Gonda Van Steen, Adoption, Memory, and Cold War Greece. Kid pro quo? Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 2019. Pp. xi + 319. 18 illustrations. Paperback $39.95.
As Tara Zahra (2011) and others have maintained, children were an important public concern during the post-World War II period as governments sought to rebuild their nations demographically and ethnically. Recently, several studies have demonstrated that this was also the case for Greece during the Civil War and post-Civil War periods, when children became contested objects of opposing political forces. Many of the families and their children who were caught in this conflict suffered long-lasting effects. Until recently, however, most studies on this topic focused on children who were raised in prisons by their communist mothers, taken to communist countries by the Democratic Army, or gathered in so-called “children’s towns” (παιδουπόλεις) that were run by Queen Frederica’s Fund of Northern Provinces (Dalianis-Karambatzakis 1994, Danforth and Boeschoten 2011, Hassiotis 2013). In Adoption, Memory, and Cold War Greece. Kid pro quo?, Gonda Van Steen brings new light to this issue by focusing on the intercountry adoptions of Greek children during the post-Civil War period, particularly the adoption of children from Greece to the United States, which constituted the largest contingent of adoptions of this largely understudied phenomenon.
More specifically, Van Steen’s book explores the 3,200 adoptions of Greek-born children by American couples that took place between 1950 and 1962, a period the author calls the “deep Civil War” (5). Initially, these adoptions, publicized as part of the American aid to Greece, were politically motivated, involving children of left-wing families whose parents were exiled, executed, or killed during the course of civil strife and who often were sent to the United States without the consent of their relatives. After 1955, such adoptions became massive in number, were driven by social rather than political concerns, and mainly involved children born to unwed mothers or destitute parents. Van Steen convincingly demonstrates that both types of placements were in fact political, embedded as they were in the early Cold War context of international intercountry adoptions. In Greece, such adoptions were evoked by Greek officials as part of the propaganda that aimed to enhance the international prestige of the throne as well as Queen Frederica’s image as “mother of the nation.” On the other side of the Atlantic, American officials viewed the adoptions as a way of presenting America as a “rescuer” during the Cold War. The adoptions were facilitated by expedient local procedures, agile if dubious intermediaries in both countries, amenable future parents in the United States, and the implicit tolerance of international authorities. Indeed, the transfer of children through these adoptions became a lucrative business for agents on both sides of the Atlantic, who often employed contentious and even outright illegal practices to facilitate them.
Van Steen explores this fascinating yet largely unknown phenomenon with an explicit purpose: to reconstruct the complex processes through which these adoptions took place and to give voice to those individuals—namely adoptees and their children—who were affected by them the most. Seeking to explore the answer to the subtitle of her book, Kid pro quo?, Van Steen addresses the “price” of these adoptions as well as who it was that paid the cost for the “commodification” of these children. To answer the first question, Van Steen conducts meticulous archival research in Greece and the United States. To answer the second question, she collects and shares with her readers stories from adoptees or their offspring who were eager to learn about their birth families. Through the testimonies she collects, Van Steen illustrates the varied ways in which adoptions were experienced, analyzing them from the perspective of the interdisciplinary field of memory studies. As she does this, the answer to the question of her subtitle becomes clear: the “price” paid were the adoptees themselves, whose subjectivities were shaped by their traumatic experiences, whose identities were violently transformed, and whose ties with their birth relatives were abruptly severed.
The book consists of three parts. Part 1 concerns the Greek side of the story. It analyzes adoption in Greece in the context of American-Greek relations after the post-Civil War period. Van Steen illustrates that a crucial factor that facilitated these adoptions was the host of welfare institutions supported or created by the Queen’s Fund, such as the Patriotic Institution for Social Welfare and Awareness (known as PIKPA) and, even more crucially, the Babies’ Center Metéra. The author meticulously reconstructs the process that led several children to be adopted by American families. Highlighting a shift in the way intercountry placements were made, with political considerations giving way to social considerations, Van Steen examines the role of existing birth relatives as well as of the intermediaries and the international adoption circuit. At the center of the author’s narrative is the story that triggered her research, namely the case of the Argyriadis sisters who were adopted by an American family after their parents passed away in 1952—the father having been executed as a communist traitor and the mother having committed suicide. Serving at the time as the Executive Director of the Modern Greek Studies Association, Van Steen was contacted by the son of one of the Argyriadis sisters, when after his adoptive mother’s death, he discovered her Greek origin. To assist him in his search for answers, the author embarked on a scholarly adventure that led to the writing of Adoption, Memory, and Cold War Greece. The fact that the case of the Argyriadis sisters was part of both the Greek and the American historical context enabled the author to examine the political and institutional aspects of intercountry adoptions.
Part 2 of the book focuses on the American and international context and examines the general trend of postwar intercountry adoptions in the United States. Exploring a burgeoning historiography on the issue, Van Steen attributes the drive for “adoptable” Greek children to what she calls the “AHEPA connection.” Active on both sides of the Atlantic, the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA) was well placed to respond to the growing demand for adoptable children by both Greek Americans and other Americans. The author offers an exhaustive reconstruction of the institutional and ideological framework that shaped Greece into a supplier of adoptees to meet this American demand. She also explores the role of the international institutions involved in the process, tracing the ways that Ahepans and their representatives in Greece used certain discrepancies that existed between the legal adoption framework within Greece and the International Social Service (ISS) procedures to their advantage. Doing so, Van Steen sheds light on the scandals that emerged in the late fifties regarding these adoptions. She illustrates how amidst a succession of reports about irregularities in the adoption procedures and growing criticism of the program, AHEPA initiated internal investigations regarding illicit adoptions and the placement of children in non-Orthodox and non-Christian adoptive homes.
