NEW YORK – The East Mediterranean Business Culture Alliance (EMBCA) presented Unfinished Business: Postwar Greek Adoption History and Current Adoptee Activism, an informative panel discussion webinar on September 26. The event was introduced and moderated by Lou Katsos, EMBCA's President/Founder. The distinguished panel include Professor Gonda Van Steen- the Koraes Chair in the Centre for Hellenic Studies and the Department of Classics at King's College in London, Professor Mary Cardaras- Chair of the Department of Communication at California State University, East Bay, and Vasilis Sotiropoulos- lawyer at the Supreme Court (Court of Cessation) in the Hellenic Republic.
Katsos gave the welcoming remarks and noted that the event was a follow-up to EMBCA's Hellenic Orphans Taken Abroad from 1821 through the 1960’s panel discussion in January and would focus on the topic of Hellenic orphans (and many not so) brought over to the United States and other nations during the Cold War period in the 1950's and 60's. The history of postwar Hellenic adoptions was discussed as well as the current activism efforts in this important area of concern, including the issue of restoring Hellenic citizenship to Hellenic adoptees.
Among the questions addressed were: What became of the Greek adoptees of the 1950s and 1960s? How do they interpret their own adoption stories? What venues do they seek out to make their voices heard? What remains to be done for them? What is the meaning of the Greek adoptee movement in the broader picture of Hellenic American and transnational relations?
“We hope this panel discussion and conversation contributes to a continuing wave of research, discussions and results on this very important topic of post war adoptee ‘unfinished business,’” Katsos noted.
Professor Gonda Van Steen highlighted several myths and realities concerning the Greek adoptions in her presentation entitled “The Postwar Greek Adoption History: Why an Unfinished Business?” She noted that the period is often thought of as only postwar or post-Civil War, but in fact it was 25 years, from 1950-75 that 4,000 Greek children were adopted and sent to other countries. Most of the adoptees were not orphans and had at least one parent, most of those were unwed mothers mainly because of the social stigma of being an unwed mother in Greece in the 1950s and there were no other solutions available or presented to them at the time. Van Steen also noted that the adoptees suffered psychological damage from being told that they were orphans and many never thought to search for their birth parents or families thinking they had none, but some have subsequently searched and found their relatives in Greece. The first phase of the adoptions in the early 1950s gave way to the “Gold Rush” as Van Steen calls the period of 1953-62, the “kid pro quo” years, referring to her book Adoption, Memory, and Cold War Greece: Kid pro quo? (University of Michigan Press, 2019), which highlights the new, uncharted terrain of Greek adoption stories that become paradigmatic of Cold War politics and history.
In that period, adoptive parents in the U.S. want children and the Greek government makes children available, supply and demand rules apply and illegalities creep in as mediators in the process stand to make money in the process. Van Steen pointed out that at this point some mothers are not even asked permission before their babies are put up for adoption, and in many cases the illegalities are only now coming to light. Some scandals did emerge at the time which led to a decrease in the number of adoptions over the years.
Another myth about the adoptions was that most of the children went Greek-American adoptive parents, and so would preserve their culture, language and religion, when Van Steen found that in fact most went to non-Greek families of various faiths including many Protestant denominations and Jewish families, and many lost their connection to their Greek culture and especially their language, sometimes even if they were adopted by Greek-Americans. Greek children were considered “white enough” in the 1950s to be adopted into white families regardless of background and most went to middle and upper class homes because the adoption process could be expensive.
The idea that Greek birth mothers simply moved on and forgot what happened is another myth that Van Steen noted, pointing out that the “pain of not knowing, the lack of closure is intense and painful to this day.”
Many of the birth mothers still feel shame about what happened and would only speak to Van Steen in the most private of settings which leads Van Steen to believe that they will not unite around the issue as, for example, women in Ireland have concerning being forced to give up their babies for adoption, and do not realize the power of their voice.
That the adoptees all lived happily ever after is another myth that Van Steen debunked, noting that many have only begun recently to speak out about their experiences, about the trauma, abuse, lack of belonging and the lifelong search for answers.
As for the “unfinished business,” Van Steen cited what can still be corrected, including the lack of records and access to records, the lack of recognition from the Greek government, and the loss of Greek citizenship.
