Forgotten victims: Polish children abducted during World War II still seeking truth

Up to 200,000 Polish children were kidnapped from orphanages or snatched from their parents and then forcibly 'Germanized' during World War II. DW and are helping victims reconstruct the past.

Zyta Sus (shown above as a child and today) is 83 years old and suffers from back pains, but she is still full of energy and loves joking around. She becomes serious and lowers her voice, however, when she recalls how she was abducted from a Lodz orphanage in 1942 and taken to Germany. She only returned to Poland at the age of 12. Today, she lives in a poor working-class neighborhood of Warsaw. She's changed her name as she doesn't want anyone in the neighborhood to know of her tragic past. "I no longer want to be a Polish bastard," Sus says. This is what others called her when she returned to Poland after the war.

Strengthening the "Aryan race"

Children like little Zyta were forcibly 'Germanized' by the Nazis, who often used brutal methods to do so. Most of these children were either abducted from German-occupied Poland or taken away from Polish forced laborers in Germany.

Already in 1938, Reich SS Leader Heinrich Himmler had declared: "I really do have the intention to gather Germanic blood from the whole world, to rob it, to steal it wherever I can." Consequently, children were snatched from their parents or kidnapped from orphanages in German-occupied countries. Minors with blue eyes and blond hair were selected and taken – in accordance with Adolf Hitler's ideal of a pure "Aryan" race. The SS Lebensborn association was responsible for carrying out these actions.

Who was my mother?

After being abducted and taken to the German Reich, Sus was forbidden to speak her native Polish. At the Reich School for Ethnic Germans in Achern and the Lebensborn home in Steinhöring, severe punishments were dished out for violating this rule. Speaking Polish could mean going hungry or getting locked up in the cellar. Nevertheless, Sus says she was fortunate for later being adopted by a loving foster family in Salzburg, Austria.

Reconstructing the past remains difficult, as German institutions often renamed abducted children

After the war, the Polish government saw to it that more than 30,000 abducted children returned to Poland. Zyta Sus was one of them. Yet again, she was placed in an orphanage. Back in Poland, she was insulted as a "stupid German" because by this time she spoke no other language than German. Looking back, Sus today says that living with her Salzburg foster family was "the best time of my life." Alas, she has been unable to locate them to this day.

Zyta Sus as a baby with her Polish birth mother (l.) and German adoptive mother (r.)

Fighting for compensation

A team of journalists from Deutsche Welle and Polish news platform are working to help Zyta Sus trace her Austrian "relatives." They have trawled through numerous German and Polish archives searching for information about the whereabouts of her Austrian foster family as well as those of her Polish mother. Yet often these searches prove to be in vain, as German institutions tended to rename abducted Polish children. 

That was the case for 88-year-old Hermann Lüdeking, who was also kidnapped in Poland and taken to Germany when he was a minor. Today, he lives in southern Germany, and he, too, wants to find out who his biological parents were. The German organization "Stolen Children – Forgotten Victims" is assisting him in this search.

Since 2012, the organization has also been working to raise awareness among German politicians of the plight of Lüdeking and others like him. Yet so far, to no avail. "They've forgotten about us. Other groups of Nazi victims have received compensation from Germany. We haven't," he says. Now, Lüdeking is taking legal action to fight for compensation. He is the first individual abducted by the Nazis in such a manner to do so. In the summer of 2017, he filed a lawsuit against the German state. No court date has been set yet.

Hermann Lüdeking wants to know who his biological parents were 

First German-Polish project to tackle this dark chapter

DW's collaborative project with journalists from Polish news platform Interia was also started in the summer of 2017. Since then, journalists from both media outlets have visited institutions, archives and foundations focused on this part of history, as well as victims of the 'Germanization' practices who are still alive today. They also visited several locations in Germany where abducted Polish children were accommodated to talk to witnesses and historians. The journalists went to a former Lebensborn home in Hohenhorst, near Bremen, and to another in the town of Kohren-Sahlis, near Leipzig. They also visited the building that housed the former Reich School for Ethnic Germans in Achern.

This is the first time that German and Polish media are jointly reporting on this dark chapter of history, and also the first time that former victims are receiving help to reconstruct their past. Within a few months, more than 40 articles and 24 videos were published on the subject, reaching a huge audience. Subsequently, many have reached out to DW and Interia or spoken out on social media, including former victims who want to learn more about their past.

