There are only two things that I know for certain about myself. Number one, I was adopted. Number two, I know that I was born Greek. That is it. The rest is a mystery. And as people have aged or died, those who were responsible for or were familiar with my adoption, the story of how I was brought from Greece to the United States and the circumstances of my birth are further fading from anyone’s memory. And even those memories are increasingly grainy and fading into a pixelated, mental blur. There is not much there anymore and it seems that some things have never been known at all.
Details seemed to have changed. Some that I thought were true, are not. Others have emerged that are entirely new to me. There is no way to hold onto anything, to be able to say with any degree of certainty or confidence, this I know to be absolutely true. Ironclad. My reality is the uncertain, the irretrievable, the non-confirmable. Except only these two, indisputable facts:
Adopted. Born in Greece.
Today, I know not one single biological relative. I don’t look like anyone. I don’t share mannerisms or quirky personality traits with anyone I know. I am alone. Or, if I choose, I can be part of any person or group that I find connection with. It is an odd state of being. A feeling of otherness of which I have been reminded of throughout my life.
Adopted. Not from us. From someplace and someone else.
I do know that I am the product of a pregnant, unwed teenage mother. I know that I was taken to the Athens Municipal Foundling home on January 11, 1955. I know, according to my grandparents, who arranged for my adoption to Greek-American parents, their daughter and son-in-law, that I was left there by a young, terrified woman. She was a child herself during a difficult time in Greece that came after two wars in succession. One World War and a Civil War, which left a small, poor country, even more devastated and desperate.
What happened to my biological mother happened to thousands of other mothers in Greece from the mid 1940’s to the early 1960’s. The answer to pregnancy, unwanted or accidental, was to stigmatize the mothers, shame them, and to take their babies. Some without their knowledge and permission. Some after the mothers had been convinced that it was the right thing to do.
Some whose babies were stolen. Some who were sold. And many went to families that were not properly vetted as suitable homes and parents. It is very difficult to understand that taking babies from the arms of their mothers, stripping them of their homeland and culture, and taking them miles from where they were born maybe was not the right thing to do.
There are thousands of us. We are Greek-born adoptees who want to know the circumstances of our births, who want to know how we came to orphanages and why, who want to find and to know our biological parents and our extended kin. It is fundamental to our existence. How anyone comes into the world and to whom they are born, matters. It matters a great deal. It is a matter and question of birthright.
Years ago, in 1991, I began a quest for my past. I wanted to know how I came into this world. I wanted to know what happened after I was born. What of those precious nine days before I was relinquished from the arms of my young mother to the arms and breasts of strangers? What was my life like in a public orphanage? Was I left to cry? Was I tended to? Loved, cradled, soothed? How did I get from one place to another home for children and then to foster care before I was literally shipped away, far from my country?
I conducted my search in secret, far from the eyes and ears of my adoptive parents and grandparents. I didn’t want to hurt them. I had been told that I had been in Mitera, a home for children and unwed mothers, on the outskirts of Athens, established by Queen Federica, who said that child welfare would be the centerpiece of her philanthropy and altruism. In fact, on one trip back to Greece with my grandparents, I was actually taken there and introduced to people as a returning adoptee, no longer a foundling, but a success story.
But in the back and forth of correspondence between me and the International Social Service agency during the course of my search, I learned I was never there, but in a public orphanage in the center of Athens. Not as nice of a place. Crowded. The children were not as well taken care of. Many of us were malnourished and small. Like me. I was sick when I left the country and sick when I arrived in America after a long journey from Athens to Italy to Lisbon to New York City and then to Gary, Indiana. Home.
My adoption had been romanticized. My life was made into a better movie so I didn’t have to feel bad or sad about my early days as someone who was relinquished. An illegitimate child, outside of marriage. Exogamo paidi in Greek. I was called an orphan, but I wasn’t. I actually had a mother and I had a father, whose involvement in my life is unknown and was rendered unimportant.
It was on that same trip that my grandmother, with all good intentions, took me to a place where government records could be altered. My grandmother was not my parent and yet, she had all the paperwork with which to create a new birth certificate with the names of my adoptive parents listed as if they were responsible for my birth. Just like that, my past was erased. It was irrelevant and unimportant. I was where I was now and nothing came before.
But my birth mother’s name was buried in an illegible handwritten document. A Greek birth certificate with no stamped seal or discerning markings. One day, the same social service agency told me they had found her, but they didn’t tell her that I knew she had been found. They would keep secrets. And as for me, an adult, I was told that it was ill-advised to know more unless I was in the care of a psychologist. He would be the lens through which I could know the truth and the details of my own early life.
To his credit, this doctor, this counselor decided he couldn’t do it. An adoptee himself, he would keep nothing from me. And so, I learned that my birth mother was a sad figure and alone. According to the ISS, she came from a large family. By all inference, that family abandoned her, shunned her when she became pregnant and it seemed she never recovered. She was a cleaning lady at an elementary school in Athens. She lived alone. No children. Never married. Still estranged from that large family.
