Are we there yet?
by Gonda Van Steen
Author’s Note: In the second half of May 2018, I traveled to Greece with four Americans who, when they were children in the 1950s, were dispatched by Greece for adoption in the United States. Marianna, Linda, Jay, and Lori come from all corners of the States, but their common roots lie in or near the port of Patras. We visited various places that were important landmarks of their earliest days and months. For all four of them, the trip was a direct encounter with Greece and its people and also with their adoption history. The participants also spent ample time getting to know each other. I observed them and kept a travel journal. I encouraged them, too, to write down their own impressions and to share pictures. The essay below reflects our collective effort capturing and reliving the Greek adoption phenomenon by way of a “root trip.”
My current research aims to present a Greek American adoption ethnography, set against the backdrop of the Greek Civil War and the Cold War. I study the adoption routes leading from Greece to the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. My informants have been Americans, Greek Americans, and Jewish (Greek) Americans, who were adopted as infants or small children from Greek institutions or given up by birth mothers typically between 1955 and 1962. These children were shepherded through an adoption system that worked by proxy and was controlled by a small circle of orphanage directors, local mayors, doctors, lawyers, and Greek American community leaders. The methods used ranged from legal and slow-moving procedures to hasty, dubious, and plain illegal practices. The numbers involve more than three thousand children, and every extended Greek family seems to know of at least one case of an adopted or abandoned child, or a child that otherwise went missing.1
“Are We There Yet?” The Greek Adoptees’ Road of Return–An Essay
There are five of us, four American adoptees of Greek descent and one observer “adopted” by the adoptees, and we agree that we need a theme line to name this “root trip,” our common travel experience and quest. By unanimous agreement, we decide on “Are we there yet?” Are we in Patras yet, from where three of my fellow travelers departed in the 1950s? Have we reached Nafpaktos yet, north of which Linda’s birth mother awaits us all? The geographical “Are we there yet?” is easily covered by our multi-day travel itinerary, which, distance-wise, does not stray very far from Athens. That’s what airline tickets and car rentals are for. But more important are the cognitive, emotional, and even traumatic distances we might travel, the metaphorical implications of our chosen phrase, “Are we there yet?” Will we unearth any new information about the adoptees’ histories? Are we psychologically prepared enough for what we might find? Are we there yet to digest it all? And to act on it? When and how?
The persistent question “Are we there yet?” expresses impatience, and almost always a child’s impatience. But the child adopted from Greece in the 1950s or early 1960s needs patience more than anything else, because the paths of discovery take a long time and the roadblocks, bureaucratic and otherwise, are many. There are moments of unshaken togetherness and solidarity among us five, which alternate with times when each one of us seeks isolation to be able to process the latest setback or disappointment. The sense of belonging, to the group, to the families that two of the adoptees were able to recover, to the country of Greece, and to Greek history runs deep, and the camaraderie becomes intimate and sustaining. But genuine, too, are the many reminders of not belonging, of returning “home” as forgotten outsiders, for having been sent off by Greece in the difficult postwar circumstances. For now, however, the focus of our root trip is on the social history of 1950s Greece, down to the microlevel of family stories. The political contours of the end of the Greek Civil War and of the onset of the Cold War do crop up, and they remain pervasive, but political explanations are not what our team is currently looking for.
Greece facilitated the adoption and migration of some 4,000 children in the 1950s through the mid-1960s. Only the first groups of these children may be called “orphans” of the war, as most of the children were actually born in the mid-1950s. Many were sent on their way with minimal documentation. The sheer lack of records has left many of these children, now older adults, with unresolved questions about their roots and, inevitably, with keen impressions that their fates were decided arbitrarily, perhaps even illegally. My travel companions and many other Greek adoptees (some of whom are traveling with us vicariously, as they closely follow the daily posts of pictures and comments on Facebook) are deeply vested in their search for answers, and any frustrations come at an emotional cost. The Greek state’s perceived unwillingness to deliver answers about their past is perceived to be infantilizing all over again.