Part 3 of the book is dedicated to the stories and testimonies of adoptees who share their experiences of abuse, pain, and sorrow, but also of care and affection. Focusing on “the public through the personal” (183), Van Steen shows that irrespective of the adoptees’ particular experiences, the separation they experienced from their birth families affected their subsequent lives and the lives of their children. Using extensive interviews and other forms of communication with the adoptees (such as letters, email, and Skype video chats, for example), Van Steen deftly constructs her narratives with discretion and empathy, while addressing delicate issues, such as abuse, change of religion, and other negative experiences. The personal stories that are shared in her book allow the reader to follow the labyrinthic bureaucratic processes which led to these intercountry adoptions as well as the routes from birth to adoption and from legal to illicit adoption. What unites these stories are the adoptees’ quests for identity, which the author analyzes through the prism of trauma and post-memory. Van Steen maintains that even the happier adoptions constituted traumatic experiences as they violently reshaped identities, not only those of the adoptees but also those of their children.
The book contains several appendices that affirm its explicit mission: to help Greek-born adoptees who live in the United States and wish to locate and be reunited with their birth families. Appendix 2, “Practical Information for Greek-Born Adoptees—Pathways and Paperwork” (263-274), together with “Information and Reunification Sites for Greek-Born Adoptees” (275-276) serve this goal explicitly. It is obvious that Van Steen clearly intends to take sides. As she herself states, “How can one possibly remain a distant researcher when given the opportunity to touch lives?” (xx). And lives she has touched, as she has assisted and continues to assist adoptees and their children find their birth families.
The book also contains many insights on issues related to the history of postwar Greece that render it a valuable resource for anyone interested in this period. I briefly mention only a few here, pointing to the need for further research. The first concerns the author’s implicit recommendation that Greek historiography should address the connection between individual experiences and broader social and global phenomena. The second, which is also implicit in the book, is the lasting effect of anticommunism and conservatism on welfare provision in postwar Greece, which has been characterized by a mix of public and private actors. Extensive research on the varied and complex welfare interventions organized by the Queen’s Fund together with the King’s Royal National Foundation is still lacking. Such research would challenge the dominant view in political science which argues that the Greek welfare state is weak. Indeed, research on social welfare provision in postwar Greece that focuses on the mixed economy of welfare provisions (where the state and private initiatives work together to provide social welfare support to citizens) has only just begun. Much more is needed. Finally, the history of social work in Greece—a topic which Van Steen only touches upon—must also be further studied. For example, more needs to be known about the repeated (and failed) initiatives to establish social work education in Greece as well as attempt to professionalize the field. Van Steen’s book therefore points to several areas of research that should be revisited and more fully explored by scholars interested in Greece.
And yet, despite the depth of analysis and the scope of Adoption, Memory, and Cold War Greece, it is puzzling that notions of kinship and family remain unexplored by Van Steen when these concepts are so central to her work. And, while it is evident that Van Steen does not adopt a biological approach to kinship, it is not always clear what adoptees mean when they refer to their “family” or their “kin.” What does the quest for “birth relatives” really mean to them? A case in point is Mike, an adopted child of one of the Argyriades sisters. While Mike is an adoptee himself, neither the issue of his own adoption nor his feelings and intentions regarding, for example, whether he wishes to search for his own birth family are ever discussed. Instead, Mike is presented as someone who is committed to tracing his mother’s birth relatives and that it is his mother’s traumatic experiences which have been transmitted to him and inspire his artwork.
All things considered, this is an important book, a valuable contribution that enriches the vibrant historiography on intercountry adoptions with a focus on the Greek case. In addition to the book’s accomplishments discussed above, Adoption, Memory, and Cold War Greece. Kid pro quo? is also a great read, combining lively and moving prose with lucid and solid analysis.
Efi Avdela is Professor Emerita of Contemporary History at the Department of History & Archaeology of the University of Crete. Her research interests concern the social and cultural history of the twentieth century, with an emphasis on gender, crime, violence and criminal justice, youth, sexuality, and voluntary associations. She has coordinated several collective research projects and has published extensively in various languages. Among her latest publications are “Το κόστος της μύησης. Ομοερωτικές πρακτικές ανηλίκων στα δικαστικά αρχεία και όχι μόνο, 1940-1970” in Dimitra Vassiliadou and Glauke Gotsi’s Ιστορία της σεξουαλικότητας στην Ελλάδα (2020); “The Quest for (a Utopian?) European History” in Sonja Levsen and Jörg Requate’s Why Europe, Which Europe? A Debate on Contemporary European History as a Field of Research (2020); “Racialism and Eugenics in Greek Criminology: The Case of Konstantinos Gardikas (1896-1984)” in Crime, Histoire & Sociétés/Crime, History & Societies (2020); “From Virginity to Orgasms: Marriage and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Greek” (with Kostis Gotsinas, Despo Kritsotaki and Dimitra Vassiliadou) in the Journal of Family History (2020); and When Juvenile Delinquency became an International Post-War Concern: The United Nations, the Council of Europe and the Place of Greece (2019).
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