Επώδυνος Ελληνισμός, The Greek Diaspora in Pain: From Adoption Allure to Adoptee Activism
by Gonda Van Steen (Guest Editor, firstname.lastname@example.org)
27 November 2021, at the 18th International Book Fair in Thessaloniki: Two speakers and I have been granted a one-hour slot to introduce to the Greek public my recently translated book, Ζητούνται παιδιά από την Ελλάδα: Υιοθεσίες στην Αμερική του Ψυχρού Πολέμου.1 The book discloses the hitherto little-known adoption history of postwar Greece, when the country sent more than 3,000 children abroad to be adopted. During the Q&A session that follows our brief presentations, an elderly man asks to be given the microphone. His tie sports the logo of the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA). He introduces himself as a high-ranking Ahepan and proudly stakes out his organization’s prominent place in the history of the post-Civil War adoptions of Greek children sent to the United States. He admits to never having met any of the Greek-born adoptees, but he confidently declares that all of them fared well, were placed in wealthy homes, pursued advanced educational degrees, and established themselves professionally and financially. As an AHEPA leader, he exalts in the pride of “making diaspora history.” When I point out that the AHEPA-led adoptions were not handled well and brought about many abusive situations, my words go unheard. It is not my first encounter with the AHEPA’s unshakeable narrative of “having done so much good.” It is also not the first or the last time that the occasion does not allow for a spirited defense. I have the words ready, about the AHEPA leadership’s unreflective glorification of the past, which the research on the adoption history contradicts. But he does not hear me. He asks for a selfie with the author and the speakers, just as we are being shood out of the room to make space for the next presentation.
At present, the Greek adoptee diaspora is making its own, incontestable history, and it did not wait for the AHEPA to take notice. The more than 3,000 Greek-born adoptees in the United States and another 600 in the Netherlands are stating their demands, loudly and clearly. They want redress, and they argue for this redress from a human rights perspective. They invoke the emancipatory demands and the legitimate language of forcibly displaced groups worldwide (such as indigenous children placed in white institutions or families, Irish babies taken from their unwed mothers without consent, the “appropriated” Argentinian children whose restitution their grandmothers seek, etc.). The Greek-born adoptees drill down to identity rights as well: they specifically ask for their records, for further research, and for the restoration of their Greek citizenship (as a second citizenship). They represent a grassroots movement that has gained momentum with the first publication in English (and subsequently in Greek) of the Cold War Greek adoption history.
This is a movement that I follow closely and that I like to capture under the three R’s of redress: records, research, and restoration of citizenship. The three R’s rise to the top of the group’s priority list, but it could legitimately ask for more: a professionally monitored DNA database to match Greek-born adoptees and Greek families’ missing newborns, post-adoption services provided by qualified psychologists and therapists, and expert assistance with communication and reunification efforts, among other claims. But the demands for threefold redress best capture the sense of a diaspora once silenced and misrepresented, but now given a voice.
The practice of American and Dutch couples adopting from Greece stopped some fifty years ago. This passing of time leaves the history of the Greek adoptions of the 1950s and 1960s suspended behind a wall of disbelief, if not outright denial. “I have never heard of these adoptions of Greek children sent to the USA or to the Netherlands,” is the most common polite objection I encounter. Those who have heard promptly start idealizing this historical practice. Both of these reactions express a deep scepticism about any critical study of this adoption movement. Moreover, this scepticism comes not only from Greek and Greek American audiences but also from leaders of organizations, even of those organizations, which, like the AHEPA, were deeply involved in placing Greek children abroad for adoption. Some aspects of the postwar international adoption history will continue to resist interpretation, let alone interpretation we can all agree upon. But we are certain that some children’s lives were enriched by the overseas adoptions while others’ lives and families were destroyed by it. Some post-Civil War adoptions delivered an adequate family life to true orphans in need of a home. Most adoptions of the late 1950s through the 1960s, however, favored American couples in need of a child. This sought-after white child, preferably a “blank-slate,” healthy infant, was still called an “orphan,” which erased the single, unwed birth mother whose parenthood was not supported. Irregularities took place as well, and they have cast a long shadow over those adoptees who have come to realize that their adoptions essentially broke the law.
