For most of his 77 years, Cardiff resident John Gundersen had a firm grasp on his life story, at least from age 2, when his adoptive parents collected him from a Norwegian orphanage in 1947.

Then, in 2010, he saw a History Channel documentary about the Lebensborn, a Nazi child-breeding program launched by eugenicist Heinrich Himmler in 1935 to repopulate German society with 2 million blonde-haired, blue-eyed Aryan babies. Gundersen had never heard of the Lebensborn (German for “font of life”), but he later discovered it had been active in German-occupied territories during World War II, including his native Norway. Further research revealed the birth father on his original birth certificate was a German pilot who died in the war. So Gundersen began to wonder: “What if?”

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For the first time since the early 1960s, Gundersen returned to Norway in 2010 to ask his surviving cousins if he might have ended up in an orphanage because of the Lebensborn. They confirmed it was true. He was the child of a German occupation officer stationed in Norway and an unmarried 16-year-old Norwegian girl. The Gundersen family in Norway had known the truth about John’s birth for more than 60 years but had agreed with his adoptive parents to keep it secret to protect him.

“I had a very happy childhood. It never crossed my mind about my birth,” Gundersen said in an interview Dec. 27 at his Oceanside business, Woody Resin Surf Products. “When I was in my teens, I’d visit my grandfather, who was a lighthouse keeper on an island named Kvitzoy, where I would climb around on the old German U-boats left behind from the war. I never thought a thing about it.”

Cardiff resident John Gundersen, 77, among his surfboards at his business, Woody Resin Surf Products in Oceanside on Dec. 27. In 2010, Gundersen discovered he was the product of a Nazi child-breeding program in the 1930s and ‘40s known as the Lebensborn.

(Hayne Palmour IV/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

After the war, Norwegian officials covered up their participation in the program. And when families came to adopt the Lebensborn babies from orphanages, the children were issued new birth certificates with the names of their adoptive parents, rather than their birth parents. This not only shielded the government from the Norwegian public’s outrage over its collusion with the Germans, it also protected the Lebensborn mothers, who were often stripped, beaten, raped and denied jobs and housing when they were exposed. Their abandoned children were often bullied, ostracized and denied schooling and public benefits.

Jennifer Coburn is a San Diego author who recently published an historic novel on the Lebensborn program titled “Cradles of the Reich.” She said the truth about the Lebensborn was mostly hidden from the world until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and East German records detailing the program’s dark history were made public.

Coburn said that from 1935 to 1939, the German Reich successfully encouraged German women to have roughly 20,000 babies through the program. Mothers were pampered in spa-like birth and delivery hospitals and rewarded for the number of children they bore or adopted with highly coveted Nazi cross medals. After Germany invaded Poland in October 1939, it expanded the Lebensborn program and the Nazis instead began kidnapping Aryan-looking children. During the course of the war, more than 200,000 children were stolen — about half of them Polish — and handed over to German families. German soldiers were also encouraged to impregnate Aryan-looking women in Scandinavian countries like Norway.

The program was abandoned after the war and birth mothers hid their participation to avoid persecution. Because of the deep secrecy attached to the program, Coburn said only about 20 percent of the children of Lebensborn ever learned the secret of their parentage. Those who did rarely talked about it. One of the few was Anni-Frid Lyngstad of the Swedish pop quartet ABBA. Just after the war ended, her Norwegian mother bore a German sergeant’s child, but he had already returned home to Germany. Considered a traitor by her fellow villagers, she fled with her baby Anni-Frid to Sweden, which was more tolerant of Lebensborn children.

During her three years of research for her “Cradles of the Reich,” Coburn said she was never able to track down a former child of the Lebensborn for an interview. Then a few weeks after her book was published in October, Gundersen read a review of the book online and went to one of her book readings in Coronado. It turns out they had several things in common. Coburn was born in 1966 at the same Brooklyn hospital where Gundersen’s son was born two years later. And Coburn is Jewish, just like Gundersen’s life partner since 1976, Rae Blumberg, a retired UC San Diego sociology professor.

Gundersen said that when he and Blumberg traveled to Norway in 2010 and discovered he was the son of a Nazi soldier, he asked her if she minded sleeping with a man with “authentic Nazi blood.” He meant it as a joke, but Blumberg said that as a Jewish woman the reality did hit her hard and she had to think about it a bit before realizing that he was the same man she’d always known.

John Gundersen, 77, holds his  birth certificate and Jennifer Coburn holds a picture of Gunderson as a young boy.

Cardiff resident John Gundersen, 77, holds his original birth certificate and San Diego author Jennifer Coburn holds a picture of Gunderson as a young boy.

(Hayne Palmour IV/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Coburn said that some of the common experiences reported by European adults who were children of the Lebensborn were feelings of shame and persecution and unsuccessful efforts to seek reparations for what they suffered. Because Gundersen didn’t know the truth until he was in his 60s, he said his life was always an unspoiled and carefree adventure.

Like ABBA’s Lyngstad, Gundersen was born just after the war ended on Oct. 15, 1945. According to his original birth certificate, his birth name was Magne Reidar Olsen and his birth parents were Rudolf Müller and Mildrid Olsen. Olsen abandoned her son to an orphanage, where on Sept. 23, 1947, he was issued a new birth certificate with the name, Arthur Johannes. His adoptive parents, Arthur and Elisabeth Gundersen, were now listed as his birth parents. Arthur Sr., who was born in 1903, was a Norwegian-born captain in the Merchant Marine who’d moved to the United States before World War II. But when and his wife decided to adopt a child, they traveled to Norway to find one. John Gundersen always knew he was adopted and he knew he had two birth certificates, but he’d never studied them nor looked up his birth parents’ names until 2010.

The two Norwegian birth certificates of Cardiff resident John Gundersen, 77.

The two Norwegian birth certificates of Cardiff resident John Gundersen, 77. The original, top, and a second one that was written two years later to hide the fact that his birth father was a Nazi soldier.

(Hayne Palmour IV/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

John Gundersen grew up on the East Coast, where he earned his pilot’s license in his teens and set a rifle range record in the Marine Corps Reserves. At age 19 in 1964 he started the magazine “Atlantic Surfing” to promote the then little-known sport on the East Coast. Two years later, he opened one of New York’s first surfing shop on Rockaway Beach in Queens and he later helped petition the city to legalize the sport. Gundersen’s efforts as a surfing pioneer landed him in the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame in 2014.

He moved to California in the 1970s for the waves and worked as a commercial pilot and later as a surfboard-shaper and distributor. His company today, Woody Resin Surf Products, supplies Chinese-made surfboards and other surf gear to more than 160 shops on the East Coast.

Gundersen said he has lived many lives in his 77 years and he wonders how things might have been different had he known the secret of his birth. He’s thought about what he might have done if he were in his birth father’s shoes when the Nazis came to power.

“I wonder what I would have been like as an SS officer,” he said. “I hate bullies, and the Nazis were bullies, so I don’t think I would have wanted any part of that.”

Coburn will be presenting a free talk about her novel, “Cradles of the Reich,” at 2 p.m. Feb. 24 at the San Carlos branch of the San Diego City Library at 7265 Jackson Drive. For details, visit jennifercoburn.com/events.

"Cradles of the Reich" book cover.

This book cover image released by Sourcebooks Landmark shows “Cradles of the Reich” by Jennifer Coburn.

(Associated Press)



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