Following is a piece written exclusively for The Pappas Post by Alexander Kitroeff, eminent professor, author and historian of the Greek American experience.
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After my partner Eleonora and I attended a funeral three years ago at Agioi Anargyroi, one of the northwestern suburbs of Athens, she suggested we visit the Mitera Center for the protection of children. It is located within walking distance from the local cemetery, a solemn reminder of the closeness of life and death. But for the many persons who passed through there as infants, it is a reminder of the place they were adopted and started a new life.
Little did I know at the time about how many of those infants in the 1950s would be headed for adoption in the United States. I remembered sporadic articles about illegal adoptions through a network of intermediaries that included prominent Greek Americans who had begun their involvement as members of the American Hellenic Progressive Association (AHEPA) whose involvement in the early 1950s was also not above reproach. The full extent of the adoption phenomenon would become known only recently.
The Mitera (not to be confused with the Maternity and Children’s hospital with the same name which is also in Athens) is one of the leading institutions in Greece for housing children that have been given up by their biological parents or must live away from them.
Mitera’s mission is to find homes for these children by placing them into either adoption or foster care programs. It started operating in 1953 and opened officially two years later, on publicly owned property with thirteen separate picturesque pavilions with stone walls and red roofs spaced out around the main building. Within a few years it would accommodate a total of one hundred children and a number of expectant mothers.
The Mitera was funded by the Greek government and Queen Frederica’s Fund for Children. Frederica, who became Queen in 1947 after her husband Paul became “King of the Hellenes,” had been personally invested in the political conflicts over Greek children that had taken place during the Greek Civil War of 1946-1949.
Frederica created children’s camps which took in and provided shelter for children from villages within or near the areas where the government forces were fighting against the communist-led “Democratic Army of Greece.” This was in direct response to many instances of the removal of children from villages under communist control and their transfer over the Greek border to the Eastern European countries under communist rule— allegedly for their protection.
Thus, Mitera’s founding was not only humanitarian– one in eight Greek children were orphans in 1950 – but it was also strongly colored by the conservative post-civil war government’s claim of protecting children. Inevitably therefore, any decision of who was eligible to adopt from the Mitera would be shaped by ideological considerations
We explained at the entrance that Eleonora had been here as an infant and we wanted to look around. We were directed to go to the main administration office.
The buildings at Mitera had been thoughtfully placed deep in the sprawling 25-acre campus and as we left the noisy main road behind us we were enveloped by a sense of quiet and peace.
Eleonora had spent seven months here from the time of her birth in 1966 to the moment she left with her new parents to begin a happy life— first on the island of Lesvos and then back in Athens.
This was not her first visit. Her new parents had told her she was adopted early on, and when she was a teenager she went to Mitera, driven by an overwhelming urge to find out about her birth parents, their background and the circumstances she came into the world.
It was only after Greek legislation changed in 1996 that she received enough information that enabled her to contact and meet her biological mother, with whom she continues to be in regular contact. In the course of their emotional conversations Eleonora learned that her birth mother had not looked for her because the authorities had told her reassuringly that the infant had been taken to America.
If Eleonora had been born a few years earlier to parents who could not keep her, it would have been very likely that she would have gone to America, since other Greek institutions, such as the orphanage in the town of Patras, were closely connected to the adoption network that stretched all the way to the United States.
From the end of the Greek civil war in 1949 through the early 1960s, 3,106 Greek infants were adopted by parents in the United States. Ιt was a process marred by practices ranging from irregularities to illegalities that profited unscrupulous middlemen. There is plenty of blame to be apportioned to the Greek government, Greek orphanage authorities, childless parents in the United States and those who helped them cut corners in the adoption process.
The adoptions of Greek children to the United States in the 1950s was part of an overall increase of international adoptions by American parents (they were called inter-country adoptions at the time) and of the ways Greek American institutions seized on the issue of the Greek children victimized during the Greek civil war.
