Jewish woman reunites with daughter 80 years after placing her up for adoption during World War II

Gerda Cole
Gerda Cole (L) reunites with her daughter, Sonya Grist (R), 80 years after giving her up for adoption during World War II on May 7, 2022. |

A 98-year-old Canadian Jewish woman who placed her daughter up for adoption after escaping persecution during World War II reunited with her daughter after 80 years on May 7, which also happened to be her birthday.

Gerda Cole fled her native home of Vienna, Austria, in 1939 at the start of World War II to escape the rise in anti-Semitism. Her parents placed her on a children's transport to England when she was 15 years old. Three years later, Cole gave birth to her daughter, Sonya Grist.

Cole told the media that the refugee committee in England advised her to choose adoption due to her financial situation and to refrain from further contact with the child. After the war, Cole emigrated to Canada, earning three university degrees and traveling the world, visiting archeological digs in Israel and Cyprus.

Stephen Grist, Cole's grandson, helped reunite the mother and daughter after he learned his birth grandmother was still alive while searching for her name and background.

Sonya Grist told The Toronto Sun that her adoptive parents reportedly kept many details about the adoption a secret. Her son helped trace her genealogy. The Grists initially believed Cole was dead. At first, the grandson expected to find a record related to his birth grandmother's death. 

"The Austrian government allowed anybody who could trace their ancestry back to people who had left Austria in the early 1930s — they could apply for Austrian citizenship," Stephen Grist told The Sun. 

"Eventually, I discover that Gerda, my mother's birth mother, has a stepson and I contact the stepson on Facebook, and I say, 'I'm missing one last piece of information. I just need Gerda's death certificate to be able to finish the application for Austrian citizenship. So can you help me with that?' And he said, 'You're not going to find her death certificate because she's still alive and living in a nursing home in Canada.' And I was like, 'Oh, my God! My mother's mother is still alive and is 97 [and] turning 98 (Saturday)!" 

When Stephen Grist first told his mother the news about her birth mother, the first thing she said was,"I want to go on a plane to Canada and hug my mother," according to CTV News. The COVID-19 pandemic forced them to put the reunion on hold, however. 

Living in England, Sonya Grist contacted her birth mother via email. The adopted daughter told CTV News that she knew Cole was her mother when Cole replied, "You have to understand this computer doesn't like me," during their first correspondence. She later arranged the reunion and the birthday celebration, according to The Sun. 

"My daughter, my grandson, Stephen, thanks for this opportunity. It means so much to be able to live to see this moment," Cole was quoted as saying. 

"Thank you all for coming and sharing this wonderful experience with me. I am so overjoyed to be able to say, 'my daughter,'" Cole said in a separate statement published by CTV News. "It means so much to be able to live to see these moments."

The mother and daughter reportedly spent the reunion day talking and celebrating. Cole also offered some wise words for her daughter and grandson.

"Don't wait until tomorrow before it is too late," she said. "If you want to live, live now, not tomorrow or the day after. It's all the advice I have to give."

Placing a child up for adoption can often be challenging for mothers, but many find it rewarding. 

Another mother, Stephanie Studt, told The Christian Post last year how she chose adoption for her child when she gave birth at 19. Studt's birth mother had also placed her up for adoption almost 30 years ago. Years later, the young woman made a similar choice when she became pregnant in college, and the child's father broke up with her. 

"At first, I wasn't exactly sure what I was going to do, but I knew that I was going to choose life," she said. "My birth mother made that courageous decision, and I ended up having a wonderful life."

Studt met with parents who could not conceive a child and agreed to an open adoption so she could still be involved with her son's life. While entrusting her child to another family was difficult, the young mother said she knew she had a "really beautiful gift to give someone" in her preborn baby. 

Dawn Baker, Bethany Christian Services' Michigan director of Infant Adoption & Pregnancy Counseling, helped Studt through selecting her son's parents and her adoption journey. 

"The strength that [birth mothers] show, the tenacity that they show, the ability to get beyond themselves and see beyond themselves is remarkable to me. And to have that selflessness in order to put their child first and to choose something that is unconventional, that is different, that is really hard," Baker said. "I put them in a different category that is a step above."

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