nazi atrocities, willing to look the other way. And Hilde is a “true Hitler girl,” delighted to be chosen to sleep with an SS officer and bear his child.
Regarding Hilde, Coburn explained, “I don’t want readers saying, ‘What’s wrong with this woman?’ but ‘What happened to her?’ I wanted to dissect how a civilized and cultured country descends into madness. What propaganda was Hilde fed? Can we recognize the signs today, and reach out to people similarly affected with compassion and understanding?”
It was hard, she explained, to “crawl into the skin of people who truly believe the world would be a better place without me or my family in it.” She described the propaganda that was fed even to children in the form of children’s books and board games. One book entitled Der Giftpilz, The Poisonous Mushroom, compared Jews to mushrooms, explaining that “they may look harmless, but will destroy you just the same.” The board game Juden Raus! or “Jews Out!” had families together expel six Jews from Germany. Such indoctrination, starting at an early age, was chillingly effective.
Comments and questions from the audience showed that the message of Cradles of the Reich resonated deeply with the attendees, who drew comparisons, both in Medina and in LeRoy, to rising antisemitism today, and to the actions of Vladimir Putin, orchestrating the kidnapping of Ukrainian children, labelling them orphans, and placing them with Russian families.