Adopted children are always called back to their childhoods, however subtly or fleetingly. The act of adoption carries with it the very connotation of a (dis)placement that happened during one’s early years. Childhood remains the adoption’s unshaken point of reference. Nobody asks about the adopted adult, even if this adult makes his or her presence repeatedly known, standing tall in front of the native interlocutors, who display curiosity and hospitality, but occasionally also insensitive judgement (as when one archivist derails our search for hospital birth records, claiming that the Virgin Mary suffices as the mother of us all). A common reaction, indeed, is the rhetorical denial or the (nationalist) preempting of the adoptee’s search and of the urgency or personal anguish associated with it. Platitudes about Greece now or then do not in the least account for a life-defining experience for the adoptee, or for a traumatic chapter in Greek history that implicated many state institutions and individuals. Nobody among the locals we encounter inquires about half a century of living one’s life as an American, of trying to fit in from childhood up through age 60 and beyond, of being told “just how lucky you are.” Instead, time is a time warp in which the adoptees are thrown from one extreme end to the other, as if there are no sixty formative years in between. Space is warped, too, and one’s place of birth may well shift, as for Linda, who was told for a lifetime that she was born in Athens, to then have her place of birth relocated to Nafpaktos and then once more to a tiny village in the rugged mountains to the north.
The passive-sounding label “adoptee” does not do justice to the self-selected and very dynamic members of our travel team, who are reclaiming agency before they try to recapture heritage, both family and cultural heritage. Americans adopted Greek children, and Greek and Greek-American mediators transported these children through practices that muddled time, space, and especially control. The adult parties made all the decisions and sometimes left legacies of falsehoods and lies. The adoptees’ story is, therefore, about the kind of knowledge and power that vacated their own agency if they were transported as very young children. New data, technologies, and other resources have helped the adult adoptees, however, to subvert the long-established and oft-resented premise of the child’s powerlessness. The adoptees’ own arrivals in the United States and those of many other children have long blended into the larger narrative of the postwar diaspora and adult migration from Greece and of Cold War melting-pot America. We may even claim that diasporic studies has thus far ignored the very topic of postwar and Cold War “intercountry” child adoption, as this emerging trend was then called. But assisted by the records and the recollections of the adoptees themselves, this lacuna in our knowledge of postwar Greece may still be adequately addressed. Also, the lack of a solid theoretical or experiential framework folds the transnationalism of these Greek and many other international adoptees into a more complex process of mediating or routing between origins and destinations, allowing for the latter to become the former.
Our four adoptees are children of the unknown history/ies of 1950s Greece, squeezed between the hard-core political and the intimately personal. The transnational adoptions of these four, and of hundreds more Greek babies and children, had to minimize the costs for the country associated with maintaining the many postwar orphaned and abandoned minors. Unwittingly, the children became pawns caught in networks of inclusion and exclusion: inclusion in the 1950s practice of rapidly increasing Greek adoption exports, which covered many institutional and other channels, and exclusion as far as the sharing of any further knowledge or control was concerned. Each one of our four adoptees has, for years, been coping with the “truths” of their lives that do not add up. Such truths encompass the many dramatized stories told by the mediating lawyers to the adoptive parents, who passed them on to the children and embellished them in the (numerous) acts of retelling. Adult adoptees who have conducted their own personal research, however, have come upon (scant) information that subverts the burnished tales—and upon the frustration of diminishing rather than increasing certainties. But, through the deliberate, self-propelled routes of unsilencing—the telling and the interrogating—the old givens of their lives may finally gain new and deeper meaning, even amidst the ever-renewed open-endedness. The complexities stemming from family ties impose new layers and added tensions, too, as do the contradictions originating in the context of two families, a first and a second family (in current adoption parlance).