Many Americans regarded adoptions of children affected by communist insurgencies such as Greece and Korea as a Christian mission that would result in their Americanization and hence their salvation. And the white skin of Greek children compared to children from Korea was an advantage at a time when transracial adoptions were not common.
Meanwhile, with McCarthyism raising its ugly head at the time, ethnic organizations became especially anxious about proving their loyalty to America, just in case anti-communism did not spill over into xenophobia.
For the Greek Americans, raising the issue of the children “stolen” by the Greek communists presented an ideal means of proving their anticommunist credentials. And in any case by then many Greek Americans had become politically conservative and made it into the middle class in the 1950s, a time in which historian Theodore Saloutos described as Greek America’s era of respectability.
Both the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA) and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese enthusiastically took up the cause of the children.
Upon his arrival in late 1949, newly appointed Archbishop Michael spoke of his firsthand knowledge of the evils of communism, which he had experienced when he was a student in seminaries in Kiev and St. Petersburg between 1915 and 1919.
Michael also echoed the Greek government’s claim that the communist side’s evacuation of 28,000 children from regions under its control and their resettlement across Greece’s northern border in countries with communist governments was a mass kidnapping. In January 1950 he discussed the issue of those children in his first meeting with President Truman.
Although child welfare professionals complained about the lack of regulations in these politically colored international adoptions, including those conducted without the adoptive parents visiting their child’s native country, it took the U.S. government several years to respond and introduce some rules to control the process. Clearly the propaganda advantages of the arrival of those stricken children outdid any serious concerns about their welfare.
And as with all instances of lax legislation, one could always find loopholes or a congressman willing to do constituents a favor and help out. Thus, the government’s own child care specialists kept pointing out that adoption problems were much harder to resolve in an adoption that spanned an ocean but it took until the early 1960s for their warnings to be taken seriously.
By then, newspaper articles highlighting a range of irregular practices began appearing in Greece and the United States from the late 1950s onward, usually highlighting individual cases and instances of intermediaries treating adoptions as a commercial enterprise.
Investigations began on both sides of the Atlantic and the lax laws governing adoptions were eventually tightened in both Greece and the United States in the early 1960s. This, along with the light shed on earlier practices by court cases, led to a precipitous decline in transatlantic adoptions.
Gradually, the adoptees or their children began asking questions and learned enough to be able to start searching for their roots, leading to further research and the uncovering of this dubious chapter in Greek-U.S. relations. Many are continuing in their quest to learn where they came from.
One of those children who embarked on that painful journey got in touch with Gonda Van Steen who at the time was a classics professor and Cassas Chair in Greek studies at the University of Florida and president of the U.S.-based Modern Greek Studies Association. Since then, she has moved on to become the Koraes Chair of modern Greek and Byzantine history, language and literature and the director for the Centre for Hellenic Studies at King’s College London.
Van Steen was intrigued by the nature of the request as well as the fact that it came from the grandchild of Elias Argyriadis, who had been executed as a communist “spy” during the Cold War.
Van Steen decided to help the child looking for his roots and circumstances of his mother’s adoption. She became so deeply invested in the case that she eventually produced a book-length study of the illegal adoptions from Greece to the United States in the 1950s.
The grandchild contacted others, including myself, soliciting information about their grandfather and Greece in the early 1950s. At some point the grandchild sent all those who helped a “thank you” note and reflected on the very painful but gratifying process they had endured.
But I was able to fathom the depth of the trauma many adopted children and their families endured, which was compounded by the silence on the part of the Greek authorities and the intermediaries, only when I read Gonda Van Steen’s extraordinarily compassionate and scholarly book, published in 2019 by the University of Michigan Press.
Entitled “Adoption, Memory, and Cold War Greece: Kid Pro Quo,” the study amounts to an exhaustively researched, extensively documented and sensitively written exposé of the variety of dubious, illegal, unethical or shoddy practices that affected at least a few hundred of the 3,200 adoptions of Greek infants and children by parents in the United States.
