German orphans from World War II find answer to 'Who am I?'

''Who am I?'' reads the large question mark on the last poster of its kind to go up in post offices, train stations, and hospitals around the country this January and February. ''What is my name?'' ''Where did I come from?''

Photographs of 17 adult faces are on the poster, each with a caption reading something like:

''Born approx. 1941/42. He has brown eyes and reddish hair, came with a transport from upper Silesia to Austria in 1945.''

Or, with more unusual detail: ''She was found in a baby carriage on April 3 or 4, 1945, at 45 Spittalgasse, Pressburg. In the baby carriage were a damask blanket with embroidered monogram 'M.K.' and a baptism picture of pink silk with silver inscription.''

For 37 years these posters have been going up, soliciting clues about the identity of the close to 300,000 German orphans cast up by World War II. Despite the dearth of information, more than 290,000 have found out something about their families and relatives -- or have been located by parents searching for them -- the Red Cross's unremitting search.

Some 143 people are still trying to find out where they came from, while close to 2,000 sets of parents are still looking for children they were separated from at the end of the war.

The Red Cross's Information and Documentation Center in Munich is still looking with them. It adds any new inquiry or fact to its 37 million noncomputerized cards of 21 million names.

Its 90 employees work to dig out any M.K., for example, who might have asked the center about a lost or abandoned daughter. It requests information about individuals -- and usually gets replies -- from the Hungarian, Soviet, Polish, and (least enthusiastically) East German Red Cross. It circulates photos to the various ''associations of those driven out'' of East Prussia and other former German lands after Hitler lost the war.

With the dwindling of new information, however, the center will no longer distribute public posters after the final two this month and next. The ''most wanted'' terrorist placards in post offices will no longer be joined by the Findlings (''Foundlings''), Fichtes (''Spruces''), and Bernsteins (''Amber,'' referring to the Baltic coast where this petrified resin is so abundant) who have been given invented names according to the circumstances of their discovery in the tumultuous end-of-war confusion.

Just how much confusion there was is apparent in the raw numbers. World War II left 1.75 million Wehrmacht soldiers missing in action (of which some 303,000 cases are still considered open) and 420,000 missing German civilians (of which some 152,000 are still open), according to the Munich center's director Emanuel Wittek.

At war's end there were also 16 million displaced Germans -- the equivalent of the entire population of East Germany today. Some had been bombed out of their homes. More had been driven out of former German territory that reverted to or was awarded to Poland and Czechoslovakia.

An additional million Germans were prisoners of war, and in grisly return for Nazi Germany's impressment of Russian, Ukrainian, and Eastern European slave labor during the war, an estimated 800,000 German civilians were taken as slave labor to the East.

Over the decades the Red Cross has had remarkable success in matching the mosaic of clues and sleuthing out identities or finding family members. Some 82 percent of missing soldiers have been traced, and some 64 percent of missing civilian adults, Mr. Wittek reports. The cases of more than 99 percent of the children have been resolved. Last year the center averaged 14 cases resolved for every workday, with searchers finding relatives or getting definite information about them. Each workday 150 cases were closed with the conclusion that the missing person had probably passed on. This year Wittek hopes to solve another 40,000 out of the 460,000 cases still remaining from World War II.

By the mid-1980s it is expected that the center will have done all it can on World War II searches, and that only isolated cases can be cleared up after that.

The center will maintain its documentation, however. And it already has a new mission: 63,000 inquiries about the whereabouts of some 25,000 relatives have already come in from the 20,000 Southeast Asian refugees who have immigrated to West Germany in the past few years.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to German orphans from World War II find answer to 'Who am I?'
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today