The four adoptees have long found each other; they have been communicating with one another and they know one another’s stories well. Their travels are not inspired by any state-initiated “roots tour” (let alone by state-sponsored “roots tourism”), but by the desire to share the intense experience of searching for family and for Greek relatedness. “Greek” is still, for now, a category of affinity and a marker of identification that all four of them live selectively, though not entirely experientially. Some have cultivated “Greek affinities” by attending Greek festivals in the States; they are well aware that such connections remain superficial. Others do what they can to learn the Greek language, “difficult as it is.” The sense of the adoptees being watched, judged, or spoken for by the nationalist measuring stick of “Greekness” remains overwhelming, nonetheless, despite the warm reception they receive from onlookers and interlocutors, restaurateurs and shopkeepers everywhere on our itinerary.
Meanwhile, the common travel experience of our trip adds its own layer of symbolic kinship and helps realize (imagined or other) affinities. These newfound connections work well within the small group setting, as when two of the adoptees spontaneously run off to an abandoned village playground to “relive” the innocent childhood years in the village that they never knew. And everyone else understands what they are doing, that there is nothing abnormal about a duo of sixty-year-olds having a blast playing on the swing sets by the river. Jay captured the sheer subjectivity of the moment when he recalled later on: “It was just such a fun day . . . doing things that us, old folks, don’t normally do. It was really a carefree experience, with no thoughts beyond the moment. None of the serious reasons for which we were in Greece mattered. . . Yes, it was one of the best days I’ve had in a long time.”
As individuals and personalities, the four of them could not be more different. First, Marianna loves challenges and battles of wits. She has been on this root quest for more than three decades, and she has achieved important results: she has found her biological mother and also a half-sister, but she has also learned disturbing information about her birth father. Even though Marianna is in possession of the most important answers and data, she strongly feels that there is still a country and a culture to get to know better—even a Greek childhood to seize upon. Marianna calls herself the “cheerleader” of the team, rooting for the most gratifying results for the others. The violence of her early beginnings contrasts with her own, generous kindness, as she wishes them nothing but the best outcomes. Undaunted, Marianna independently travels back to Patras, where she was born, and she beautifully manages family and social communications in Greek. Marianna has long discovered the art of self-making and self-living in relation to an early history clouded by rape and suffering. Both Marianna and Linda are engaged in autobiographical writing, which reflects their persons as subjects in the process of further becoming. They both realize that more elements of self-making and of Greek kinship remain to be discovered and experienced. The language of their memoirs is rich and emotional, but I catch myself trying to psychologize it. I need to hold back and let them explore further this new language and landscape of feelings, need to refrain from subsuming their voices. Our travels and our writings amount to a collective knowledge-making enterprise, I remind myself.
Linda is a witty and talkative all-Southern type, and also a “born” optimist and go-getter. She is a staunch devotee of country music, clogging, and the Baylor football team. Open and charitable, Linda does not pass up any opportunity to chat with the Greeks we meet, to forge connections, to promise return visits, and even to do some match-making on the side. Linda’s reunion story with her mother in the mountain village north of Nafpaktos, with its hearty ingredients of love, shame, betrayal, death, and redemption, is the stuff of movies; it makes the adoption “flick” Lion look nothing but tame. The road to her isolated mountain village, which, as promised, we cover together, is breathtakingly beautiful. And like her story, the road itself is also really arduous—symbolic of how she was born there, taken away, and reunited fifty-nine years later, with—as Linda would tell it—all the luck brought on by her Greek name Eftychia and by God. Linda’s eighty-year-old birth mother had always been waiting. She had not been given even a picture of her one and only child to hold on to. We all share in the tremendous joy that mother and daughter are at last given time to build a relationship together, across time, space, and language barriers. Food offerings and also occasional peace offerings strengthen the newfound connectivity, in which the whole extended family is eager to engage.
