Sunday 25 March 2018

Irish citizen, Aryan girl... from a Nazi-breeding programme designed to create a master race

Irish citizen Kari Rosvall had always felt ­different, but the revelation that she was born as the result of a Nazi breeding­programme came as a huge shock

Kari Rosvall, aged 12
Kari Rosvall, aged 12
Kari Rosvall as she is now.
Nowhere Child
Kari's mother, Ase, who was subjected to physical torture in war-time Norway

Maggie Armstrong

Kari Rosvall was at a dinner party in Dublin, sipping wine and munching on crisps, when it all went weird. "Where are you from?" asked Bjorn, a new friend from the Irish Scandinavian Club. Sweden, she told him. The name Kari doesn't sound Swedish, he replied. Actually, she was born in Norway and adopted, she clarified. In 1944. And her father? He was German, she said. "That sounds about right," said Bjorn.

Local historians are often dismissed as busy-bodies. But this historian's questions, like those of the historian who may have uncovered mass graves in a mother-and-baby home in Tuam, were truly percipient. Rosvall could not in her wildest imagination have foreseen what Bjorn revealed to her days later. It led to the digging up of a tragedy, the story of her birth told in Nowhere's Child, a memoir just published by Hachette Ireland.

Kari had always felt different to the other children, growing up in the tiny village of Malexander in Sweden. Adopted at age three, she had no birth papers. She knew she had come from an orphanage. That when her new parents brought her home she couldn't speak, and that her nightie was so tight her father had to cut it off her. She bore the signs of neglect.

In school she was jeered and excluded. "Luckily the children were nice. We had a lot of fun," says Rosvall over tea. "But not the grown-ups. I was afraid of them. I was never accepted by the teachers, so I didn't learn anything."

She left school at 14 and had a normal life in 1950s Sweden. She qualified as an auxiliary nurse and moved to the city of Linköping, got married. But the mystery of her birth was a mounting discomfort.

One day she wrote a letter to the Red Cross in Stockholm, to shed some light on the darkness. Over the phone, a Red Cross official told her she had a German father and a Norwegian mother. Her mother was alive and living in Oslo. Rosvall was given a train ticket and perfunctory directions to her house.

In her mother, she found a silent, hostile woman. When she met her relations, she was told to pretend she was a friend. When her mother was undressing, Rosvall noticed deep red scars on her breasts.

The chapters in the book about Ase, Rosvall's mother, are the most intriguing and frustrating. Because this woman's history was never written down and it is lost forever. It is known that she was submitted to physical torture by Nazi soldiers, and ostracised by her Norwegian community.

Born in a small seaside village, Ase was a vivacious beauty when she moved to Oslo and married a soldier. She became pregnant after the war broke out, and her husband was sent away with his unit.

The day her son was born, Ase received a telegram to say her father had been killed. Widowed in her early 20s, she went to work. Norway was under German occupation, a puppet government collaborating with the Germans, and her job was as a secretary to high-ranking SS soldiers. Within a year she was pregnant again. "I do not know if she fell in love or if she was raped. Nobody knows how I came to be," writes Rosvall.

What she does know is that she was born in Oslo on September 6, 1944 in a 'Lebensborn' birth clinic. The word means 'Spring of Life'. Kari Rosvall was one of possibly 12,000 babies born in Norway into a breeding programme overseen by SS chief Heinrich Himmler. Kari Rosvall was baby number I/5431.

The Lebensborn was to be the sunny side of Nazi eugenics, the darker underbelly being extermination of Jews and minorities. The plan was to match beautiful Norwegian women with tall German officers and create a master race of blue-eyed, blonde-haired people.

The programme began in Germany in 1935, styled as a healthy method to bring up falling birth rates since the fatalities of the World War I. Unmarried mothers were hand-picked and assessed for racial purity, and taken in by the Lebensborn to give birth in secrecy.

In a terrible twist, many of these homes were ensconced in buildings owned by Jews who had been sent to the death camps. In Eastern Europe, there were kidnappings of white-blonde children by SS soldiers.

A member of Abba, Frida Lyngstad, discovered she was a Lebensborn child. A Czech film, Spring of Life, has been made about it. Still, this chapter of history is little known, making this book an important lead for further research.

In her 70s, Kari is not tall and blonde. She beams with warmth, wearing a Norwegian snowflake knit jumper. In Nowhere's Child she has also written a love story full of adventure. In 1997, with a grown son, Rosvall moved to Dublin when her second husband, Sven, took a job with a computer multinational.

When she arrived, knowing nobody, she went to church in Dublin's Mount Merrion and popped into the coffee morning afterwards.

"I sat in the corner. Up comes this small lady with a huge tea pot.

She said, 'She's new. Where are you coming from?' I said, 'I'm just coming from Sweden'. A lady said immediately, 'What are you interested in?' and I said, 'Craft'. And she said, 'You're welcome on Tuesday, we do craft here'."

She joined the Irish Countrywoman's Association, finding 40 ladies sewing together in the parish hall. "There was a free chair. One lady said come on, sit beside me. And we are the best of friends. May Murphy. We have been to Thailand together.

"Now I live in Ireland and have a happy life. Here they accept who I am. I can talk and laugh and cry and everything. I can be me. That's very relaxing."

One of her rosiest memories is of meeting Mary McAleese when the Irish Scandinavian Club were invited to Áras an Uachtaráin. The President had no idea of her past. "She took my hand, and she said, 'Are the Irish nice to you?' And I nearly fainted. Because she could see through me. She took me in, I tell you that.''

What the stark prose in the book misses is the author's jumpy, melodious Swedish accent. Her English is broken, her tenses mixed up. "This book is a dream come true, because I cannot write in English," she says.

Naomi Linehan, a young journalist, was reporting for the Pat Kenny Show, hunting around for stories, when she heard about Kari through the ICA. They did a short interview and broadcast it to rippling effect.

"It doesn't often happen but people were texting in, saying is there a book about Kari's life, where can we hear more?" said Linehan. She quit her job at Newstalk to ghostwrite the tale. "We don't ask people of a different generation what they've been through enough," she says. "We ask them about the war but we don't say, how does it feel, what you went through? How do you feel about it now?"

Rosvall did meet with some of the Lebensborn survivors when they came together to seek compensation for discrimination at the hands of the Norwegian government.

"They are not well. They have depression, alcoholism and suicide. I am the only one who could stand up and do a book," she says. "There was a group, but as soon as the money was paid, they split."

Many of the children had been ill-treated, growing up without mothers or fathers, carted around orphanages and abandoned by the state. They were, Rosvall writes, "the broken pieces left behind after the war".

With her compensation money, she bought a new kitchen and Irish citizenship for her and her husband. Her trusted friend, Bjorn, helped her write the letters to the government.

Her dismay at it all lingers. "How could they use children as animals? We were human. I have a son myself, and it's so weird." She laughs. "But it was war. I forgive them, but I don't understand."

Nowhere's Child by Kari Rosvall is published by Hachette Books

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