LE MANS, FRANCE // France after the Second World War was an unforgiving place. Women like Mathilde Rouxel, whose crime was to sleep with the enemy, were shaved bald, whipped and paraded naked through the streets as punishment. Ms Rouxel, her crime aggravated by having produced a child from a liaison with a German officer, escaped such retribution by fleeing from rural western France to Paris, where she was able to melt into the crowd.
But her lover, a handsome Wehrmacht lieutenant, Otto Ammon, was dead, succumbing to diptheria and terrible injuries suffered in an allied bombardment on the German-Luxembourg border as the war neared its end. Just as she felt unable to remain among suspicious, hostile villagers in Brittany, Ms Rouxel feared when peace arrived that taking young Daniel, then only two, to Germany would lay her open to reprisals from the defeated population.
Nor could she keep him with her in Paris, where she found work as a maid, as this would have rendered her unemployable as well as prompting questions about her recent past. So after a spell with foster parents, Daniel was entrusted to Ms Rouxel's mother, who lived in the village of Mégrit, "a parish of 600 people where everyone knew everyone's business" as he describes it now. He was left to suffer the insults and blows of other children, teachers and even his grandmother, a simple, illiterate woman who was bitterly ashamed of his origins, having lost her own husband in the First World War.
At school, Mr Rouxel was taunted as the "son of a Boche and a whore". A deputy mayor humiliated him in front of worshippers outside the parish church of Mégrit, asking loudly if anyone knew the difference between the swallow and the German army. The mayor quickly supplied an answer: "The swallow produces her young in France but takes it with her when she leaves; the Boches produce their young in France but leave it behind when they go."
Six decades later, after a life in which he has learnt to smother intense inner pain and present an outwardly jovial disposition, Mr Rouxel has finally found contentment by becoming the first child of a French-German wartime romance to be granted German nationality. His wish was granted in August after years of badgering German and French leaders and officials. A second war baby, born of a similar affair, has subsequently gained dual citizenship too, and several other cases are likely to be considered in the coming month.
"I feel as if I have been given back the half of my identity," Mr Rouxel, now 66 and a retired restaurateur, said at his modest flat in the city of Le Mans, 180km south-west of Paris. "All through my childhood, I suffered terribly at the hands of the other children; it was another kid who told me who my father had been. It was very hard to bear. "Although I am philosophically against war, and believe problems between countries should be resolved by negotiation, I recognise that the Germans were completely in the wrong. But that is all behind us now; are we supposed to go on hating them, hating the English for earlier conflicts? Gaining my German identity was very important to me because it finally recognises that part of who I am. I am no longer a bastard."
In all, the number of children born to French mothers and German soldiers is conservatively estimated at 200,000, although the vast majority would be unable to prove their German fatherhood and many may have had their origins concealed by families unwilling to admit to their sense of shame. But Mr Rouxel, vice president of the campaign group Hearts Without Borders, believes as many as 300 people may soon come forward with valid claims.
Mathilde Rouxel was an attractive waitress working in a hotel in the picturesque north-western port of St Malo when she first met Otto Ammon. The German lieutenant stopped his military car and came to her aid when her bicycle chain slipped as she rode in the countryside. With his courtesy, good looks and excellent French, Lt Ammon made an immediate impression on the young Frenchwoman. He also repaired the bicycle. As she handed him a cloth from her saddlebag to wipe his greasy hands, he promised to find her a job at the nearby German base and arranged to see her again.
After the birth of their son, in secrecy in a Parisian maternity unit, the soldier wrote to his own relatives, insisting that the baby should be considered part of the family. The gesture ensured a warm and enduring relationship that has sustained Mr Rouxel in dark moments since he first met the Ammon family when he was 12. Mr Rouxel has married twice, on each occasion to an older woman. "Deprivation in childhood has made me look for a mother in my partners," he said. His second wife, Suzanne, 73, agrees; "He really is my baby. But the age difference has never mattered to us."
His first marriage, to Michelle, was short-lived, though his mother, despite lifelong regrets about the loss of her German officer, married Michelle's father and was apparently happy with him. As a boy, Mr Rouxel had seen his mother for only a few days each year. Her visits were discreet to avoid alerting villagers to her presence. But he grew close to her in later life. She always refused to speak about his father until the day, several years after her husband's death, Mr Rouxel surprised her with an image of Lt Ammon transferred from his computer to the television screen. "It brought tears to her eyes," Mr Rouxel said, "and from then until her own death a year later she would talk of nothing else."
Mr Rouxel is now the proud owner of a German passport confirming his dual nationality. He does not speak German and feels he is too old to learn, but has fulfilled a boyhood dream by buying a Mercedes for his retirement. Looking back, he recalls periods of acute anguish about his harsh early years, and still has feelings of anger about his treatment. Yet he is much less bitter than some might expect.
"You know, I can understand everything," he said. "Everything, that is, except that the people of that village where I grew up should have taken their revenge on the Germans by humiliating an innocent child. "I used to shy away from conversation about the war, thinking I was somehow guilty or responsible. But I wasn't. I was just an accident of war." @Email:email@example.com