Jay is an extremely fair-skinned Midwesterner of Greek descent, with a good head on his shoulders, a passion for animals and music, and a talent for organizing. He happily takes on the role of our token man, not quite sure himself why adoption stories and quests attract far more women than men. Helpful as ever in other people’s searches, Jay’s own origins as a foundling who was abandoned on the steps of a prominent church in the city center of Patras remain a mystery. But Jay’s quest has led to the discovery of Greece as a country and of new horizons of understanding and affect, broadened by the spontaneous activities of a global Greek adoptee network and virtual community (courtesy of his own unwavering curiosity and of various, loosely organized Facebook groups). Jay works magic on the very data related to the 1950s Greek adoptions, and his analytical and numerical skills have become a resource to many. Jay keeps a “journal” of the trip in Excel.
Lori is a giving and loyal but no-nonsense New Yorker who grew up as an only child in a Jewish household. She is a flawless judge of characters and conditions, and she is never left without words. She perceives her identity to be three-fold: Greek, American, and Jewish, and she has embraced the “best in all worlds”—in her ready answer. For Lori, the adopted nation of the United States may not have fulfilled its promise entirely, but New York City certainly did. This tough girl from the Bronx has held her own as a teacher for many years.
And Lori has been on this quest before. In the late 1990s, she met with a full biological sister, whom she has since lost. The two siblings were not kept together. Looming over them, as well as over another biological sister, was the shadowy existence of a half-known birth mother, who, some twenty years later, may or may not live and may or may not want to know her daughter. Like Jay’s, Lori’s adoption, too, has become a node of new knowledge. It has opened pathways to new friendships and innovative cultural blends, rather than stalling near the gravity points of loss and pain.
I myself act as the translator, researcher, and eye-witness of the others’ internal as well as transatlantic journeys. For being an observer studying the history of the Greek adoption movement, I am supposed to remain as objective as possible, but the lines between study and subjectivity inevitably blur. In retrospect, many situations offered no outside position that I could (or wanted to) safely occupy. There was very little private ground to which I could quietly make a retreat. I am grateful for these adoptees’ engagement and trust. The rules of our collaboration have been easy and are self-imposed: no talk about religion or Trump. We respect each other’s private moments to digest the unending flood of feelings and experiences. Also, what we absolutely want to share with or record for each other, we enter into a common journal that collects all of our writings. This old-fashioned journal bears the inviting title of “I hope you dance.” And dancing we do, around data and discretions.
Our joint trip starts out from a location near the Athens airport. The ancient site of Delphi is next on our itinerary of our first full day of travel. We can use every bit of oracular wisdom but, please, no more enigmatic language. We also skip the fork in the road where Oedipus, on the escape himself from his well-meaning Corinthian family, found his Theban birth father obstructing his path. For ourselves, we wish life had turned out otherwise. We hope we will not be faced with yet more riddles, or be left pulling together a lifetime of missed cues. Soon Nafpaktos welcomes us with all its calm and beauty, and with the hospitality of Linda’s ever-growing Greek family. The Greek relatives want to meet us, and they sigh in astonishment when they realize up close how prevalent the 1950s phenomenon of the missing but adopted Greek children truly was.
On the next day, our trip leads from Nafpaktos to Patras over the magnificent modern bridge that connects mainland Greece to the Peloponnese. The sights offer up picture-postcard Greece: the sea water glistens, the mountains loom large, and we feel as if suspended in mid-air. Suspended answers. Suspense. The Patras Orphanage has not given up its secrets to Jay, and neither has the Town Hall or the Office of Vital Statistics. Information is scant and always hard to come by. What about the hospital records, the baptismal records, the …? In the months prior to our travel dates, DNA results have traced Jay’s origins back to Patras but also to a number of distant relatives who have since vanished into the black hole of online unresponsiveness. Is an “illegitimate” child (as per an ill-named but likely scenario) still too delicate a topic to talk about? Some adult parties must know something. Each one of them joins in the decision to keep things quiet, to preserve the fragile family status quo. The adoptee is once more up against a wall of silence. To what extent have times really changed in small-town Greece? Off we go to the church where Jay was found, wrapped in a blanket with a note pinned to it, stating “his name is Mitsos.” “Did any woman come and ‘confess’ in later years,” we ask the oldest priest we can find. Unfortunately, we, too, find ourselves reusing the language of sin, shame, and redemption. Do we even ask if any biological father ever stopped by to look for a child left behind on a cold November night in 1954?
