Wednesday, June 21, 2017


Lebensborn means source of life. During the Nazi era, it meant tearing families apart and traumatizing children.
The birth rate had been falling for decades in Germany. The Nazis determined to reverse the trend. They rewarded mothers who gave birth to large families. Advertising for birth control was banned, as was abortion. Still, the population didn’t increase sufficiently.
In their effort of creating the ideal Aryan race, the Nazis combed through the children in conquered nations and stole 300,000 “racially valuable” children. Most came from Norway, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. Examiners measured blond, blue-eyed children for head size and body size, making sure they had no Jewish aspects. Those determined as capable of being Germanized were sent to Lebensborn homes in Germany. From there, they were given to adoptive or foster parents.

A Polish child is grabbed for the Lebensborn program.

Heinrich Himmler headed the Lebensborn program and organized his paramilitary Schutzstaffel (SS) to be the vanguard of Aryan supermen. He encouraged them to have children with racially pure women, whether or not they were married.
The pregnant women could apply to give birth in a Lebensborn home, after which their children were often parceled out to adoptive families. While in the homes, the children were allowed little contact with their mothers, who were discouraged from talking to or cuddling their children. For all of them, their lifestyle was severe, to produce strong, ruthless future Aryan leaders. They needed love but got discipline.
Anni-Frid Lyngstad of the Swedish pop group ABBA is the child of a Norwegian mother and German soldier father. After her birth in November, 1945, her mother and grandmother were branded as traitors and ostracized in the Northern Norway village. They emigrated to Sweden, where Anni-Frid’s mother died of kidney failure before her daughter was two.
In the postwar years, many birth families searched for their missing children. Sometimes they were found and sent back. For young children with no memories of home, this was more traumatizing than the original kidnapping. All traces of their former lives and language were erased. They spoke only German, and returned to a country where all things German were hated. Even those who lived with their birth mothers found their mothers unwilling to reveal the truth about their fathers.
These children had been kidnapped or bred to be racially pure, strong, confident leaders of the master race. Instead, they often suffered low self-esteem and uncertainty about who they were. The Lebensborn program was a colossal tragedy.

Recommended Reading: Hitler’s Forgotten Children: A True Story of the Lebensborn Program and One Woman’s Search for Her Real Identity by Ingrid von Oelhafen and Tim Tate.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Hollywood's Spies

Ever since World War II, questions have been raised as to why the American Jews didn’t do much to aid the beleaguered Jews of Europe. The absence of a strong national organization handicapped the American Jews. Their decentralized culture led to bickering. When solidarity was most needed, internal differences prevented them from finding common ground.
But they didn’t do nothing.
Antisemitism’s worst period in U.S. history coincided with the Nazi rise to power. Germany played an active role in fomenting political antisemitism in the U.S. For eleven years, from 1934 to 1945, the Los Angeles Jewish Community Committee maintained an active, if hidden, defense and counterpropaganda program against Nazi infiltration in the United States.
The LAJCC carried on covert fact-finding partnered with non-Jewish organizations and individuals. Working with groups like the American Legion kept their findings from being discarded because they came from Jewish sources. If Jews protested against the far right, the fascist would claim their protests were proof of their communist allegiances.
Informants found their way into the Friends of New Germany, forerunner of the German America Bund, and documented the relationship between Berlin and FNG. They provided warnings for new activity, such as the desire of FNG to acquire blueprints of National Guard armories. Anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi books and newspapers written in English in Germany for American audiences were shipped to America on German tourist ships for distribution.
From 1939 to 1941, the LAJCC, operating under the name News Research Service, published News Letter, a weekly, timely expose with information from their files, linking past and current events. Most of the major U.S. periodicals subscribed to News Letter—Life, Look, New Republic, Saturday Evening Post, Time—and used this research for their own articles and requested more information. The News Letter influenced national opinion makers with credibility to publicly confront Nazis in the U.S. in a way no Jewish defense group could.

Some of the biggest names in Hollywood supported the Los Angeles Jewish Community Committee.
From left: Louis B. Mayer, Eddie Cantor, George Cukor, Jack Warner, and David O. Selznick

While the Jewish community was divided in how to deal with Nazism and different groups appeared to compete for funds and status, this wasn’t a problem in Los Angeles. The LAJCC maintained its undercover operations because of the support of movie moguls of Hollywood. Dozens of Hollywood actors, directors, producers, and writers lent their money.
Los Angeles Jewish community fought its fight against Nazism with the financial support and skills and contacts of the motion picture industry to effectively enter the national political arena. The Hollywood moguls were not absent from the fight. They were merely hidden.

