Adoption, Memory, and Cold War Greece: Kid pro quo?:

A Before and After

22 March 2021

Gonda Van Steen King’s College London

Adoption, Memory, and Cold War Greece: Kid pro quo?
Ann Harbour: University of Michigan Press, 2019
[Forthcoming in Greek with Ekdoseis Potamos (2021).]


The topic of the Greek-born children sent abroad for adoption is both brand-new and 70 years overdue. It does not call for publicity or hyperboles, as has been the case, but for further in-depth study and public dialogue, conversant with global trends. The topic came to me somewhat coincidentally, as I tried my best to respond to the questions of a descendant of a Greek-to-American adoptee. After all, the children of adoptees are still partially adopted themselves. Their parents’ search for origins and reliable data is also the hoped-for answer to their own search. As I tried to address the specific inquiry of the son of this “political adoptee” of 1955, I found myself unravelling hitherto unknown adoption networks, their prior histories, their subsequent scandals, the biopolitical or socioeconomic rationales underpinning these adoptions, the random records they left behind, and, lastly, the unresolved emotions and psychosocial consequences of these adoptions that have lasted to this very day. With the 2019 publication of my book and the many opportunities to present it since, the topic of the post-war Greek adoptions abroad has now gained popular civic import, along with other issues that Greece, the Greek diaspora, and migrants arriving in Greece have been raising. The need for an in-depth investigation (or Greek self-investigation), with no holds barred, remains urgent, as does the need to overhaul the savior discourse, on the one hand, and the language of illegalities-only, on the other. This online presentation points to current and future directions, in which I am eager to play a constructive role.

On 8 February 2021, the government of the Netherlands issued a moratorium on all international adoptions, that is, on all placements of foreign-born children with Dutch parents (
Dutch suspend foreign adoptions after abuses found - BBC News). This very recent decision sent shockwaves through the international adoption world. How did it come about and why? And what does this decision have to do with Greece? These questions structure the exposé below.

International adoption as a mass phenomenon is now more than 70 years old, and some 65 years old in the Netherlands, specifically. Many Dutch adoptees have helped to unmask irregularities in this long history, and also the lack of political (and legislative and cultural) will to address any long-documented abuses. After all, the fairytale of adoption says that everyone gainsin intercountry adoption, as it has traditionally been called. And isnt any adoption better than no adoption at all? As the Dutch government rightly concluded, if international adoption cannot be done well, if it continues to suffer from systemic problems, it should be stopped altogether. The irregularities of the past should first be corrected before any new international adoptions can be undertaken, if resuming them is even desirable. Activists for adoptee rights worldwide have been working hard to advance knowledge and awareness of international adoptions tainted, commercialized, and deeply neocolonial history. They advocate for remedial moratoria on the Dutch model.[1]

The much-touted adoption triangle(which ties the birth parents, the child for adoption, and the adoptive parents together in an equilateral triangle) is a deeply skewed triangle: the corners of the triangle, or the parties privy to the adoption, are not treated as equals even though they are always depicted that way. The adoption trianglerepresents older adoption terminology, and we would do well to re-imagine the adoption triangle as an adoption constellation.The lost birth family is broader than the suffering birth mother (and father).[2] In recent developments, it has become painfully obvious that many of the searches for a missing child are initiated by half-siblings, by half-cousins, by aunts and uncles, and even by neighbours of the missing child. It is important to reflect on the birth culture as larger than the missing connection with a birth parent, even if the child was orphaned. A potential family network and community network are at stake in the land of origin, too, and these networks are often much larger and much more close-knit than the typical small nuclear family.