Lori is anxious. How could she not be? She and all of us are intensely looking for a birth mother who gave up three girls in the course of four years. How could this mother’s repeated pregnancies have gone unnoticed? What were the circumstances? Was there violence involved? But the hindsight that might create its own meanings is an unfair yardstick by which to hold the fate of a young woman of the 1950s. If Lori’s birth mother is still alive, has she been living with the continual fear of being judged, with a burden some sixty years heavy? Fortunately, Lori’s quest is less about recovering lost origins than it is about learning of lost reasons. Among Jay, Linda, and Lori, we share in the hardship of not knowing, the shock of getting to know, and the excitement or fear of learning even more.
Halfway through the trip, Lori receives important news (and a fair amount of local publicity surrounding it). We all join in the process of taking in the new developments, bit by bit. Clarity about Lori’s origins, however, is offered up not by her birth mother, who has died, but by first cousins. When we meet first with a few cousins, then with many more, one phrase keeps being repeated: “You are the spitting image of your mother. . . . She was a very introverted character. . . . We are shocked to find out, too.” The members of the younger generation prove able to think beyond the taboos and constraints of the postwar years, when having children out of wedlock left both the mother and the child in an untenable family and social predicament. The cousins step up to embrace the family’s lost girls, whose existence had remained unknown to them (except perhaps for some rumors circulating in the native village). Together, Lori and her cousins are now engaged in the process of piecing together the when, where, how, and why, but the older generation has taken many of its secrets first to the “big city,” then to the grave.
Throughout the next few days, we cry together, laugh together, learn together. Our evenings are filled with food, wine, and talk. We need all of it and more after long days of processing emotions, new information, or the sheer lack thereof. The pending questions inevitably turn back to Greece. If the Greek state could not assist in the 1950s, could the Greek state at least now help to create a DNA database of and for the hundreds of people who are legitimately searching for their roots and for any remaining close relatives? The new visibility of the Greek adoptees and of their unrelenting quests comes with its own queries: Why now? And why not until now? Greece has a moral responsibility to the hundreds of children that it adopted out, and it cannot and should not shirk its duty to provide answers. Answers have been absent for six long decades. Also, can the Greek adoptee phenomenon rid itself of sensationalism as well as of governmental and bureaucratic indifference? The adoptees are not well served by either one. And their communal quest continues… Are we there yet?!
Gonda Van Steen is returning to Europe after a career of teaching and researching in the United States. As Koraes Professor at King’s College London, she will be preparing her next book for publication, which is tentatively entitled Adoption, Memory, and Cold War Greece. She welcomes any serious inquiries at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Picture 1: “We’re back in full swing,” north of Nafpaktos, May 2018.
Picture 2: Telling and retelling the story, Nafpaktos, May 2018.
Picture credits: Jay, with permission.
Acknowledgments: I am much obliged to Yiorgos Anagnostou, who encouraged me to write this essay and who lent his keen editorial eye to it. Yiorgos helped me to draw out important connections between the Greek state and the individual as well. A warm thank-you goes also to Jay, who kindly let me use his pictures.
1. Whereas the “pro”-children’s campaigns of the Communists and of Queen Frederica have now been studied, the mass movement of adoptees sent to the capitalist West by the Greek Right of the postwar and Cold War years has remained unexplored. My research project, driven by the testimonies of many US-based adoptees who recall childhood experiences, is a first attempt to remedy this gap. The actual history of this postwar adoption movement is the subject of my next book. For a preliminary article, see G. Van Steen, «Μητρώα και ψέματα· “Βρέθηκαν” στη Θεσσαλονίκη, “χάθηκαν” στο Τέξας». “Of Ledgers and Lies: ‘Found’ in Thessaloniki, ‘Lost’ in Texas,” ArcheioTaxio 18 (November 2016) 192-200 [translated into Greek by S. Kakouriotis].