French children of Wehrmacht soldiers seek German nationality
More than 200,000 children fathered by German soldiers were raised by their French mothers after the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, according to Paris historian Fabrice Vergili. The author of the book "Naitre ennemi" (Born an Enemy) also estimates that 20,000 French women were hounded through streets and brutally given short haircuts by their French compatriots, who accused them of "horizontal collaboration" with the Nazis.
Many of these "war children" grew up not knowing their full identities and ashamed of their German roots, until recently. Since 2009 dozens have sought and obtained German nationality without having to relinquish their French citizenship, as is generally required of resident foreigners under German law.
Mijo Panier, fathered by a Wehrmacht soldier and born in 1943, recently applied for German citizenship. "I am proud to be German and French, proud of my dual nationality. I will use one and then the other," she said.
The liaison that started with a sneeze powder prank
Not until she turned 16 did Panier learn that her father had been German. Her French step-father, who accepted her as his own child, forbade her to talk about her origins. Her biological parents met in a Paris cafe during the four-year occupation.
"My mother went into a cafe where young French and Germans met one another, but as groups kept apart," Panier said. "My mother and her friend scattered sneeze powder under the chairs of the German soldiers." Her father was amused and moved over to sit with the girls at their table. That was the start of a forbidden liaison.
After a search that lasted for decades, she found her father, Willi Welsch, five years ago with the assistance of a Berlin-based organization. Welsch and his daughter Mijo exchanged letters before finally meeting near Frankfurt.
Tender encounter near Frankfurt
Welsch was seriously ill and had been in hospital. "To me he was unbelievably nice. He had blue eyes and despite his illness he drew me into the train. I sat down next to him and there we remained silent for a long time. Then we exchanged a few words in English, German and French." With tears in her eyes, Panier adds, "It was as though I had found my second half."
Welsch died a few months later, but since then Panier has fostered intense contacts with her recently-discovered family in Germany. There is a photo of her paternal sister in her French living room.
Months ago she sent a letter to the German embassy - in German. "I was a child of shame. In the end, however, I am a child of love," she wrote. Although Panier now speaks openly about her father's origins her mother still does not want to talk about it.
Shrugging off shame prompts search for family roots
The urge to free themselves from shame motivates many of France's "war children" to apply officially for their German nationality.
The surge began after a broadcast on French television in 2003. Many former war children then contacted the Paris historian Virgili and went on to set up groups such as the National Friendship Association for War Children to help each other to trace their roots. Their wartime experiences soon became a talking point in France.
Hewige Roberval sent her application to the German embassy shortly before her marriage. "Not long before my wedding I told my fiance about my father. I was really scared that he might no longer want to marry me. Fortunately, he only laughed about it."
Panier says that if her application for German citzenship is granted, she plans to officially adopt her deceased father's family name. It is already on her letter box.
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