I am her only child. And she is the only link I know to the truth about my past.
When they told her I was looking for her, her emotions went in every direction, I was told. Shock, elation, crying, joy and fear. She asked a battery of questions about me. She said she would consider counseling. She needed time to process the news. To think. After all, there was a promise made years ago, not by me, of course, but by my grandfather, who told her she would never be bothered again. That they would ask nothing of her. The memory of her child would be wiped away simply by my absence after being ferreted away across an ocean that would separate us for over 60 years now.
After twelve years of correspondence and trying to convince her to seek counseling and then to meet me, the International Social Service wrote again with a short, terse letter, which said that she no longer would consider a reunion, that she did not want to be contacted again. How did I feel about this news, they asked?
How did I feel?
I lived underneath the very heart of someone who carried me for nine months. We occupied the same body. She held me. She saw me. She fed me. She physically handed me over to strangers in front of a judge. How did I feel? To be given up once is one thing to process, but to be rejected again, very explicitly, was very difficult to handle.
Then and there I abandoned my search. I summarily stopped it and buried any and all feelings I had about it for 21 years.
During those two decades, my adoptive parents died. They were good people, good parents who loved me and cared for me as best they could. I have an adopted brother, nine years my junior, who shared the grief of losing our Mom and Dad. But their deaths gave me the space to consider my past once again, free of any guilt about doing so.
I returned to Greek school to reconnect to my culture where a classmate told me the incredible adoption story of her cousin, also a Greek-born adoptee during the same time period as me.
For 42 years, Dena Poulias was raised as an only child by Greek-Americans only to learn, after her adoptive parents had died, that her birth parents were alive. They were married to each other. She had full- blooded siblings and 27 first cousins! Dena had been stolen from her parents, taken from a child care facility, and they had been desperately searching for her for over four decades! I was so moved by this story that I asked Dena if I could write about her. It took time for her to trust me, but we began talking over the course of a year and I wrote her amazing story, Ripped at the Root.
In my research about Dena, I found a new book called Adoption, Memory and Cold War Greece, by one of the world’s preeminent scholars in modern Greek studies, Dr. Gonda Van Steen. It was a revelation and is groundbreaking. Thousands of children were exported from Greece during the 1950’s and adopted. One of the people noted in Dr. Van Steen’s book happened to be the main subject in my novella, Dena Poulias. I began talking to Gonda Van Steen and she began to educate me about this dark period in Greece’s history.
I had heard that the AHEPA was involved in many of these adoptions. After reading an article published by The Pappas Post about the AHEPA turning 100 years old in 2022, I asked in the comments section whether anyone knew if that well-respected philanthropic organization had anything to do with some unscrupulous adoption practices. I was attacked by many for even asking. I called AHEPA’s national headquarters and the President said he knew nothing about such involvement. But come to find out AHEPA was involved. Very involved.
This is not an isolated issue. It happens all over the world. This year, I read the book American Baby by best-selling author Gabrielle Glaser. This book is about domestic, American adoptions and tells another incredible adoption story that was very similar in experience to that of Dena Poulias. A baby was taken against the will of his mother and father, and offered up for adoption. It is a must read that will inform any conception you may have had about adoption. I am adopted and I know it changed mine.
The death of my adoptive parents and meeting Dena stirred my soul about my past. Gonda Van Steen educated me about what happened to so many of us in Greece after the wars and why children were taken from their parents, their country, their culture, their language. And Gabrielle Glaser’s book spoke to my heart. I learned about the anguish of a birthmother who never gave up on her child, who looked for him, longed for him, wanted him. Was there a chance for me to be wanted and thought about?
These people, who are now friends, have led me to a life of activism for people like me, Greek-born adoptees, the so-called “lost children of Greece,” and for all adoptees all over the world, many of whom were taken away from their countries of origin and some away from their ethnicity and race.
Adoption cannot be a default setting. It can’t be something that people do as charitable act because they think they are giving children the lives “they need” and that “they deserve.” Adoption means the taking of a small, young human being and stripping them of whatever past they had. Adoption also erases the birth family. Others should not be allowed to decide to keep them away and apart from the truth about how and why they came into this world and by whom.
We deserve open records. We need to put an end to the adoption secrets that have stigmatized us and infantilized us. We deserve to know our medical histories and the stories of our young lives. In my case and for the thousands of my fellow Greek adoptees who stand with me, we need the Greek government to join us in these pursuits. We ask that President Sakellaropoulou and Prime Minister Mitsotakis acknowledge the country’s dark past, to lead and clear the way in helping us locate our records, to embrace us, and to welcome back its children so that we can be lost no more.
About the author
Mary Cardaras is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at California State University East Bay. She was adopted from Greece to the USA in the 1950s. She holds a Ph.D. 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. She 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. As an adoptee, Cardaras is compiling an anthology of Greek adoptee stories. This is a pioneering initiative, given that no previous Greek collection exists in English. Mary has 13 essayists on board for the collection with the working title “Voices of the Lost Children of Greece.”
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