The book runs to 330 pages, 42 of which are the sources the author has consulted and used. Van Steen is careful to point out that many adoptions were above board and that more research is required in order to gain a full understanding of the extent of the malpractices and the persons involved, although we may never get the full picture because of the deeply emotional and personal dimension of the adoption experience.
“Adoption, Memory, and Cold War Greece” opens with a theoretical part that frames the adoption practices in the context of the Cold War.
The Greek authorities saw America as an ideal destination for orphans, especially those whose parents had sided with the communists. Greece had emerged from the bloody civil war with a strongly anti-communist mentality among its conservative political leaders, one that verged on paranoia. It was fueled by its close relations to the United States which was experiencing its own period of paranoia known of course as the McCarthy era.
It was that climate that led to the execution of Elias Argyriadis following a very well publicized trial at the end of which his fellow defendants Nikos Beloyannis, Nikos Kaloumenos and Dimitris Batsis were found guilty of espionage and executed. It is the most egregious example of anticommunist hysteria in Greece during the early 1950s.
Argyriadis’ wife had already committed suicide after being interrogated for 10 days by the police. The government put up their two daughters for adoption and naturally saw fit to send them off to the United States.
The second part of the book tells a story which, in Van Steen’s words, went from goodwill to greed. It started with U.S. legislation introduced in the early 1950s that enabled the arrival of persons displaced or adversely affected by the war. Among those going from Greece to the United States were 1,246 children that would be adopted by Greek American parents.
The Refugee Relief Act of 1953 allowed for adoptions of children from abroad through 1956 and during that period another 500 orphans from Greece entered the United States for “non-relative and confidential” adoption.
After the act was extended another year it was replaced by the Refugee-escapee Act of 1957 that redefined the age limit for orphans to fourteen. Thus another 1,360 Greek-born children arrived in the United States until the act expired in 1961 amid a growing understanding that the process of goodwill had long before degenerated into a squalid manifestation of greed and insensitivity and was under investigation.
From the beginning of this process, its ideological coloring — namely the saving of children from the evils of communism — meant that standards were not always consistently applied and that the ends did not necessarily justify the means.
Hollywood celebrities played a big role in romanticizing and even glamorizing the adoption of Greek orphans. Actress Jane Russel (photo top, left with Princess Sophia of Greece and orphans from Greece arriving in the United States) was deeply involved, as is outlined in Gonda’s book. Organizations sent big-named celebrities like Marlon Brando (top, right) and comedian Danny Kaye (bottom) to Greece to be photographed with “war orphans” who would eventually be brought to the United States.
In Greece, the shame of unwed motherhood and the widespread economic hardship that weighed down on young single mothers created the conditions for children either voluntarily or forcibly being housed in orphanages.
But not in all cases was this done with the explicit understanding they would be given up for adoption, not to mention sent to the United States. With the help of ideologically driven decisions taken by an exclusively male-dominated set of bureaucrats, the awful process of bending the rules was underway.
In the mediations between Greek orphanages and prospective parents of the United States, two prominent organizations were the International Social Service (ISS) which had branches in Greece and the United States and also AHEPA.
The ISS had been founded in 1924 as an international non-government organization to deal with the needs of migrants and orphaned children who were candidates for inter-country adoption.
AHEPA was involved on the grounds of its earlier advocacy on behalf of moving refugees, a case of goodwill rather than know-how. It is true that AHEPA had provided the backbone for the provision of war relief in Greece — and even the building of a network of medical centers across the country in the 1940s — but by the early 1950s that role had been successfully completed.
My own research on AHEPA’s history suggests that the organization was seeking a new “raison d’ être,” or justification for its existence. Over its century-long distinguished history AHEPA has reinvented itself many times in order to address the changing needs of an evolving Greek American community and the tasks of fostering better ties between the United States and Greece.
Inevitably, a few of its many well-meaning and ambitious programs did not work out well and the organization dropped them and moved on. Such was the case with the adoptions, and that is why AHEPA itself put a stop to those operations in 1956.
Advocating for refugees was one thing, but bringing infants over from Greece for adoption was an entirely more complex operation which became even more challenging especially when it managed to be recognized as a private adoption agency.