My book Adoption, Memory, and Cold War Greece: Kid pro quo? and several follow-up articles must dispel the cognitive dissonance and must inspire restorative action. Two tall orders… The book lays out the Greek postwar adoption history in great detail and presents indisputable evidence. It establishes the numbers, the procedures, the channels used by the intermediaries, the actual costs and the profits involved, the lack of screening and follow-up, the inadequate audit trails, the psychological issues, and the current activism. Yet the Greek government and the then-intermediaries have yet to conduct their own in-depth investigation.2 There has thus far been no state policy aimed at discovering the truth. There may be a lack of political will to do so: after all, these mass transports of Greek-born children to the United States counter and ultimately debunk the postwar reconstruction narrative in which the Greek American diaspora is heavily vested, given how much charitable aid it sent over to the war-torn homeland. U.S.-bound adoption was and is not a sign of benign tutelage. Rather, it exposes a tremendous national precarity that cast doubts on the legitimacy of political parties and governments. The vulnerability of the nation’s youngest and most helpless citizens, and their mass adoptions abroad, cannot but challenge the nation-building claims of leaders who failed to provide an infrastructure that would have allowed the nation to raise its own citizens, all its citizens. Here, I single out Prime Minister Konstantinos Karamanlis, in particular, who committed to defense spending before spending on child welfare structures. Pro-Americanism served as an ideological, even “humanitarian” banner, celebrating these adoptions that involved hundreds of young lives. But liabilities remain and need to be addressed. These liabilities cannot be dismissed because more than half a century has passed—or because some agents remember to “forget.” Admittedly, it would be safer to speak and write about 1821 and national anniversaries, or even of commemorations of 1922. But leaving the 60- to 70-year-old Greek adoption history buried in the past, without acting on its painful remembrances, constitutes an act of injustice against the adopted children, now aging adults, and also against the birth parents, whose experience, emotion, and agency were erased.
Since 2013, the hitherto little-known diaspora of some 4,000 Greek children adopted out abroad has moved to the center of a new, activist discourse that subverts the previous one, that of the intermediaries who left the adoptees voiceless and rendered their birth parents invisible.3 The adoptee diaspora strikes home the need for Greece and for Greek America to own their past. It also points to opportunities to create a different, more inclusive, and more impactful diaspora history, a history that shows its willingness to revisit and revise the silences and untruths of the recent past.
Are there risks and dangers along the road? Of course, there are. In the past, international adoption was couched in a salvationist master narrative, and the child’s upbringing in a foreign country and culture was presented as nothing short of a fairy tale. Conversely, stories of abuse may swing the pendulum in the opposite direction and may become sensationalized in the mass media. Now 60 and 70 years later, there should be no need anymore for that kind of adoption allure or adoption voyeurism, for outsiders’ casual references to experiences that were, far more often than not, not theirs. The danger that, even today, we, as the consuming audience of ongoing worldwide international adoption, become too enamored with the stories of reunion—with the redemption narratives—is another important pitfall. We have all read the unreflective reunion stories that ignore the family complexities and perpetuate the noise without substance. Such rehashed stories lead to the misconstrued notion that a state-organized mass practice can be resolved at the individual or private level. If such a past practice could be corrected by private initiative alone, we might underestimate the enduring need for a centralized plan for redress, to repair a man-made crisis (and nearly all unscrupulous intermediaries were indeed men). Another risk lies in adoptee activism that loses its connection to research and fact, or that plagiarizes the researcher’s findings and demands while seasoning them with factual errors.4
Work in the public humanities which interfaces with the specific interests of the adoptee collective must still adhere to the highest academic standards, without compromising on certain truths. This adoptee collective is both an existing and a new demographic, a network in-the-making as more adoptees come out of the woodwork to join the conversation. This adoptee movement of the Greek American diaspora has only been recognized belatedly in scholarship as well as in the media. It still has a long trajectory to cover to generate additional research and achieve closure, as it grapples with its own identity politics. If and when, however, work in the public humanities interfaces with the interests of this movement, it will help open up Greek American studies: it will address silenced and “forgotten” pasts, while empowering particular demographics.
