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.


  1. Barbara,

    Thank you for the great guest blog and thank you for the terrific book. I am only about half way through but I am finding it fascinating. Would love to have it autographed sometime.

    Janet Allen

  2. When I saw this story it reminded me that in fact this practice of enforcing “racial purity” really began w/ Charles Loring Brace and the Orphan Trains. Plucking Irish and Italian orphans off the streets of New York to get them away from their “morally corrupt” Catholic parents was a practice that was and is viewed with far less criticism than deserved. Indeed, the subtext of today’s adoption practices both here and abroad indicate clearly that nearly everyone believes that poor children, children of color and kids from struggling Third World countries are better off growing up with movie stars and affluent American families. Not such a different attitude from the one manifest in the cases you describe.

  3. I have not had the pleasure of reading Ms. Raymond’s book but I did read the article she refers to in her blog. I have also done independent study on the Lebensborn Project. I hope that in her book Ms.Raymond tells the complete story of the Lebensborn Project but for the readers of this blog here is the rest of the story.

    Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, created the “Eingetragener Verein”Lebensborn” (Registered Society Lebensbornon)Lebensborn on December 12th, 1935. The original goal of this society was for single women who met strict psychological and physical criteria via a battery of testing to meet SS officers for the purpose of procreating children. The pregnant women were then brought to an opulent estate in the country. Once the children were born they were transferred to SS run nurseries to be cared for until they were of school age when they were transfered to SS run schools.

    Although the Lebesnborn Program began in Germany, it soon became apparent to Himler that German women alone could not provide enough children quickly enough as the males were all destined to become SS officers and the girls their wives. So, in 1937 the Lebensborn Program was extended to the Scandinavian countries under German control. By the end of the war Scandinavia Lebensborn children far out numbered German ones.

    When Germany lost the war, both the Lebensborn children and their mothers were made objects of ridicule and shame. Lebensborn children in Scandivanian countries were denied education and their mothers employment. Mothers were also publicly shamed by having their heads shaved, being beaten, denied employment, and as they were now “tainted, fallen, women” there was no hope of marriage.

    The German Lebensborn children were more easily integrated in society and many of the younger ones at the end of the war were never told they are Lebensborn children. Additionally, it was easy during the chaos of post-war German for their mothers to move to a different town where the fact they were Lebensborn mothers was unknown.

    Msgr. Jack Sweeley

  4. Barbara,

    Thanks for persisting with publishing your book, it is really excellent. It is even clearer to me after reading it that Tann must have been behind the sealing of California’s records. The language her lawyer used in a 1937 letter you quote is the same as what Charles Fisher of Oakland, California, told the Sacramento Bee in 1935 to explain the reason he proposed California’s sealed records bill. I also appreciated learning more about your personal story, and that you mentioned contemporary international baby-selling as one way Tann’s legacy continues.

    Janine Baer

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