Maria was one of the tens of thousands of brown babies born in Germany. She was a Besatzungskind, or an 'occupation child', who ended up living in the South of Limburg in a village near Margraten. In July 1945 African American troops were stationed in Altdorf, close to Nuremberg. On July 24, 1946, Maria was born from a relationship between Sofie Andres and one of these Black soldiers. Sofie herself was the child of a single mother and was born on April 9, 1919, in Gleisenau, Bavaria. From certain documents, Maria knew that her grandmother was ledig - unmarried - when she gave birth to her daughter Sofie just after World War I.
Maria was baptized in the Evangelical Church in Nuremberg on the day of her birth. She later discovered that she had a brother: Peter, born in 1940. In the adoption papers, now lost, her father was named as Charles Humphrey from Florida.
A scared child
First, Sofie and Maria lived in a vicar's home in Nuremberg. On April 11, 1949, Sofie gave birth to Christina, whose father was an African American soldier. Sofie then left, and disappeared to an unknown destination. Maria went to a children's home in Nuremberg, where she stayed for a short time. From this period, she specifically remembers a Saint Nicholas celebration - on December 5 - with Santa's helper Black Pete, who scared her to death. After that she went to live with a farming family, where two other Black foster children, Seppie and Monica, lived. All three would walk around bare-footed, and they did not go to school. Maria vividly remembers the bossy farmer's fifteen-year-old son yanking her out of bed by lifting her up under her armpits. She used to wet her bed and she never talked. Maria was a very scared child.
Offered up for adoption
In 1951, at the age of 5, Maria was offered up for adoption. A childless Dutch couple responded, so Maria came to the Netherlands. Maria got the - German - name of her stepfather. Her adoptive mother's family originally came from Celebes, Indonesia, the former colonial Dutch-Indies. Her adoptive father's family was German-Dutch. When her adoptive mother told her in-laws about Maria, the response was: “How could you adopt a colored child?”
One day she found a funny looking pair of trousers in the basement of the house. These trousers had an SS emblem stitched on them. She put them on and went to show her adoptive mother. When she asked: “Can I have these?” her mother slapped her. When Maria was still young, her adoptive mother got a job as a lecturer at a university in the south of Sweden. Maria remembers the long trainride to Sweden well. Fellow passengers called her sugar baby and gave her candy.
How could you adopt a colored child?
Bullied by a teacher
In Sweden Maria sometimes went to the university cafeteria with her mother, where she attracted attention from the students. She was nine when the family left Sweden and moved back to Bilthoven in the Netherlands. Later, the family moved to Oostburg in Zeeland. Here, her mother taught at a high school. In elementary school, Maria was bullied by a teacher. She had to sit in the back of the classroom, despite the fact that she could not see very well. She was certain this was because of her skin color.
In Oostburg she felt lonely and only had a few friends. She contacted the local Ambonese (Moluccan) internment camp, but they did not want anything to do with her. She was more successful in Breskens, where she was introduced to some people from Ambon. Eventually, she also had white girlfriends.
So she could get used to it
Maria's adoptive father was a stay-at-home dad. Initially Maria adored him, until one day, in a dark alley, she was caught by a man who forced her to French kiss him. When she told her father, he went to the police and filed a complaint. Shortly thereafter, he started sexually abusing her. His excuse was that this way “she could get used to it” before she had any relationships. From then on, Maria decided she would be at home as little as possible. She would spend the night at her girlfriends' homes. Her mother was afraid to say anything. It is not known if she even knew about the abuse,
When she was fourteen, Maria persuaded her adoptive parents to place her in an expensive private boarding school. At the school, her German last name led to further bullying. Maria wanted to know about her biological parents and at fifteen she started searching for them. She found out that in 1954, Sofie Andres and her daughter Christina had left for the US from Hamburg. They took flight 5K 901 with the Scandinavian Airline Systems and settled in New York. On February 2, 1956, Sofie had a son called Nikolaus. Maria wrote to Sofie asking if she could visit her in New York. Sofie was not happy about this and wrote back that she was not to tell anyone she was Sofie's daughter. Their contact then ended.
