World War II orphans still seeking families, roots

''Who am I?'' ask the bold white letters superimposed on a fat black question mark.

''Do you know who I am? What my name is? Where I come from?''

This poster with 34 black-and-white photographs of men and women in their early 40s has just been distributed to West German post offices, city halls, and numerous other public places. There are 70,000 of the posters, and they will be the last ones published by the German Red Cross Tracing Service.

''It has become too difficult, so many years after the war, to locate relatives of these people who were infants or toddlers when the war ended,'' Emmanuel Wittek, director of the tracing service, says. Also, the cost of publishing these posters is rising and the returns are decreasing.

''But that does not mean we will stop investigating,'' Mr. Wittek says. ''Our work continues in the hope that eventually we can solve all cases.''

Of course he knows this is nearly impossible. It is impossible to learn what happened to many adults in the last chaotic days of World War II. This makes it very difficult to trace the parents of people who were young children when the war ended.

Many babies and toddlers were separated from their mothers, relatives, and neighbors on long refugee treks from East Germany to the West in l945. These children are now adults with families of their own, but they continue their search for their roots.

''It is as if I fell from heaven, came from nowhere,'' says Gitta Juskowiak, 39. Her first name was given by the youth officer who was her guardian until a family took her in. Her last name is her married name.

Her birthdate is the guesswork of authorities. Even her birthplace is not certain. It is given as Szczecin (the former German Stettin), where she was found.

Those pictured on the latest and last poster series have little more information on their background than she does - some even less. They are hoping against hope that someone will recognize them, remember a detail, a mole, a scar , a cowlick, or any other unusual feature, and perhaps recall circumstances similar to those under which the child was found in l945.

West Germany's Red Cross Tracing Service, established right after World War II to help bring together those separated by the war and the enormous refugee movement, has handled more than 2.5 million requests to have a person traced. In about 2 million cases the Red Cross was able to help, either by reuniting people , by establishing their whereabouts, or by turning up information two decades after the war about the decease of missing persons.

Of 292,473 requests to trace missing children, 290,631 were solved successfully. ''Successful'' in this context may mean many things: finding parents, relatives, sisters, or brothers, or establishing beyond doubt that all of them have died.

''But it is better to know than to keep on wondering,'' says a mother who spent 20 years looking for her young son, only to be informed that he was killed during an air raid on the city before he and the other children could be evacuated.

Other efforts to trace a lost child end more happily, as they did for Gabriele and Barbara, two sisters who were separated from their mother as toddlers. The Red Cross discovered their whereabouts and brought the sisters together in Hamburg just in time for Christmas.

In another successful case, a mother rediscovered her daughter, originally believed drowned when the ''Wilhelm Gustloff'' sank on Jan. 30, l945, in the Baltic Sea.

Until 1976 she had cared for another ''daughter'' whose mother was believed drowned in the same shipwreck. All the while they had been trying to trace the girl's mother. They were finally successful in 1976. This discovery made the woman put in another request for her own daughter. The Red Cross went through all its records again, matched new applications against old ones, and found the daughter, now living in East Germany.

Until 1975, the Red Cross maintained a special children's tracing service in Hamburg. But as the case load dropped, the service was incorporated into the general tracing service in Munich. Both departments will cease to exist as a tracing service shortly and will be turned into a documentary center to catalog and file the vast amount of personal information -- a tragic document of war.

But the tracing activities will continue, and all new requests, which still come in at the rate of two to three a week, will be processed in the hope of solving as many as possible. The German Red Cross will also provide its experience in helping trace people lost in wars in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world.

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