Student Researches French War Children
Nick Bader '14 investigated the lives and circumstances of the estimated 200,000 children born during and after WWII to French mothers and Axis soldier-fathers. Here he talks about his study abroad experience and research on "Les Enfants de la Guerre."
Q: What's your academic background in French?
A: I took French in high school and made a 10-day tourist trip to France with my teacher and classmates. It was my first taste and influenced my decision to study French at Davidson. Then my professors here urged me to go JYA (Junior Year Abroad) in Tours, and I did. I really fell in love with France while I was there.
Q: What made your year in Tours so special?
A: My host family was a big part of it. I still stay in touch with them – mom, dad and two kids. Mom was a fabulous cook. Her soufflé was my favorite. I'm getting nostalgic just talking about it! They made sure I was included in their family events, and even took me on several visits to see their relatives in their ancestral farming town.
Q: How much traveling did you do?
A: My JYA group spent our first three weeks in Paris in an intensive language course, and I got to know the city pretty well in that time. We also traveled as a group to Normandy to see the D-Day beaches, and to Bordeaux to visit museums about the former slave trade that was prevalent in that port city.
Q: And then you decided to write an honors thesis?
A: I wanted to commit myself to doing a thorough job on something academic, and the thesis allowed me to do that. Dr. Homer Sutton helped me out a lot. He knew I was interested in the French experience in World War II, and sent me a clipping about "Les Enfants de la Guerre."
They are the estimated 100,000 to 200,000 children born during and after the war of French mothers and Axis soldier-fathers. Many of the fathers were killed in combat, many returned to families they had already back home and forgot about their French liaisons.
But after the war, the women and children who were victims of these soldiers were viewed as pariahs who had collaborated with the Germans. Women were beaten and shunned, and had their heads shaved. School children insulted their peers, calling them "Enfants de Boche" (children of krauts). Some grew up with Germanic blonde hair and blue eyes, and couldn't hide their identity.
I thought it was a fascinating aspect of the war, and started working on it. These former war children, who are in their 70s at the youngest, have been organizing since the 1990s in a group called "Coeurs sans Frontières" (Hearts without Borders). I looked them up and contacted them to see if they would help me with my research.
Q: Were you able to talk with any of them?
A: Yes, Michel Blanc, president of Coeurs sans Frontières, invited me to meet him and another member, Daniel Rouxel-Ammon. We got together in Le Mans for a lunch and had an interesting, long discussion.
The two men had very different stories. Daniel always knew about his father, a German who was killed in the fighting in 1944. Michel knew only that his father was Romanian, and conscripted into the German army. His father had a Russian wife back in Romania, but had a liaison with Michel's mother when his unit was stationed in France. Michel's mother was ashamed and never talked to Michel about his biological father. She remarried, so he was raised by an adoptive father. But Michel has never found out the identity of his biological father.
Coeurs sans Frontières is now seeking rights to access government and military archives to try to identify their fathers or parents. They also want to convene a European convention to consider the rights of war children. Another objective has been acquiring dual citizenship in Germany and France, based on the German biological fathers. But they need proof of a German father, and that's very difficult. To date just 85 have been able to achieve that, and Daniel was the first one.
Since it's a recently controversial topic, there weren't a lot of secondary sources. The first-hand interviews were crucial.
Q: What did you produce and what did you learn?
A: I turned in a 75-page paper, written in French. I learned I want to continue studying French culture and society. This semester I've learned more about the context of the Enfants de la Guerre in a seminar under Professor Sutton on "Vichy France."
And I'm really excited because I'll get to return there next year for a job as an assistant English teacher in a high school near Grenoble. After that I might go to graduate school in French. I've also become a total cheerleader when it comes to promoting the full year JYA. There were 14 of us in the group the fall semester, but I was the only one who stayed for the full year. I think spending the entire school year abroad is crucial for language acquisition.
Q: Why is the issue of the Enfants de la Guerre still being considered today, rather than fizzling out as a fading echo of World War II?
A: I think it's because the French experience during World War II is not isolated. Inevitably, wars yield children born of the occupying forces and the cultures they occupy. The United States is itself an example. Look at how many children were born of American fathers and Vietnamese women during that war. And their children are innocent victims who usually face some sort of discrimination. The issue won't end with the death of the French Enfants de la Guerre. But if European legislators could come to some sort of agreement on the issue, it might establish a protocol for dealing with the issue in future conflicts.