This history of losscontrasts sharply with the supposedly win-win situation,or the cliché formula that has traditionally underpinned intercountry adoption. Notice how the win-winformula typically refers to adopted children and their new parents, not to the birth family. This mentality of everybody gainshas been an important motivating factor for western governments and intermediaries not to intervene or even try to correct known missteps—because any redress would inevitably make one of the two parties lose.This mindset has been consolidated, time and again, by the fact that illegal intercountry adoptions are seldom recalled or undone—or even lead to severe punishment. The trope of the best interests of the childhas redefined individual and societal definitions of right and wrong, and convinced many that, no matter what, the end justified the means. There is an overwhelming sense that even a criminal adoption is a still victimless crime, which erodes any motivation to further investigate the crime, since children are, after all, adopted for their own good,and the latter motto may well be applied to the birth mothers as well. A shift in mentality becomes viable only when the adoptive parents are bold enough to state their suspicions, when social services notice child abuse within adoptive families, and when the adult adoptees start speaking and writing for themselves—a critical point that I will revisit in future writing projects. That shift is far from complete, and the media continue to hold up a rosy picture of international adoption, in which supposedly nothing ever goes wrong. And, even if something unforeseen” happened, the child is supposedly still better off for having been adopted.

Since the above-described mindset, always an adult mindset and (dare I say) a western mindset, held sway for decades, it functioned as the hard bedrock that kept international adoption going and that made it impervious to drastic reform. This bedrock also functioned as the altar on which human rights were sacrificed. The West did not see itself as tainted by the mistakes made and took a reactive rather than a proactive stance. And yet the mistakes made were not unrelated incidents but were, rather, the chronically recurring symptoms of something much more insidious. The most critical mistake was that international adoption placed the human rights of the adoptive parents and of the child much higher in the hierarchy of who matters,well above the poor and invisiblebirth parents. The many years of impunity granted to the adoption industryessentially repositioned people on a scale of who is relevant and who is not, and justice was meted out accordingly. The above statement is not meant to whitewash any government or intermediaries. Quite the opposite: it is stating that, more than the condoning of fraudulent adoptions, the condoning of human rights violations was and is at stake. The only excuseis that this condoning was happening all over the western world at the expense of underdevelopedcountries. But it is any governments role to show leadership, not to follow trends. The Dutch government-mandated committee showed leadership and called out the failures of the past for what they truly are: not unfortunate mishaps or dark spots on the distant horizon of intercountry adoption as a by now dwindling practice, but human rights violations that may rear their ugly head again in new forms (e.g., by way of the commodification of poor surrogate mothers) if the mistakes of the past are not properly addressed.

But what does the recent action taken by the Dutch government have to do with Greece? The adoptions of Greek children to the Netherlands and to the USA are among the oldest postwar mass international adoptions. The US-bound adoptions were being negotiated from 1948 onward, and the Greek-to-Dutch adoptions went in full swing from 1956 on. Greece sent 600 of its children to the Netherlands—and never kept a list. These people have organized themselves, have spoken for themselves, and some have written books and blogs related to their adoption experiences. The same has happened in the United States. Greek-born adoptees there have been writing and publishing from 2011 on. They have also been voicing their concerns and demands for the past several years. But very few in Greece took note. However, it is not too late yet.

In addition to making their experiences known, Greek adoptees sent abroad during the Cold War era are now urging Greece to take corrective action and to become attuned to global developments in the adoption world of the twenty-first century. Essentially, their demands are two-fold, and they could hardly be more reasonable:

  1. Give these adoptees proper or bona fide access to their birth and adoption records, that is, eliminate the levels of bureaucratic gatekeeping that have been in place despite the Greek legislative changes of 1996.[3] Many countries still obstruct searches for ones roots. Greece does not want to be indifferent to international advocacy and conventions arguing for unsealing the records.

  2. Restore Greek citizenship to these adoptees as a dual citizenship if they so wish (and very many of them do wish to have it). Greek-to-American adoptees with the least early life data tend to come from the city and surroundings of Patras. They were sent on their way abroad as Greeks, with Greek passports and occasionally even with Greek birth certificates, unless they were foundlings (έκθετα). Theirs is, therefore, a genetic and even recorded citizenship or other form of initial political and legal inclusion, even as they suffered social exclusion.[4] Yet their lives were overhauled by way of biopolitical decisions or of adoptions stemming from economic hardship, social taboos, and family pressures. As children and teenagers, they lost their Greek citizenship as part of the adoption process through no fault of their own. It is only right for Greece to take action to restore citizenship to this group of forgotten child-citizens and to do so proactively.

