Secrets

On this very cold Sunday in the middle of National Adoption Month, I am sitting at my kitchen table and all is quiet in my house. We are in the middle of National Adoption Month and I think it’s time to tell my family adoption story.

I have been involved in adoption forever. You see, my mom was adopted by her father after World War II in Europe when her biological father was killed in battle. She was five years old and it was a “secret”. Back then, my bubby (grandmother) followed the current wisdom of the 1940’s and decided that everyone would pretend that Sam was always my mom’s biological father. My mom was five years old so she knew the truth but she wasn’t allowed to speak of it, less it should hurt of embarrass Sam or my bubby. So, mom learned that her history, her background was shameful and should be hidden. Now, I certainly don’t want to demonize my bubby or Sam. They were the strongest, most loving, kindest people on the Earth and I was blessed to have them in my life for my first 35 and 42 year of life, respectively. They were trying to make life easier for my mom so that no one would question her legitimacy or background. My mom, a child of Holocaust survivors, would not dream of rebelling or causing any more pain in her family.

So, the myth continued. My brother, sister and I never knew that Sam was not our biological grandfather. He gave us all the love that a man who had seen his world destroyed, could give. He was an unhappy, distrustful person and he had a right to be. My bubby, on the other hand was vibrant, full of life and love and acceptance. Her losses and pain led her to gratitude and appreciation for her new life here in the United States. People handle trauma differently but as a child, you don’t understand these grown-up concepts, rather you are attracted to the warmth and light.

When I was fourteen, my mom’s younger sister did a needlepoint for my grandparent’s anniversary. It said “Happy 35th Anniversary”. I was baffled. My mom was forty years old. How could she make such a ridiculous mistake? I kept asking all the adults how this happened. I was an amateur sleuth. They laughed it off saying that my aunt had made a mistake. My bubby was a little more honest. She said in her beautiful Russian accent, “Oh, mamala (her Yiddish term of affection for me), it was a time of war.” I wondered what the heck that meant and I had my own theories. Bubby had a baby without being married? Wow! My head spinned.

I pushed and pushed and pushed for the next two years. Finally, I wore my mom down and she told me the truth. Her dad died in the war when she was an infant, and at five years old, she was informally adopted by Sam. I was never so angry!! How could they keep this information from us? This isn’t fair because it is our story too. I wanted to know about him- this daddy that was killed. Was he really killed? How did they know? Did they ever try to find him or his family? “Mom, aren’t you even the least bit curious? My mom told me to leave it alone and that she was not interested in bringing up the past as it would bring bubby and her too much pain.

For a sixteen-year-old, born in the United States and never knowing the agony of hunger, war, loss and religious prejudice, I could not fathom that my truth could bring them such hurt and I persevered in my quest for the answers. Mom really could not give me much other than she believes that her father met her once and named her before going to the Russian Front and being killed. I hounded her for his name and although she claimed that she was not completely sure, she told me that his name was Josef Wolodarsky. I asked her if she had a photo of him and she said that she did not. Her lack of curiosity and entitlement of this information infuriated me. Mom and I had numerous disagreements about this over the next few years. I wanted her to push bubby for real information and facts and she did not want to do it.


Finally, when I was in my twenties, I was visiting my bubby alone and I asked her if I could see a photo of my mom’s biological father. She first acted as if she had no idea what I was talking about but then, her face took on a wistful look and a smile which was both happy and pained. She walked over to her dresser and took out a photo and said proudly; “This is my Josef”. A handsome young man stared back at me through the photo, as my grandmother wept. I asked her why she never told mom or me and she said that she didn’t want to hurt anyone.

All the years came back to her as she described their courtship and then the brutality of the war that not only stole him from her life, but took away her parents and brothers. She was nineteen years old, and never saw any of them again. I was not far from her age at the time, and could not imagine being left alone in the war-torn world without a family and with a small infant.

We spoke for hours that afternoon, one that I will never forget, and I asked bubby to give my mother the photo and to let her know anything she could about her biological father. Josef had a right to be remembered and to live through his daughter and grandchildren and we had a right to know him, and his story.

After that day, bubby did give the photo to mom, which she treasures, but we never got much more information. About ten years later, I was pregnant with my son and I chose to honor both of my maternal grandfathers, Josef and Sam with my son’s name….Jonah Samuel. We had a Russian nanny and Jonah spoke Russian and English as a toddler which was wonderful when bubby counted with him in her Mother Tongue. Bubby passed away when Jonah was five years old and I still want to do more exploring and investigating into my biological grandfather and my bubby. Mom is ambivalent about the information that I find. She wants to hear it but she does not know what to believe, even when I find official documents. She is not sure how or if she should embrace her roots. That is her choice. My choice will be to visit Kiev one day and walk on the roads that my bubby, Seraphima aka Sima and my granddad, Josef walked on when the story of my family began. The pieces to “my” adoption story are coming together and there are no more secrets. I know my roots and now I will fly.