The Associated Press recently ran a remarkable story on the Nazi Lebensborn program. Those of us involved in US adoption reform were quick to see similarities between the “modern” US adoption practices of fake birth certificates, identity erasure, eugenic child distribution and secret adoption and Lebensborn. Author Barbara Raymond articulates those similarities in the essay below, published here with her permission.
Like many involved in adoption, I read with interest and sadness the recent AP story about the World War Two-era Lebensborn program, which involved the kidnapping of “racially pure” non-German children and their placement with German adoptive parents. Social engineering at its worst, it was meant to strengthen what Hitler considered the master race, and its victims have had long-lasting repercussions. The victims of America’s own Lebensborn program may suffer even longer than their European counterparts.
Our Lebensborn program was run by Georgia Tann, who operated out of Memphis, Tennessee from 1924 to 1950, kidnapping children from poor Southern families and giving them to wealthy adoptive parents. She considered her goal — to make poor children middle class citizens — noble enough to justify the deaths of more than 50 children in her care. Protected by political boss Edward Hull Crump, she arranged over 5,000 illegal adoptions.
Like those involved in Europe’s Lebensborn program, Tann left behind a tragic legacy of bereft, grieving parents; sad, troubled children; and separated siblings. Like Hitler’s helpers, she preferred to steal children with blue eyes and blonde hair.
Her legacy continues today. While building her black market business she shaped modern American adoption — popularizing it, commercializing it, and corrupting it with secrecy. To cover her crimes and to please her wealthy adoptive parent clients, she began the practice of falsifying adoptees’ birth certificates to portray their adoptive parents as having borne them. It caught on, and today all of our country’s six million adoptees have phony birth certificates.
I have spent years trying to bring the story of this little-known social engineer to light, compelled in part by my role as an adoptive mother. I saw how much my daughter needed to know her other parents. I was able to find them, but the continuing inability of most adult American adoptees to access their true birth certificates ensures that many will never know their people. Those who don’t know history repeat it. I hope that the obverse is true, and that when legislators realize who began denying adoptees self-knowledge, they’ll vote to allow adoptees access to their original records.
Barbara Raymond, author of The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption, published last week by Carroll & Graf.