My own request goes even further and is intertwined with my research: This Greek adoption history, which lays bare so many important issues for renegotiation, should be better known. My book can only be a limited first step, and I welcome every form of constructive dialogue. Ideally, however, this scholarly but socially engaged research must lead to a full-scale and transparent investigation of the Greek postwar adoption movement, on the Dutch model, which has already inspired other governments to initiate their own, long overdue investigations.

The best part of my book is that it keeps on inviting
other voices. The book started as an effort to address the query of a third party; its writing style is deliberately multi-vocal; its academic analyses are made concrete in their juxtaposition with real adoptee lives. The books section of practical guidelines for Greek adoptees who are searching for their roots has elicited a steady stream of adoptee questions and perspectives, which have generated new, still raw research materials and data. Thus, the ongoing research project has linked me to diverse groups of stakeholders, such as interracial international adoptees, Greek Roma-born adoptees, birth mothersself-help groups and NGOs, inquiring adoptive parents, inquisitive social workers, and other parties involved in the adoption process.

Greek-to-American adoptions and, regrettably, also their transgressions, provided the (hitherto unknown) model and manualfor the first large-scale international adoptions, well before these became a mass phenomenon typically associated with Asian children (and the Korean War). My 2019 book and its 2021 translation into Greek (with Ekdoseis Potamos) challenge the status quo of received wisdom and serve as building blocks for a more comparative and critical approach to the truly transnational study of Cold War intercountry adoption. This type of in-depth country study must inform the ongoing debate on international adoption that is still couched in the lucky kidsrhetoric that has long effaced the birth family and the culture of origin. Many adult international adoptees tell of the dark side of the adoption fairytale, but they have very few academics by their side. My post-publication activities delve deeper into social and family dynamics, in the sending country and in the promised land of the “orphans’” arrival. This close focus on young individuals, mid-twentieth-century private politics, as analyzed in my growing database, challenges not only Greece’s grand narratives but also those of the global and imperialist West. Meanwhile, I find myself frequently standing by the side of searching Greek adoptees and acting as their translator and interpreter, following their directions. Their feedback is raw and honest, and I welcome it. They feel empowered to (re)claim their voices, to be heard in the daunting process of roots searching and negotiating access to archived records. Our repeated presence and the urgency of our requests, also for Greek citizenship, have already begun to change public perceptions, but we have yet to achieve institutional change and political will. Also, this remains a collective effort. Let me therefore point to some of the most recent contributing adoptee voices:

Maria Heckinger published Beyond the Third Door: Based on a True Story (Vancouver, WA, 2019). It is a detailed, sincere, and at times humorous account of the many twists and turns that the adopted life represents. It also courageously discloses how writing brings understanding and healing where needed, for the self and others. Maria speaks in her own unique voice to the many issues of the adoptee identity interrupted and reflects on the experiences of reunions as well. Maria’s book also invites adoptive parents, birth parents, and intermediaries in as readers: they have much to learn about the painful losses of sending parents and communities.

With A Son from the Mountains: A Story of Adoption and Family Separation (Spuyten Duyvil, summer 2021), poet and literary scholar Andrew Mossin gives us a book that speaks with startling candor about international adoption. His own placement, from a mountainous Greek village of the late 1950s to the rapidly urbanizing American East Coast, set not only his own future on an unforeseen track but also the lives of his first mother and of his adoptive parents—trajectories of migration that do not ever converge again but that have, nonetheless, left deep, intersecting traces. Small nodes of contact, original documents, yellowing pictures, and heartfelt letters traverse lands and oceans but never deliver the closeness that a first mother wanted but could not give and that a new mother never allowed to take root. Mossin's memoir demonstrates that, for many postwar intercountry adoptees, an unnecessary uprooting or adoption has come to mean a lifetime of adapting.