The Eastern Mediterranean Business Culture Alliance (EMBCA), a New York-based organization, and its dynamic president Ilias (Lou) Katsos have done much to help create awareness about the Greek adoption history. In 2021 alone, EMBCA hosted two online panel sessions on this subject, which have attracted hundreds of views and comments.5 On the opposite end of the spectrum sits the AHEPA leadership, despite the organization’s historical ties of involvement with the postwar Greek adoption history. The unambiguous archival record calls out for the association’s urgent engagement with the issues that publications have now brought to light.6 No less than three AHEPA presidents of the 1950s played an active role in shaping, promoting, and financially benefiting from the AHEPA’s mass placements of Greek-born children with American adoptive parents. The AHEPA leadership, too, was involved in the first historic scandal of the Cold War intercountry adoption movement, not only by Greek American standards but by international standards. To the credit of the then-membership of the AHEPA, opinion-makers as well as ordinary members stepped up to denounce the practices of their leadership. But historical analysis and awareness must translate into action. Without contributing to the “blame game,” few Ahepans have since stepped up to ask the AHEPA leadership to join in efforts to repair what went wrong. Seldom can history be revised. The current AHEPA leadership is missing a historical opportunity to revisit that part of its history that can still be mended—that it has a moral responsibility to mend. Therefore, the silence of the recent and current AHEPA leadership is deafening. If the AHEPA leadership honors the basic principles of democratic discourse, it ought to practice listening to what some of its members have already been stating.7 The adoptees’ invitation for the AHEPA to join in a program of comprehensive redress and reform remains an open invitation. But let it be restated that an organization that failed to prevent abuses then cannot remain indifferent now. There comes a time when the ongoing failure to address the past is worse than the very acts of the past.
The AHEPA leadership could contribute to the meaningful and effective participation of adoption victims in many ways, to help these victims of reckless adoptions reclaim the Greek components of their identity, to bring closure to their birth relatives, to finally deliver truth to the adoptive relatives. It could also support the adoptee activist effort by joining the conversation about restoring the Greek citizenship of the Greek-born adoptees. Thus, the Order of AHEPA could take the lead in enacting the kind of recognition that both the Order and the Greek state owe to this forgotten diaspora group—a recognition that is, for some people, 70 years overdue.
The conversation about citizenship is critical: the Greek-born adoptees feel strongly that they lost their Greek citizenship through no fault of their own. After all, they were sent away as children whose fate was decided by adult parties. But the adoptees’ desire to reconnect with their citizenship of birth, as with their family and culture of birth, is strong and leaves many outside observers surprised. Here are the facts: the adoptees left Greece as children on a one-way-out Greek passport issued by the Greek state that then acknowledged them as Greek, that is, in the very moment and act of spiriting them away from their homeland. For the many foundlings among the Greek-born adoptees, the Greek citizenship that was validated by their exit visas and confirmed by their blue departure passports was the only fact known about them with any certainty. Until the American naturalization procedure overwrote that morsel of a precarious identity… In the light of such deliberate state and bilateral actions, adoption issues are no longer private or familial issues; they are not victims’ issues, either. Time and again, the historical data and analysis attest to the responsibility of the state and of the go-betweens.
No doubt, the adoptee push for the restoration of their Greek citizenship requires further interrogation. The dislocation associated with international adoption raises issues about political and ethical allegiance, about civic duty, about obligations as well as rights. Granting, restoring Greek citizenship posits the fundamental question of the individual’s integration in society and, therefore, of collective as well as individual identity. The Greek-born adoptees have now made the transition from the initial, genealogical focus of Greek adoptee-hood (centered on their Greek parentage) to identifying as empowered adopted persons—no longer adopted children. The more vocal adoptees’ activism has subverted linear conceptions of history and identity (via lineage). Their progress, or their creative revolving back to the collective past, comes with rights and responsibilities, moral and political.
Being restored to one’s citizenship of origin would mean being granted formal acceptance and recognition; it would symbolize a warm welcome home, regardless of what the adoptee intends to make of that genetic, ethnic, and cultural connection. Citizenship thus becomes a tool of restorative justice. The pursuit of Greek citizenship looms very large in diaspora debates, but the adoptees can justifiably claim a “bloodline” citizenship, without the need to essentialize the jus sanguinis. In fact, the adoptee demands may help to relax, from without and from within, the grip of national heritage and “birthright” in their narrow definitions. There is no need to think of birthright as the only criterion for granting citizenship to the adoptees. The adoptees can rightfully claim to embody a different kind of heritage: one of displacement, migration, silence and secrecy, and the relearning of language and culture. Thus, the adoptee diaspora’s heritage may counter a carefully guarded national narrative of patrimony and lineage, which will no longer be defined in terms that are discursively, geographically, or materially restricted.