Recommended Reading: Hollywood’s Spies: The Undercover Surveillance of Nazis in Los Angeles By Laura B. Rosenweig, coming in September.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

All My Children

“Sing, O barren woman, you who never boar a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the Lord.   ~~  Isa 54:1

That verse spoke to me. I would never have children of my own, but here was a promise. It came true for me through World Vision and Compassion. For the past many years, I have had two, three, four, and more children at a time.
I sponsor them.
Marialina was my first, a young girl in Costa Rica. And then a baby. Her mother wrote letters. When their community “graduated” from the World Vision program, she wrote, “No one ever helped us before.” That’s stuck in my mind.
When I switched to Compassion, my first child was Marco Antonio, my little Mark Anthony. He had a cowlick, ears that stuck out, and a big grin. In Brazil, he wanted to be a soccer player when he grew up. One year, his father used the birthday money I sent to buy a second-hand, “much desired” bicycle. I almost went to Brazil to meet Marco and a young girl I sponsored, but I applied too late. The tour was already filled.
The vast majority of my children have been girls in Central and South America. They’ve lived in Brazil, Ecuador, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico.

A few of my children through the years.

When I visit Compassion’s website, their photos call to me. I have to restrain myself from taking on too many. They’ve shared their dreams for the future, reported on their progress in school, and told me about their friends. Two of the girls are now Facebook friends.

I invite you to visit Compassion's link at the right and give to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Climbing the Family Tree

Genealogy has been an interest of mine since a college history class. We lived in Michigan at the time, and frequently drove back to Green Bay. My family humored me by stopping in Milwaukee so I could look through birth, marriage, and death records at the court house. (This was before genealogy became such a booming hobby, and I had ready access to the records, unlike today.) I also visited the Brown and Manitowoc county court houses, and filled a notebook with names and dates.

One of my great-grandmothers displays her hourglass figure.

These days, finding ancestral clues is easier with online genealogy sites and networking. In recent weeks, I’ve come in contact with two distant cousins.
My ancestry is three quarters German, one eighth Dutch, and one sixteen each Belgian and French Canadian. For the longest time, my Dutch line dead-ended with my great-great-grandfather, Gerhard Vogelzang, known in Wisconsin as George Vogels. My new Dutch contact clued me in to the Dutch website, where my Dutch ancestry has burst into bloom. I now know who my gr-gr-gr-gr-grandparents were. That equals some of my German branches.

My gr-gr-grandfather (lower right) was killed in 1925. He was struck by a car while bringing home ice cream.

Despite its small fraction, my French ancestry traces back the farthest. Many of my French ancestors arrived in New France in the mid-1600s. Many of the men were soldiers, come to guard French interests in the New World. In order to maintain a presence there, the king sent marriageable women, including several of my foremothers. Upon arrival, they paired off and married within weeks.
As I enter their names in a family tree on, I’ve been struck by the high number of babies these women bore. And lost. Ten to fourteen children was common, as was losing more than half of them. Many of them, men and women, could not read or write.
My Belgian ancestors continue to elude me. My great-great-grandmother Josephine Dennis is listed on the 1860 census as a 12-year-old, Belgian-born domestic living with a 45-year-old Belgian man and a 17-year-old French male. Where were her parents? Her mother may have died and her father parceled out his children, but what kind of life was that for a young girl in a strange country? All too common, unfortunately.

My only great-grandparent still alive when I was born. He always had pink and white mints for my sister and me.

Many of my books’ characters bear my ancestral names. In Friends & Enemies, there’s Paul Braedel and Heidi Steinhorst Wetzel; in No Neutral Ground, Rafe Martell; and in Soar Like Eagles, Chet Vogel and Carol Doucet. Amazingly, in my next book, no one has an ancestral name. What was I thinking? Hmm, I can still change that.

Paul says in 1 Tomothy 1:3-4, “You may command certain men not to teach…endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work—which is by faith.” Do you think this applies to the hobby of genealogy?

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Remembering My Mom

My last book, Soar Like Eagles, is dedicated to my mother, Carol Wangard. I wrote, “My mother had the gift of serving. She would have made a fine Doughnut Girl.”
Why do I think that?
From my elementary school days, I remember Mom working in the kitchen of First United Methodist Church in Green Bay, Wisconsin, mixing Kool-Aid and preparing snacks for Vacation Bible School.
I remember the birthday parties she organized for me. We’d play the party games like dropping clothes pins into a bottle and Pin the Tail on the Donkey. And there’d be a cake she baked.
She sewed clothes for my sister and me, and for our Barbie dolls. The day before I started my freshman year in university, I’d tried to sew a new top to wear. The sewing machine and I never became friends, and that evening, I left in frustration for a department get-together, sure I’d have to wear something else. I came home to find Mom had finished it for me.
She held a variety of church offices through the years. When my dad opened his own real estate business, Mom got her real estate license and served as receptionist and salesperson. When my sister and I had out-of-town swim meets, Dad volunteered to drive one of the buses for the Green Bay YMCA swim team, and Mom came along as unofficial den mother
The Red Cross doughnut girls left home and served in some difficult situations, in all kinds of weather extremes. They had minimal comforts. (Read Soar Like Eagles and you’ll get an idea what their lives were like!)
No, I doubt Mom would have enjoyed washing her hair in a helmet, freezing her hands preparing the dough, or using a slit trench. But the combat troops didn’t have an easy life, and Mom would have seen the benefit of boosting their morale. Serving was her gift.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Calling All Space Addicts

Who else always gravitated to the television when NASA launched a space shuttle? Who didn’t thrill to the majesty of the thundering launch? Who didn’t wish for the opportunity to look back at the earth from on high, seeing the earth’s curvature, and sunrises and sunsets every ninety minutes?

