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General News

Three Shocking Greek Adoption Stories, Three Women Talk to TNH

February 2, 2023

ATHENS – Life stories full of the struggle to discover the truth, reconnect with one’s roots, and ‘return’ to one’s native land – such are the stories of many of the thousands of Greek children who in the 1950s and 1960s were given up for adoption en masse.

The joys and sorrows that life has since brought them, in these new families and homelands almost always went hand in hand with a bittersweet nostalgia for their birthplace, Greece, a longing for the past that was lost, and the future that they hoped to gain. Three women, Mary Cardaras, Maria Heckinger and Sonia Rijnsdorp, spoke to The National Herald about their own life paths, as well as their grievances, anxieties, and vindication.

SEARCHING FOR THE TRUTH

Mary Cardaras has always been a proud Greek. Adopted by a Greek-American couple, she was always in touch with Greek culture, language, and religion. For years she had been discreetly searching for any information that might lead her to the truth about her roots and further, reunion with them.

Little Mary Cardaras, in the hug of her mother, Amalia, little after her arrival to the U.S., in 1956. (Photo courtesy of M. Cardaras)

She spoke to The National Herald about her motivations.

Mary Cardaras: When Amalia, my adoptive mother, died in 2018 (my father died in 2000), I felt completely alone and untethered and decided shortly after to re-connect with my roots. I went back to church and enrolled in Greek school.

There I met a woman whose cousin was also an adoptee and had an unbelievable story. I wanted to meet her cousin, Dena Poulias, and was keen to write her story, which turned into the book ‘Ripped at the Root’. During the course of interviewing the family and doing research, I learned about the book ‘Adoption, Memory and Cold War Greece: Kid pro Quo?’ and for the first time learned about the dark period in Greece’s history after WWII and the Civil War. I was one of the 4,000 Dr. Gonda Van Steen researched and wrote about. With the help of Gonda Van Steen and Mary Theodoropoulou, who runs an organization called the Roots Research Center, I learned that my birth mother had died, but subsequently found and met my uncle and cousins, my mother’s friends and caretaker. It wasn’t until 2022 that I learned my mother was from a village in Epirus called Elatis. She spent some time in Arta, then in Athens after I was born, and then moved to Kato Vasiliki, near Nafpaktos.

RETURN TO THE BIRTHPLACE

Mary Cardaras. (Photo courtesy of Mary Cardaras)

The National Herald: Have you been to Greece?

Mary Cardaras: I will go to Elatis later this year, but I have been to my mother’s grave and the place where she had lived for the past thirty or so years. I saw her house and was given her coat and a watch she wore. I drew the garment to my face. It still had the scent of her perfume on it. I was overwhelmed to be somewhere near her, to see where she actually lived and was loved. And for the first time I heard people tell me that I looked like, walked like, and stood like someone else. I have a low, husky, hoarse voice. My mother had the same. I have never been told I was like anyone else.
The National Herald: Tell us about ‘Voices of the Lost Children of Greece’, your book that was recently published.

“Voices of the Lost Children of Greece”

Mary Cardaras: I am very, very proud of the collection and the thirteen essayists who joined me in telling their adoption stories. For many of my fellow adoptees, it was a courageous thing to do; to expose themselves by reliving some of their very painful experiences by telling others about it. We all have different stories, but there are similarities in our feelings. These testimonials are important so that people understand that adoption can also be a source of great pain and confusion. Think about it. To create one family, another one had to be destroyed to do it. Adoption is not [a simple matter]. Adopted babies and young children grow into adult adoptees and we need and want to know where we come from and from whom we come. It is our human right to have this vital information, which in the end, makes us whole.

 

Mary Cardaras, editor of “Voices of the Lost Children of Greece” that features the stories of 14 adopted Greek children. (Photo courtesy of M. Cardaras)

LOOKING FOR THE ‘WHY’

We asked Sonia Rijnsdorp about the eternal ‘why?’

TNH: What were the reasons your birth family gave you up for adoption to a family in the Netherlands when you were one-and-a-half year old?

