POZNAN, Poland - On a sunny April morning in 1944, 6-year-old Alodia Witaszek was combed and scrubbed, sitting in the children's home that had primed her for membership in Hitler's master race.
Over the past year she had been snatched from her family, gone hungry in a concentration camp and been beaten for speaking her native Polish. Now she had a German name, "Alice Wittke," and a new - German - mother.
"Guten tag, Mutti!" she called in flawless German to the young woman approaching her. Good morning, Mommy.
Only years later would she discover the full truth: that she was among some 250 children seized from their families as part of a Nazi attempt to improve the Aryan gene pool in pursuit of a mad dream of racial purity.
Her adoptive mother, Luise Dahl, would later say she too had no idea. In a letter written after World War II she said that she knew nothing about snatching children for racial purposes; all she had wanted was to adopt a war orphan. An illness had left her barren, and her husband, a German army officer, was stationed hundreds of miles away, in Paris. She was desperately lonely.
More than 60 years later, the story emerges in part from a rare collection of documents held by the International Tracing Service, or ITS, a unit of the International Committee of the Red Cross, in the small German resort town of Bad Arolsen.
In files to which The Associated Press has been given access in the past seven months are orders from Heinrich Himmler, Adolf Hitler's SS chief, to find children with "eindeutschungsfaehigskeit" - the potential to be Germanized. Other documents tell part of the children's stories. One of those children was Alodia Witaszek, aka Alice Wittke.
Luise Dahl had written to more than a dozen orphanages listed in the phone book before a response came asking for personal data about herself and her husband, Wilhelm - health, income, relationship to the Nazi party.
The letter came from an association in Munich with an innocuous-sounding name, Lebensborn, roughly meaning Fountain of Life. But this was no ordinary adoption agency.
Founded by Himmler in 1938, it started out running birthing homes where racially acceptable, mostly unwed mothers could bear their children for adoption by Nazi families. An estimated 20,000 were born in German Lebensborn homes - roughly half of them anonymously - and another 12,000 or so were born to mostly non-German mothers and Nazi fathers in Norway.
After World War II broke out, Lebensborn took on an even more sinister role - it became an adoption agency for hundreds of "racially desirable" toddlers and young children seized from their families in Poland and other occupied territories and forcibly Germanized.
"I believe it is correct if we gather up particularly racially acceptable small children from Polish families and place them in special, not too large children's care centers and homes," reads an order in ITS files which Himmler sent to SS leaders in 1941.
Another Himmler command, written two years later to SS leaders in the Warthegau region of occupied Poland, decrees: "All Polish orphans need to be checked for their potential for Germanization" (Eindeutschung).
With their neatly bobbed blond hair and wide blue eyes, Alodia and her sister, Daria, qualified. "They told me that I have nice features - like German features," Alodia Witaszek recalls today, at 69, sitting in her living room in the Polish city of Poznan, where she was born.
"I was a ‘gift for the Fuehrer' - that's what they called us."
Back on that wartime spring morning, as she walked through a park holding little Alodia's hand, Luise Dahl felt a dream come true. "I didn't know the Lebensborn, had never even heard of it," she would write in 1948 to Allied war crimes prosecutors who contacted her.
"But I must admit, they alone understood me."
Alodia wasn't the only child of Halina and Franciszek Witaszek. There were five. Their father was a prominent member of the Polish underground, and when he was arrested in 1942, Halina scattered the children among relatives shortly before she too was arrested and sent to Auschwitz.
Alodia and Daria, two years her junior, stayed together.
After the Nazis grabbed them, both girls were taken to a children's concentration camp in Lodz, then to a German-run convent in Kalisz, where the "Germanization" began - a combination of intense German-language lessons and brutal punishments.
"They beat German into our minds until we didn't know what was what anymore. If we spoke Polish, they would beat us or lock us in dark rooms for hours," Alodia Witaszek said.