AHEPA soon realized it was in over its head especially when it became involved in proxy adoptions, the process of taking the responsibility of taking children out of Greece and only then matching them with families.
The least of the criticisms leveled against AHEPA was that it did not follow up the placement of a child with any subsequent monitoring by qualified social workers. At worst, its adoptions committee was being accused of sinking to the level of operating unethically with a view of making money rather than improving lives. It was AHEPA’s 34th Supreme Convention in New York in August of 1956 that put a stop to its adoption operations.
But the AHEPAns who had been running the program on behalf of the organization, among them former Supreme Presidents Leo Lamberson — an attorney in south Bend Indiana — and Stephen S. Scopas — a magistrate in New York, continued to bring orphans from Greece on their own.
Lamberson and Scopas charged high fees, exploited legal loopholes and used (and sullied) AHEPA’s name. Both men would both face charges in 1959 in a very public trial in New York City that was followed closely in Greece.
Scopas was indicted on charges of selling 30 Greek children to American couples. Charges were dropped in 1960 when a judge ruled that the adoptions had been legal in Greece. Scopas continued to maintain his innocence and remained active in AHEPA until his death in 1999.
After outlining the context and then the story of the adoptions, Van Steen’s book turns to the personal stories that adoptees or their families chose to share. To say that these make for very painful reading would be an understatement.
We learn about the experiences that include a haunting sense of having been stolen; being yanked out of an orphanage, put on a flight to New York and then being paraded as trophies before the media; of families that tried to eradicate the Greekness of their young adoptees by forbidding them to talk in Greek; of outright rejection when the children did not fit with the family’s expectations.
Thankfully there are a few happier stories, but all who tried to find out about their origins faced the cruel reality that by then, persons on the ground who had been responsible had already died and left a minimal or sparse paper trail of their actions. And the legendary bureaucratic red tape involved in any interaction with the Greek state did not help at all.
Things started changing when Greece lifted some of the confidentiality strictures barring adoptees from discovering their birth parents in 1996. From then on and with the help of organizations and individuals that Van Steen lists at the end of her account, a number of the adoptees or their offspring have succeeded in locating their relatives in Greece and meeting them. And a few have published accounts of their odyssey-like journeys back to the homeland.
The fullness of Van Steen’s book notwithstanding, when I put it down I was overcome by a sense of indignation. The story of the adopted children has taken too long to become well known even though it unfolded in full view in the 1950s, with photo-op type pictures lauding the salvation of Greek orphans in newspapers throughout the United States.
After the whole thing thankfully ended in the early 1960s there have been only occasional articles that have popped up in the media, when the reunification of an adoptee with their relatives in Greece is deemed newsworthy.
But this is a story that does not concern only the adoptees, it is not even about goodwill having degenerated into criminal and trauma-inducing greed. It is a story that concerns all of us Greek Americans. It is a cautionary tale about the need to engage in relations with the Greek homeland that are respectful and understanding of the circumstances of the Greek people, especially those in need.
The last thing they need is Greek American crusading knights in shining armor touting the goodness of all that exists in America and portraying it as the land of unlimited opportunity.
What we have to do is to listen to their views and be open to their feelings and tailor our offers of help based on a conversation between both sides. And we can start by acknowledging and highlighting the tragic mistakes made during the adoptions in the 1950s, and support all those who are still searching for their roots in Greece.
My visit to Mitera had to be limited to walking around the grounds. The person who would have given us permission to look up in which pavilion Eleonora had spent her time and to look inside was too busy to see us.
As we reached the gate, she told me that some of the pavilions were named after foreign countries that had made donations. I asked if there was an American one but she did not know. But a donation from America now would not be a bad idea.
Alexander Kitroeff is Professor of History at Haverford College and specializes in the history of the Greek diaspora. His books include “The Greeks and the Making of Modern Egypt” (American University in Cairo Press, 2019) and “Greek Orthodoxy in America: A Modern History” (Cornell University Press, 2020).
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