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The clock is ticking

This collaborative project has given rise to further research efforts and has brought together individuals who are helping each other shed light on their shared history. Unfortunately, however, none of these efforts have so far managed to locate long-lost family members or former foster parents. Zyta Sus, Hermann Lüdeking and many others like them must continue their search. Lüdeking's legal action against the German state won't deliver the answers he's seeking, but it will certainly help raise awareness of the plight of the abducted Polish youngsters during World War II.  

This, too, was what motivated journalists from DW and to accompany and talk to these victims over the course of many months. Ewelina Karpinska-Morek, who works for Polish news platform, says it was saddening to "talk to individuals who for decades have been alone in their search for relatives and who now at 80 years still lack a sense of identity." Karpinska-Morek admits that "we were aware that the clock is ticking — and that this is the last chance to speak to former victims."

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust


The Nazi regime opened the first concentration camp in Dauchau, not far from Munich. Just a few weeks after Adolf Hitler came to power it was used by the paramilitary SS "Schutzstaffel" to imprison, torture and kill political opponents to the regime. Dachau also served as a prototype and model for the other Nazi camps that followed.

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

Wannsee House

The villa on Berlin's Wannsee lake was pivotal in planning the Holocaust. Fifteen members of the Nazi government and the SS Schutzstaffel met here on January 20, 1942 to plan what became known as the "Final Solution," the deportation and extermination of all Jews in German-occupied territory. In 1992, the villa where the Wannsee Conference was held was turned into a memorial and museum.

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust


The Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Lower Saxony was initially established as a prisoner of war camp before becoming a concentration camp. Prisoners too sick to work were brought here from other concentration camps, so many also died of disease. One of the 50,000 killed here was Anne Frank, a Jewish girl who gained international fame posthumously after her diary was published.

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

Buchenwald Memorial

Buchenwald near the Thuringian town of Weimar was one of the largest concentration camps in Germany. From 1937 to April 1945, the National Socialists deported about 270,000 people from all over Europe here and murdered 64,000 of them.

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

Nazi party rally grounds

Nuremberg hosted the biggest Nazi party propaganda rallies from 1933 until the start of the Second World War. The annual Nazi party congress as well as rallies with as many as 200,000 participants took place on the 11-km² (4.25 square miles) area. Today, the unfinished Congress Hall building serves as a documentation center and a museum.

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

Memorial to the German Resistance

The Bendlerblock building in Berlin was the headquarters of a military resistance group. On July 20, 1944, a group of Wehrmacht officers around Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg carried out an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler that failed. The leaders of the conspiracy were summarily shot the same night in the courtyard of the Bendlerblock, which is today the German Resistance Memorial Center.

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

Hadamar Euthanasia Center

From 1941 people with physical and mental disabilities were killed at a psychiatric hospital in Hadamar in Hesse. Declared "undesirables" by the Nazis, some 15,000 people were murdered here by asphyxiation with carbon monoxide or by being injected with lethal drug overdoses. Across Germany some 70,000 were killed as part of the Nazi euthanasia program. Today Hadamar is a memorial to those victims.

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

Holocaust Memorial

Located next to the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was inaugurated sixty years after the end of World War II on May 10, 2005, and opened to the public two days later. Architect Peter Eisenman created a field with 2,711 concrete slabs. An attached underground "Place of Information" holds the names of all known Jewish Holocaust victims.

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

Memorial to persecuted homosexuals

Not too far from the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, another concrete memorial honors the thousands of homosexuals persecuted by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945. The four-meter high monument, which has a window showing alternately a film of two men or two women kissing, was inaugurated in Berlin's Tiergarten on May 27, 2008.

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

Sinti and Roma Memorial

Opposite the Reichstag parliament building in Berlin, a park inaugurated in 2012 serves as a memorial to the 500,000 Sinti and Roma people killed by the Nazi regime. Around a memorial pool the poem "Auschwitz" by Roma poet Santino Spinelli is written in English, Germany and Romani: "gaunt face, dead eyes, cold lips, quiet, a broken heart, out of breath, without words, no tears."

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

'Stolpersteine' - stumbling blocks as memorials

In the 1990s, the artist Gunther Demnig began a project to confront Germany's Nazi past. Brass-covered concrete cubes placed in front of the former houses of Nazi victims, provide details about the people and their date of deportation and death, if known. More than 45,000 "Stolpersteine" have been laid in 18 countries in Europe - it's the world's largest decentralized Holocaust memorial.

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

Brown House in Munich

Right next to the "Führerbau" where Adolf Hitler had his office, was the headquarters of the Nazi Party in Germany, in the "Brown House" in Munich. A white cube now occupies its former location. A new "Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism" opened on April 30, 2015, 70 years after the liberation from the Nazi regime, uncovering further dark chapters of history.