The topic of the Greek adoptees’ desire to see their birth citizenship restored needs to be situated in recent conversations about civic identity, inclusive versus exclusive citizenship, and historical belonging in Greece and the diaspora. The activism of the adoptee diaspora and the diaspora scholarship on citizenship may meet each other in multiple productive ways. Notably, the demand for restored citizenship is a vivid desire shared with other postwar intercountry adoptee groups. The Korean-born adoptees seek similar forms of redress and reparation. So do the many adoptees from Romania, Russia, China, or Chile, to name just a few groups. The right to access genetic ancestry information and the right to cultural and social/political belonging feed a type of adoptee activism that has become a global phenomenon, with the Korean-born adoptees taking the discursive lead. Therefore, diaspora studies and diaspora organizations have before them an opportunity to engage with the transnational civic issues of the adoptee demographic. Their shared activism can make a difference in real lives across the globe.
There is no Greek equivalent for the German word Herkunft, a term that captures place of origin, ancestry, and pedigree all in one. The Greek-born adoptees posit the dynamics of heritage and the politics of nation, parentage, and birthplace in new ways—in ways that merit attention. The AHEPA as the leading Greek American organization active in the postwar Greek adoption movement has a civic responsibility to address the demands of the Greek-born adoptees and to do so in a timely fashion. This obligation does not have to be a burden but could, rather, become a catalyst to rekindling diaspora conversations and causes. The adoptee requests are straightforward and valid: they ask the AHEPA to join forces in the demand for easier and bona fide access to Greek citizenship and genealogical records of any kind, and thus to reinvigorate the connection between homeland and homogeneia, to which the adoptees legitimately claim to belong. The Cold War Greek adoption history does not have to become a ground of contestation between the Greek American establishment and the individual adoptees, who are united especially around the demand for a restored Greek citizenship. All parties to the adoption history have been seeking emancipatory and creative forms of belonging, all have questions to pose and stories to tell, and yet the master narrative has traditionally been shaped by the least affected parties: the intermediaries active then and silent now, who have missed the chances to get to know the children they placed, even when the opportunities presented or present themselves. Still, as the adoptee demands in this editorial underpin, we can at least be careful to follow the adoptees themselves instead of being led by our assumptions. The adoptee diaspora seeks the recognition that comes with each one of these very terms. The adoptee diaspora wants to find not only Herkunft or origins, but the peace of all of us having come to grips with what happened.
Gonda Van Steen holds the Koraes Chair in the Centre for Hellenic Studies and the Department of Classics at King’s College London. She is the author of five books: Venom in Verse: Aristophanes in Modern Greece (2000); Liberating Hellenism from the Ottoman Empire (2010); Theatre of the Condemned: Classical Tragedy on Greek Prison Islands (2011); and Stage of Emergency: Theater and Public Performance under the Greek Military Dictatorship of 1967-1974 (2015). Her latest book, Adoption, Memory, and Cold War Greece (2019), takes the reader into the new, uncharted terrain of Greek adoption stories that become paradigmatic of Cold War politics and history. Gonda is currently working on a book in which the Greek adoptees lead the narrative, as is long overdue. For Gonda’s profile, see https://www.kcl.ac.uk/people/gonda-van-steen.
We reached out to the AHEPA leadership for a response but, thus far, we have yet to receive any reply.
I express my warm gratitude to Yiorgos Anagnostou, who has followed my journey into the world of the Greek adoptee diaspora from the beginning and has lent his unwavering support. My title puns, of course, on Apodimos Ellinismos, a formal but standard term to refer to the worldwide Greek diaspora and its concerns. Epodynos means “painful,” and thus Επώδυνος Ελληνισμός could be translated as “The Pain of Greeks Abroad.” My research on the post-Civil War Greek adoption history has taken me beyond the factual study of movements, numbers, and paths. It recalls circuitous physical and psychological journeys, and it touches people’s lives even today. It also prompts ethical and political questions. I apologize in advance if some of the wording here is triggering, which has not been my intention.
1. The English original is entitled Adoption, Memory, and Cold War Greece: Kid pro quo? (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2019). The Greek translation, by Ariadni Loukakou, was published in 2021 by Potamos Publishers.