Professor Mary Cardaras, speaking from Athens, was adopted from Greece to the USA in the 1950s and shared her personal story in her presentation, entitled The Lifelong Repercussions of Being an Adoptee. She holds a PhD in Public and International Affairs and is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication where she teaches Political Communication, Journalism and Documentary Film at California State University, East Bay. Cardaras is an Emmy award-winning documentary film producer who is currently working on a number of short films about the effects of the environment on public health. She has also written a novella, Ripped at the Root: An Adoption Story, available from Spuyten Duyvil Publishing and on Amazon. As an adoptee, Cardaras is compiling an anthology of Greek adoptee stories, a pioneering initiative, given that no previous such collection exists in English. Cardaras has 13 essayists on board for the book, entitled Voices of the Lost Children of Greece: Oral Histories of Post-War International Adoption, 1948-1968. Their stories, including her own, will strike home the experience of international adoption, whose impact is lifelong, but is not properly measured, let alone acknowledged. Her adoption, and the stigma attached to it, has impacted every aspect of her life, and, indeed, has characterized her life. She explained how the same is true for all the other Greek-born adoptees, who wrote essays for the forthcoming book. Cardaras noted that she is grateful that she did not lose her country of origin as other adoptees did since she was adopted into a large Greek-American family, went to Greek school, attended church, had all Greek friends growing up, but she was always identified as “adopted” and “special” so therefore different. She spoke candidly about the feelings of not belonging, the fear of abandonment, the longing for truth, and how her feelings have evolved over time. Cardaras pointed out that she is not angry and doesn’t blame anyone concerning her adoption, noting that “everyone did the best they could.” She has sympathy and love for her birth mother, though she doesn’t know the exact details surrounding her birth, the 11 days she was with her birth mother before she was placed in an orphanage, and eventually adopted. She was raised in a loving home in the U.S., but she suspects she could also have been raised in a loving, even if economically poorer, home in Greece.
Cardaras noted that she is, once again, a Greek citizen, but the process came with humiliation at having to prove she is Greek, and much more has to be done to ease the process for other Greek-born adoptees to be welcomed back home to Greece and have their citizenship restored, since it was stripped from them as children and infants. Making it easier to obtain birth and adoption records is key to the process.
Athens-native Vasilis Sotiropoulos is a lawyer at the Supreme Court (Court of Cassation) of Greece and holds a Master’s Degree in Public Law. Sotiropoulos’ presentation, entitled Current Action to Restore Greek Citizenship to Greek-born Adoptees, focused on the efforts made to have the Greek citizenship of the adoptees recognized. He explained how his current activism builds on other challenges that have been posed to any narrow definition of Greek citizenship. Sotiropoulos noted that each adoptee’s case is different and books like Van Steen’s are helping in the effort but many people have trouble accessing the documents in the official archives. A newly adopted European Union article may prove helpful as it allows for access to personal data when you prove you are the data subject. He pointed out that there are gaps in the legislation in Greece concerning restoring citizenship but a 1982 law related to Civil War-era repatriation may also help. The government may come to see that they have some historical business to finish and a historical injustice to redress as there is state liability in the issue of the Greek adoptions. Sotiropoulos noted that the issue is very Greek and looking back to ancient Greek tragedy, it should be treated with dignity to find a resolution.
In the concluding remarks of the discussion, Van Steen encouraged AHEPA to become involved in the issue as it was historically involved in the adoptions and has the opportunity to correct history and support a worthwhile cause. Sotiropoulos pointed out that it is important to create a task force to lobby the Greek government in this historic issue. Cardaras urged the Greek diaspora to become involved and to educate themselves about the adoptions by reading not only Van Steen’s book and her own, but American Baby by Gabrielle Glaser which highlights the history of postwar adoption in the United States, and to also talk to adoptees.
Katsos said that the discussion will continue in another session on the issue in a few months and concluded by referring to EMBCA’s upcoming events, including an in-person event honoring OXI Day.
Video of the panel discussion is available on YouTubel: https://youtu.be/gSpc_5nPEtE.
More information is available online: https://embca.com.