She lives in a fifth-floor apartment but uses the stairs. "Even today I can't take an elevator," she explains. "The space is too small."
After the girls were taken away, Alodia was told that her parents were now "stars in the sky." Only after the war did she learn that the Nazis had sent her mother to Auschwitz and hanged and beheaded her father for masterminding the killing of Nazi officers by poisoning their coffee.
"I took charge of the child understanding it was an orphaned ethnic German to be adopted, under the German name ‘Alice Wittke'," Dahl wrote in 1948, answering a query from a lawyer involved in researching Lebensborn for the Nuremberg trials.
She had sought to adopt Daria as well, but Lebensborn insisted she was promised to another family. The real motive was a policy of separating siblings as part of demolishing and reshaping their identities.
Daria, renamed Doris Wittke, was sent to a foster family outside of Salzburg, Austria.
Alodia's new home was in Stendal, north of Berlin and about 185 miles east of Poznan. At first she longed for her brothers and sisters, and would gaze at the sky, searching for those two stars. Dahl spent most of the first summer with the girl. Her new grandfather built her a dollhouse with nutshells for beds and chairs.
She started school in 1945. She learned to swim and ride a bike, and took ballet lessons. In the spring of 1946 her adoptive father was released from a U.S. POW camp, and the family was complete.
"I was happy. I must have been very happy," Witaszek says, looking at photos.
But back in Poland, Halina Witaszek had survived Auschwitz and was struggling to piece her family back together.
Her two eldest daughters and baby son came back, but Alodia and Daria were missing. Neighbors told her the SS had kidnapped them.
Halina wrote to the Polish Red Cross in February 1946, enclosing a copy of the girls' picture together.
In May 1946, the Dahls petitioned to adopt Alice Wittke, and a year later she legally became Alice Dahl, a German citizen.
And then, in October 1947, a letter arrived from the Polish Red Cross asking for the child to be returned.
The letter, Dahl wrote, "struck us like lightning." But she knew what she had to do.
"It goes without saying that the birth mother has the first right and we will, with a heavy heart, part with this child who has become beloved and dear to us, as long as it is in the best interest of the child," she wrote back some six weeks later.
On a dark November morning in 1947, the Dahls picked their way through the rubble of Berlin to put the girl on a Red Cross train to Poland.
Two months later, Daria came back too. The Red Cross had found her in Austria.
Unlike her elder sister, the family that took Daria into its care viewed her more as an extra pair of hands around the house than as a daughter. Her foster mother was not particularly close to the girl, and on the day Daria left, the woman refused to say goodbye.
Before she died a few years ago, she took her own husband and two children to Austria to see where she had lived. In the garden was her foster mother, now stooped with age. She would not even acknowledge Daria.
The return to Poland was harsh at first. Food was scarce. The girls, now 8 and nearly 10, would whisper to each other in German. Their classmates called them "German pigs."
"Even after we returned, the war wasn't over for us," Witaszek said. "It went on for many years."
Before they parted in Berlin, Alodia had made her adoptive parents promise they would meet again, and one night the sisters got so miserable that they sneaked out to the train station, determined to get back to Germany. Their mother talked them out of it.
Shortly afterward, the first letter arrived. "Mutti" and "Vati" - mom and dad - wanted to hear how their Alice was doing. She wrote back that she missed them and Germany, the food, her toys. The response was a package of goodies, the first of many.
In 1957, aged 18, Alodia Witaszek returned to Germany to visit the Dahls. It became an annual tradition. Later she would bring her two children. She says they accepted without questioning that she has two mothers - a Polish "Mama" and a German "Mutti."
Luise Dahl died in 1971, Wilhelm in 1983. But the daughter they briefly adopted still travels to Germany regularly, to attend Holocaust memorial ceremonies and visit friends.
In Poland she is Alodia Witaszek, but in Germany she still feels she is Alice Dahl. She is glad of it.
"If I didn't have it today," she says, "I don't think I would be happy."comments powered by Disqus