2. There are hopeful signs, however, that we may be moving closer toward this goal of introspection that will break the silence. I have proactively issued calls to the Greek government to commission a proper investigation, led by an expert task force, that must address the demands of the adoptees and resolve their concerns before it is too late. I have also proposed to assist with centralized efforts to re-establish the adoptees’ original (political and social) identities. After I took the first timid steps in the field of concrete policy-making, which was hitherto unknown to me, scores of adoptees and supporters mobilized to advance our cause, blogging and posting about our demands. We made our questions and concerns heard, we fought for them on many public occasions, and we inspired interlocutors who lack any connection to adoption. Mary Cardaras, in particular, joined the cause with the effectiveness of a trained journalist and the eloquence of a born communicator. Together and with the help of Potamos Publishers, we made news. By late November 2021, after the book launch of the Greek translation and the ensuing media attention, the case for uninhibited adoptee searches and for restoring original citizenship (as a dual citizenship) had been won in the court of Greek public opinion, but not yet in legal or administrative terms. With Mary Cardaras, I continue work in those areas at a steady pace, while broadening the evidence base on which policy responses need to be built. There is no roadmap for navigating this situation, but we’ll find a way. Our aim is not to provoke by exposing a denied reality, but to correct what can still be corrected. Overall, this grassroots movement has been pioneering and impactful, and it has been a very satisfactory moral return on my research time and commitment.
3. I claim 2013 as a starting date, because the adoption topic required not only a multi-year research process but also the construction of an appropriate language and conceptual framework to communicate adoption-related topics relative to Greece. With the growing awareness of the issue and its appeal to civil society came also the need for a legitimate vocabulary of activism in English. Prior engagements with the Greek adoption history, in 1995 and 1996, led, unfortunately, to breaches of confidentiality and search ethics, as well as to divisions among the various adoptee groups (some fueled by the frenzy of the early Internet). One organization that has weathered the past 25 years is the Roots Research Center. Roots has productively expanded its mission beyond reunifications to advocate for better in-country child and foster care solutions.
4. This unforeseen development, too, has unfortunately been part of my experience. The turn to social media has left us with the kind of casual venues where anyone can communicate unreliable “facts.” Facebook and Twitter have created platforms for anyone to claim expertise, and to do so without having to address informed criticism regarding the validity of those “truths.” But that does not mean that extreme caution and discretion are no longer required. Equally important are the international standards of personal data protection and confidentiality. The role of the historian is not only truth-telling via concrete evidence, but also the legal, ethical, and professional management of records. Those whose aim is to expose the adoptees (breaching their privacy) and collect “donations” based on loose promises of reunification efforts do not serve the adoptees. They merely repeat the patterns of exploitation that are now more than half a century old.
5. “Hellenic Orphans Taken Abroad from 1821 through the 1960s” (31 January 2021), and “Unfinished Business: Postwar Greek Adoption History and Current Adoptee Activism” (26 September 2021).
6. See Gonda Van Steen (2021), “Of Foundlings and ‘Lostlings’: When the Scopas Scandal Rocked the Unstable Foundations of the First 1950s Intercountry Adoptions,” Annales de démographie historique, special issue on the history of adoption, “Formes adoptives (XVIe-XXe siècles),” 141, no. 1: 123-155. This article is based on an in-depth study of the legal records associated with the Scopas case: PEOPLE v. SCOPAS (June 1959, June 1960, and March 1962, on appeal), People v. Scopas, 11 N.Y.2d 120, 181 N.E.2d 754 (1962). Printed record on appeal at the Pace Law Library, White Plains, NY. Online case briefs at www.leagle.com.
7. On 26 September 2020, AHEPA Hellas Governor Efstathios Kefalidis extended an invitation to all Ahepans and to all Greek Americans to visit Greece on the occasion of the 200-year anniversary of the Greek Revolution. But the call to travel “home” in 2021 did not include an invitation to the Greek-born adopted persons who were sent abroad as children. Kefalidis’s invitation—and not only his—marked a stark contrast with the AHEPA’s approach to other strands of the Greek diaspora: “recognized” Greek Americans are afforded access to their family histories through online access and assistance from the various citizen services centers (Κέντρα Εξυπηρέτησης Πολιτών, ΚΕΠ). The AHEPA has shown widespread support for Hellenic genealogy tourism, but it has yet to include the nostos of the Greek-born adoptees. See the online panel discussion hosted by Ilias Katsos on 26 July 2020, “200th Anniversary of the Hellenic Revolution of 1821 and Hellenic Genealogy Tourism.” At about 35 minutes into the discussion, Kefalidis explains the details of a new and ambitious project called “Live the Story of Your Origins” but, again, adoptee origins are not on the AHEPA’s radar. Also of interest is the EMBCA panel session of 27 September 2020, “Hellenic Dual Citizen Initiative on the 200th Anniversary of the Hellenic Revolution.”