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 language, Polish. Now she had a German name, “Alice Wittke,” and a new, German mother, Luise Dahl.
Only years later would she discover the full truth: that she was among about 250 children seized from their families as part of a Nazi attempt to improve the Aryan gene pool in pursuit of racial purity.
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.
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.
After World War II broke out, Lebensborn took on a 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 then forcibly Germanized.
With their neatly bobbed blond hair and wide blue eyes, Alodia and her sister, Daria, qualified.
Alodia wasn’t the only child of Halina and Franciszek Witaszek. There were five.
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.
Only after the war did Alodia learn that the Nazis had sent her mother to Auschwitz and hanged and beheaded her father for killing Nazi officers by poisoning their coffee.
But back in Poland, Halina Witaszek had survived Auschwitz and was struggling to piece her fatherless family back together.
In October 1947, a letter arrived for Alice Wittke 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.
The return to Poland was harsh at first.
“Even after we returned, the war wasn’t over for us,” Witaszek said. “It went on for many years.” 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.