Scholar and journalist Mary Cardaras is currently compiling an anthology of Greek adoptee stories. This is a pioneering initiative, given that no previous Greek collection exists in English. Mary has twelve essayists on board, for a collection with the working title of
Voices of the Lost Children of Greece. Their stories, including her own, will strike home the experience of international adoption, whose impact is lifelong but is not properly measured, let alone acknowledged.

The work that the adoptees themselves have done, individually and collectively, merits full acknowledgment: they have turned the tide and debunked the clichés. A good example is the Intercountry Adoptee Voices platform (ICAV), and its motto: We Advocate and Educate as Adoptee Voices with Lived Experience.

An estimated 400 (of a total of more than 3,000) Greek-born children went to American Jewish families. A documentary film called The Greek Connection, by the late Ronit Kertsner, will be brought to completion and will give the research questions and life-writing projects a new impetus, for transcending linguistic, religious, national, and ethnic boundaries. On the occasions of its screening, the adoptees present will speak up for broader reformative impact and for policy change. They seek to raise consciousness and bring stakeholders to the table across Greek, Greek-American, Greek-Dutch, Greek-Jewish, and other fault lines. They point to more areas in need of coverage in this vast, uncharted domain, in geographical and chronological terms but also in terms of policy-making, social and welfare studies, adoption histories, and critical adoption studies. New research and informed dialogue aim to motivate formal apologies, shape intercountry adoption reform, and help to revise the 1993 Hague Convention on intercountry adoption. They strive to underpin policy-making in the newer field of legislative work on international commercial surrogacy. The adoptees themselves inspire others to take charge of their story and history.



[1] See the forthcoming article of David M. Smolin (2021), “The Case for Moratoria on Intercountry Adoption,” Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal 30 (2).

[2] The issue of the conventional choice of the terms “birth mother/father/family” deserves further attention. Everyone uses these terms out of habit, including the adoptees themselves. But some insist on the term “first family,” to indicate that the child really did have a family before it was adopted out—even though this family was most often not given a chance to properly establish itself. The same issue surrounds the word “adoptee,” which many adoptees consider too passive-sounding. Again, I acknowledge the burden resting on this conventional terminology, which may invoke rightful criticism.

[3] Since 1996, Greek adoptees have statutory rights to their early life files and adoption dossiers on the basis of article 1559 of Decree no. 2447, published in the 30 December 1996 issue of the Government Gazette of the Greek Republic. Greek open-records-activists, nearly all in-country adoptees themselves, fought hard to attain adoption law 2447/1996 which, on paper at least, supports the adult adoptees in their quest for their birth family or any other data concerning their adoption. However, the open-records struggle in support of searching Greek adoptees must continue, because the law’s implementation has been far from consistent: many “gate-keepers” do not know about the 1996 legislation or prefer not to act on it, or they hide behind the vague wording of the law. They make individual decisions whether or not to share the data with the adoptee. Recourse against their decisions is very difficult to obtain, a priori for the intercountry Greek adoptees who cannot easily pursue legal action from abroad.

[4] I have found the broader reflections of Dimitris Christopoulos to be very relevant to the Greek adoptees’ demand of Greek citizenship, such as this article of 8 March 2021, posted on the online platform Open Democracy. Christopoulos’s call for a birthright Greek citizenship adds poignancy to the request of those born in Greece but silenced for more than half a century.

Adoption, Memory, and Cold War Greece: Kid pro quo?


Gonda Van Steen holds the Koraes Chair of Modern Greek and Byzantine History, Language and Literature, 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: Kid pro quo? (University of Michigan Press, 2019), takes the reader into the new, uncharted terrain of Greek adoption stories that become paradigmatic of Cold War politics and history.