Later, Maria wanted to marry a Dutch air force sergeant. She would then have a Dutch name. In the 1960s, having a German last name was still problematic. It was difficult to get permission from her adoptive parents, as she seldom saw them. In addition, the adoption, which had occurred in Germany, was not recognized by the Dutch government. When she was 21, Maria was finally able to marry her boyfriend. The couple moved to Beekbergen and that same year their son Felix was born. After a few years, they moved to Friesland, where they became part of the local hippie community. In 1970, her second son, Martijn, was born. The marriage ended soon after that. Her husband had problems due to alcohol- and drug abuse and committed suicide by burning down the boat he was living on. Maria’s documents were burned too.
It is a sort of healing. To make you complete (…) A piece that was missing is found. I can just live on with it
Participation oral history project
In 1972, Maria was standing on her own two feet and was taking care of her two sons when she started taking Gestalt therapy classes in Wageningen. She also worked at the Women and Work Foundation in Groningen and at a welfare organization in Assen. Together with a partner, she opened a Gestalt therapy practice in Groningen. In 2006, after her partner passed away, Maria moved to Limburg. In 2015 she was very happy to meet other children with a Black father and made one more effort to find out how her mother was doing and if she was still alive. She also tried to retrieve information about her biological father. In a letter about her participation in the oral history project, she wrote:
“Telling my story inspires me to write my autobiography. In Florida, only one African American veteran is listed with a name that resembles my biological father's supposed name. All other soldiers named Charles Humphrey are white. Funny, and kind of sad, that their race is listed. I have not yet found my brother and sister. I feel honored to be contributing to all those impressive stories from children more than half of whom do not or hardly know their background, a background that was never heard, and even was denied.”
(Translation Jenny King)
Maria never met her brother Peter, as he died in 1970. At the beginning of 2016, with the help of the GI-babies organization, she found her mother's current address. She was living in an apartment on Broadway with her son Nikolaus. Maria wrote to them but received no reply. Via Google Maps, Maria found the telephone number of a laundromat in the apartment complex where her mother might or might not be living, and she called the number. She heard how a neighbor, who answered the phone, called her brother on a different phone. He asked for Maria's phone number and told her that her brother would call her back. That did not happen, she thought the neighbor got the number wrong.
The NY-Dutch Hanny Veenendaal, translator for Mieke Kirkels book, succeeded to contact Nikolaus in February 2019. He did indeed live in the appartement on Broadway where Maria thought her mother and her half-sister Christina lived. When Hanny rang, the door opened and she introduced herself to Nikolaus. She told him someone in The Netherlands was trying to get in touch with him and his immediate reaction was: “Maria”.
This is how Maria learned that Christina passed away in 2009 and her mother, Sofia, in 2014. At the same time, Maria had started looking for relatives on her father’s side. She soon found a document with her father’s name, Charles Humphrey, with the help of the Children’s home in Nurnberg where she had lived as a baby. In 2018, after a DNA test and the help of Dutch historian Sebastiaan Vonk, she succeeded in retracing her relatives in Florida.
On January 14, 2019 she arrived in Tampa, Florida. At the airport she was welcomed by her relatives with open arms. Her father, veteran Charles Humphry died in 2000.
Maria: “It is a sort of healing. To make you complete” (…) A piece that was missing is found. I can just live on with it”.
The 'Brown Babies of Germany'
Right after the war, in Germany, where the US Army was part of the Besatzungstruppen (the occupying troops), an estimated ten thousand Brown Babies were born. Not unsurprisingly, given the fact that at the time there was a shortage of men in Germany. They were called occupation children, even though many German women also thought of the Americans as liberators. In the American occupation zone, the Brown Babies presented a human as well as a racial dilemma. Larger German society did not accept them. Germany's solution, in consultation with the Americans, was transferring the Brown Babies across the ocean to have them adopted by African American families. Their reasoning was that the 'occupation babies' would encounter less hostility there than in Germany. In 1951, the US recognized these African German children as orphans. There were also quite a lot of mothers who just kept their 'brown baby'.
(translation Mieke Kirkels)