I never got to attend a manned spaceflight launch, but did an unmanned launch a few years ago.

Do you remember what you were doing when you heard Challenger had exploded seventy-three seconds after launch? I’d been listening to the countdown as I drove to my library job in Fullerton, California. I arrived at the law school before the launch took place, so it wasn’t until I went out to the front desk later that morning and a law clerk asked if I’d heard. I rushed back to workroom and asked our student assistant if he knew anything about the explosion. I’ve never forgotten his dumbfounded expression.
How about Columbia’s last ill-fated flight? My mother and I had been downtown running errands and heard the news at the post office. I remember a sick feeling.
Before the shuttle, the Apollo flights mesmerized me. Imagine, flying to the moon. I’ve read nearly all the astronaut memoirs. So maybe you can imagine my pleasure at receiving an advance copy of Jeffrey Kluger’s Apollo 8, which releases next week.

I have a NASA print, Earthrise taken by Bill Anders on Dec. 24, 1968, hanging on my wall.

The crew of Apollo 9 consisted of Commander Frank Borman with Jim Lovell and Bill Anders. Busy training for their earth orbital mission at the Rockwell plant in Downey, California, Borman was abruptly called to Houston. Apollo 8 was to test the new lunar module, but the LM was delayed. NASA decided on a bold, audacious stroke. Switch the crews around, and send Borman and company into lunar orbit.
So far, Apollo had been a failure. The crew of Apollo 1 had been killed in a fire during training. No Apollo spacecraft had yet flown. The first manned flight, Apollo 7, was still to come. It would be followed by Apollo 8. To the moon.
Imagine the thoughts of Susan Borman, Marilyn Lovell, and Valerie Anders. Mrs. Borman asked Chris Kraft, NASA manager, what her husband’s chances of returning home were. Fifty-fifty, he told her.
Apollo 8 was a thrilling success. While orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve, the astronauts read from Genesis to a listening world. Said Bill Anders, “We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”
How can anyone not take pride in our accomplishments in space?

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Berliners love zoos

The Berlin zoo has been popular in Germany since its opening in 1844. It stimulated their intellectual curiosity about the broader world, lands and peoples beyond their borders. Unlike other zoos in Europe, the Berlin zoo was open to the public.

Overview of the pre-WWII zoo.

A zoo in the nineteenth century was much different than today. Folks went there for society: concerts, restaurants with 5,000 tables, evening strolls away from the urbanization of the city, and to see animals. In Through the Lion’s Gate, author Gary Bruce shares another quirky attraction: Berliners were excited by the prospect of smoking at the zoo, an act banned since 1787 on streets and squares.

The Predators House

People were less concerned about the welfare of animals than the need for educational and scientific goals. One of the founders, Martin Liechtenstein, was aghast that visitors put lit cigarettes in the hands of monkeys, but also promoted social dinners serving surplus zoo animals.
Animals were captured in the wild by hunters killing the mother and capturing the baby. Dominating nature and imposing man’s will on the animal world were the themes of the nineteenth century.

The Elephant House. Buildings visually signified the lands from which the animals came.

People were also displayed in the zoo. Inuits from Greenland, Nubians from northeast Africa, Mongolian nomads, Chileans, Lapps. As late as the 1920s, human exhibits were common. The people demonstrated their hunting skills, wedding traditions, and dances. This may sound similar to today’s living history museums, but in at least one instance, when an Inuit didn’t do what the sponsor wanted, he was whipped with a dog whip.

The Antilope House.

In the twentieth century, a new emphasis grew to save animals rather than hunt them into extinction. Animals’ lives, freedom and happiness are more important than dominance. During the Nazi era, nature conservation and animal protection were big themes. The Berlin zoo was implicit in identifying with Nazi racial policies, and tried to whitewash its past. At the outset of the war, the zoo had over 4,000 animals. At war’s end, only ninety-one had survived. Despite towering piles of rubble and make-shift shelters among the ruins, the zoo reopened two months later. More than a million Germans visited the zoo in the year after the war.

The zoo director, a close friend of Herman Goring, kept him supplied with young lions from the zoo, retrieving them when they got too big and dangerous for the field marshall's private residence.

A devoted population saved the zoo many times, as they did during the Berlin Airlift. Zoos are expensive, and the people gave money to the zoo even when they had little.
After the war, the first female director discontinued public feeding of the animals, which led to deaths through overfeeding or intestinal infections. A polar bear died after being fed salt herring.

Through the Lion’s Gate by Gary Bruce releases in August. It offers an engrossing history of Berlin’s zoo.