Sonia Rijnsdorp: I met with my biological mother in 2000 and she told me she was pregnant and my father did not want to marry her, so she had to give me away. Only two years ago did I hear the complete story, when I found out who my father was. One of his sisters is still alive and told me that my mother came back to the city telling everyone that she had a miscarriage. Nobody ever knew that I was born.

FEELINGS FOR BIOLOGICAL PARENTS

Picture taken at the baptism of Sonia Rijnsdorp. (Photo courtesy of Sonia Rijnsdorp.)

Sonia, after admitting that for many years she was very angry with her birth mother for giving her up for adoption.

TNH: What was your reunion with your father’s family like?

Sonia Rijnsdorp: Two years ago I found the whole family on my father’s side, but my father already died, in 1994. His family accepted me fully, I have eight more siblings and lots of cousins. They tell me that my father would have loved to know about me. My oldest brother asked me, in the name of the other siblings, if I want to take on their last name, together with my Dutch last name, as my father would have wanted that. So last year I filed the request at the Ministry of Justice, to alter my last name. The case is still pending.

My feelings, mainly about my mother have eased. I know now that the women in the late 50’s, early 60’s had no choice but to give their child away. Under pressure from the family, the church….

COMMUNICATION WITH OTHER ADOPTEES

 

Little Sonia Rijnsdorp. (Photo courtesy of Sonia Rijnsdorp.)

TNH: Do you communicate with others who have similar stories?

Sonia Rijnsdorp: I do. We have a big community and see each other regularly. Of course, Holland is small, so we drive over to see each other very easily. Once a year we organize a dinner for anyone who wants to join (about 40-50 people, usually the same every year!) and in the meantime we have our own friends and small subgroups with whom we eat, go out etc. We also have our own Facebook group, Ta Pedia.

DIFFICULT BEGINNINGS

Advertisement of TWA, showing Greek children, that flied with the company towards the U.S. (Photo courtesy of Maria Heckinger)

TNH: Tell us about your adoptive family.

Maria Heckinger: I was three years old when I arrived in San Diego, CA from the Patras Orphanage. I was never told I was adopted but knew early on I was different than my playmates.

My adoptive family, the Paces, had significant dysfunction. Mom grew up in a loving home with parents who adored her and nurtured talents in every way. In stark contrast, Dad was raised by two mentally unstable parents and was ill-equipped to be a loving husband and father because he had not experienced love himself. When they’d tried to start a family without success, Dad blamed her. Twelve years later a fertility test finally provided the answer: Dad was sterile! In a desperate move of self-preservation, Dad embraced adoption, but he secretly remained reluctant about the idea. His motivation to adopt had little to do with loving children; it was a last-ditch effort to conceal his infertility and save his marriage. The consequences of that decision took an emotional toll on me that left deep scars I still wrestle with today.

IF…

First photograph of Maria Heckinger, that was sent to her eventual parents, for adoption approval. (Photo courtesy of Maria Heckinger)

TNH: Have you ever thought about what would have happened if you had not been adopted

Sonia Rijnsdorp: Growing up in the Pace household, I often wished I had not been adopted or at least not adopted by the Paces. If I had remained with my birth mother, Hariklea, we would have struggled financially during the early years, but poor does not equal unhappy. Hariklea would have provided a safe home, of this I am certain. It would have made all the difference in the world if Hariklea could have kept me and her job at the furniture factory. Either way I have no doubt she would have figured something out.

Little Sonia Rijnsdorp with her god mother. (Photo courtesy of Sonia Rijnsdorp.)
Little Sonia Rijnsdorp with her foster father. (Photo courtesy of Sonia Rijnsdorp.)

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WASHINGTON, DC – The American Hellenic Institute (AHI) has issued the following statement on May 20 in remembrance of the Pontic Greek Genocide: “Today, we join with the Pontic Greek community to commemorate the anniversary of the Pontic Greek Genocide, a crime against humanity.

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