Nowhere’s Child, by Kari Rosvall and Naomi Linehan review: affecting memoir

A victim of the Nazi ‘master race’ baby breeding programme tells a beautiful story

Kari as a 12-year-old in Sweden

Kari as a 12-year-old in Sweden

Sat, May 16, 2015, 01:40

   
 

Book Title:
Nowhere’s Child

ISBN-13:
9781473609471

Author:
Kari Rosvall and Naomi Linehan

Publisher:
Hachette

Guideline Price:
€17.99

In September 1944 Kari, a two-week-old girl, was baptised in Germany. But instead of a cross over the baby there was a swastika. Instead of a priest holding a pitcher of water over her head there was a Nazi SS soldier holding a dagger. Instead of reading from a prayer book the soldier read from Mein Kamf. And instead of promising to be a good Christian Kari, through that SS interlocutor, swore lifelong allegiance to Adolf Hitler and to Nazi ideology.

Kari, born in Norway, “baptised” in Germany, raised in Sweden and now living in Ireland, was a lebensborn baby, part of Nazi Germany’s plan to create a master race. During the Nazi occupation of Norway about 12,000 Norwegian babies were taken from their mothers shortly after birth.

The brainchild of Heinrich Himmler, the programme encouraged SS soldiers and officers to “mate” with Aryan or Nordic women. The babies were then taken away and raised in special orphanages that had the best of facilities, as befitting children of the “master race”.

Pseudoscience

If one went to any state fair in the 1920s in the United States one would have encountered a stand staffed by earnest, respectable women and men extolling the virtues of eugenics, of “improving the species”. Next to the eugenics stand would have been the Better (or Scientific) Baby Contest stand, with doctors measuring the cranium and examining what few teeth the young contestants had.

Eugenics, it seemed, was sweeping the United States and the rest of the world. The US Supreme Court, in the case of Bell v Buck in 1927, had upheld a Virginia statute providing for the mandatory sterilisation of mental defectives by a majority of eight to one. The great jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the opinion of the court, undoubtedly his worst opinion ever:

“We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, to prevent our being swamped with incompetence.

“It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the fallopian tubes . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

As strange as it may seem today, Holmes’s opinion was of a piece with the advanced thinkers of the day. Dozens of states in the US and many European countries adopted similar statutes. Eugenics reached its apogee in Nazi Germany and with babies like Kari.

Back to her story. Norway wanted nothing to do with these babies after the liberation of Norway in 1945. Or with their mothers, for that matter. Kari’s mother was beaten (and bore the scars on her breast) and humiliated for having consorted with the invader. She had gone away to hide her pregnancy, but that, of course, only fuelled the rumours about a liaison with a German soldier.

The Norwegian government officially labelled these babies “rats”. Their mothers were called whores, even when they had been raped. The Red Cross decided that babies such as Kari would be sent a neutral country, Sweden being the obvious choice for Kari.

Stateless, she was adopted at the age of three by a childless Swedish couple. She naturally assumed that she was Swedish but had no idea who her parents were. She was humiliated at school – called a bastard by her teacher – and was the only one who had a residence permit. Outside of school she was aware of adults whispering when they saw her.

It came as a shock to her to learn, when she was 21, that she had been born in Norway, not Sweden. At that point Kari embarked on a voyage of discovery that would take her back to Norway to meet her mother – with mixed results, as her visit opened up her mother’s old wounds. More than 40 years later it would take her back to the orphanage in Germany, now a museum to those babies.

Dublin encounter

It was in Dublin, at the age of 64, that she would see her baby picture for the first time. She would learn her father’s name, Kurt Zeidler, and that he had been a Nazi, but at least not a high-ranking Nazi, as she had feared. Her mother had told her only that her father was “not a nice man”. Kari wonders if her mother was raped.

To her great delight she would finally meet her older brother, Per, living in Norway.

Painful as it has been, Kari has finally come to terms with the secrets of her past and those of her mother. The Norwegian government has given her, and men and women like her, compensation for the wrong done to them.

This is the story of Kari – just one of the many millions who were stolen, starved, orphaned, murdered, gassed and incinerated in Europe’s darkest hour – darker even than in those terrible days of the wars of religion. Because in this case science, or pseudoscience, was used to exterminate a race of people and enslave millions .

This is a beautifully written story. Of healing and love – and pain. Reading this book is like sitting in front of Kari, listening to her opening her heart to you.

Apart from purging her personal demons, Kari has had to battle cancer, but she is happy now. She was delighted to meet Mary McAleese and touched to hear the former president ask her if people in Ireland had been kind to her.

Having at long last discovered her past, she has been able to start over with her husband, Sven, whose work commitments brought them to Ireland in 1997. Those dark secrets of Norway, Sweden and Germany are now revealed.

Not feeling fully Swedish or Norwegian, Kari has become a proud Irish citizen. From being nowhere’s child, she is now Ireland’s child. Frank MacGabhann is a lawyer and commentator