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Unrealistic dreams: When family reunions don’t work out

Reconnecting with long-lost family can sometimes lead to fairy-tale endings. But as the stories from these Berliners show, they’re always complicated – and usually disappointing.

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Daniela and the man she thought was her father  – until he sent her the results of a DNA test. Photo: Supplied

Reconnecting with long-lost family can sometimes lead to fairy-tale endings. But as the stories from these Berliners show, they’re always complicated – and usually disappointing. Photo: Supplied

Valentina’s last memory of her dad was of a long-haired, bearded man living with her and her mother in Russia in the early 1990s. She was about three or four and he wasn’t around much. “Then one day they split up and I never saw him again,” says the 25-year-old Berliner. Shortly after, she and her mother moved to Germany, and she was soon living with a violent, alcoholic stepdad, whom she hated. “My life was so horrible. I felt so misunderstood by my mum because she was with someone who treated me terribly. I wanted to grab onto something better.”

So when she was a teen, she sought to meet her father again. After plenty of resistance, her mother eventually relented and agreed to take her to Russia and organise a meeting. “I made myself all pretty. I had such great expectations!” she remembers. “The only thing I knew about him was that he worked in real estate and I imagined him in this huge shiny office, where I would come in and say, ‘Hello, I’m your daughter’, and be welcomed with open arms. But when we got there it was a little dingy place. We sat there and waited. Then a huge bald man came in and my mum stood up and said, ‘This is your daughter’. I was shocked and so was he.

From that point on, Valentina and her biological father started emailing each other. “He wasn’t exactly the most emotionally responsive guy, but he answered,” she says.

But then things began getting a little strange. “I started hearing stories about him: that he had threatened to put my pregnant mother in a mental institution if she broke up with him; that he’d started seeing my mother’s half-sister when she was underage; and that he was a drug addict.” She also found out what “working in real estate” really meant. “In the 1990s many people in Russia started drinking a lot. He and his ‘colleagues’ would find alcoholics and get them wasted on vodka. Then they would put a contract in front of them and make them sign it – giving up the rights to their apartments.”

They would then kick them out, and those who resisted would be taken to the forest and buried alive. At first she found these stories hard to believe, until one day she received an unexpected phone call from her dad. “He asked me if I could send him a copy of my birth certificate, because he’d shot a guy and needed to show the court that he had children so he could avoid going to prison.”

Rather than being horrified, she was initially surprised. “I thought, ‘What a badass, this guy goes on some adventures. That’s pretty cool!’ It was only later that I realised how bad it all was.” Although Valentina’s reaction might seem strange to most, her response wasn’t as unusual as it seems. “Family members are usually happy to make the connection, even if the person isn’t someone they really like,” says Susanne Panter, the founder and owner of Wiedersehen Macht Freude, an agency that specialises in finding lost family members. “It’s a conclusion – and this makes people content.”

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Susanne Panter is the founder and owner of Wiedersehen Macht Freude, an agency that specialises in finding lost family members. Photo: Supplied

Managing expectations

That’s not to say reunions are all plain sailing – as Valentina’s dramatic experience shows. The idealisation of a long-lost parent, the desire to reconnect and the disappointing reality when they finally do are all pretty common in Panter’s experience. Her agency has reconnected some 4000 people in 32 countries since it was established in Berlin in 2000, and she has noticed that “the closer relationships, like children and parents, are usually the least successful attempts in the long run.”

Looser, more distant connections like cousins tend to have more promising outcomes. A part of the reason for this is expectations. “Sometimes people have this kind of unrealistic dream,” she explains. One example was of a woman who was searching for her father because she was getting married in a month’s time and wanted him to walk her to the altar. As a result, Panter says a big part of her work is “expectations management”. “I try to prepare them, but still sometimes people get disappointed. I can’t help it if they are really romantic.”

We sat there and waited. Then a huge bald man came in and my mum stood up and said, ‘This is your daughter’. I was shocked and so was he.

To help with this, she tries to get people to view reconnection as a broader process that can still be useful, even if it doesn’t lead to the relationships they were hoping for. Panter says that making contact is often about getting a sense of closure, giving the example of adopted or donor children. In her opinion, these children often grow up “with a subtle feeling that their biological parents are not okay – that a mother who gives her child away must be a horrible person, or sick. The children share their genes, so they think, ‘Does that mean there is something wrong with me?’ Often they want to make contact to see that actually this person is not a monster – this is just a human being, and they had their reasons for giving them away. In this way, they reassure themselves that they too are okay.”

An ocean apart

Panter’s theory seems to be at least partly supported by Tania and Alexi, siblings born into extreme poverty in Nicaragua in the early 1990s. By the age of one, Tania had been hospitalised seven times for malnutrition before she was picked up for adoption by a British woman named Jenny, who took her to London. Three years later Tania’s brother Alexi was born to a different father, and Jenny adopted him too. “If it wasn’t for mum, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have even made it to my second birthday,” Tania says. Tania’s dad – allegedly a priest in the local village – fled when she was young, while her stepfather – Alexi’s dad – stayed with their birth mother, Carla.

Her stepfather spent long stretches working away, and only learnt about Alexi’s adoption after returning. Despite these trying circumstances Jenny took them over to visit Nicaragua every couple of years when they were children. But over time the gaps between visits widened, partly for practical reasons – flights became more expensive and school life got in the way – but also due to increasing difficulties at home. “Emotions got really heavy at one point,” Tania says. “We were going to family counselling. We had a lot of rows with Jenny, which I think came from her sense of insecurity around adoption. She’s never liked our birth mum, and I think she began to feel scared that we would choose Carla over her.”

Things became even more messy when their biological parents adopted a baby of their own. “I just thought at that point that this whole situation was so messed up that I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I was still a kid trying to wrap my head around the whole adoption thing to begin with, let alone this. She rejected me and Alexi, and now she’s adopted another kid – it’s fucked up,” fumes Tania.

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Tania and Alexi are siblings born into extreme poverty in Nicaragua in the early 1990s. Photo: Supplied

This sense of having been rejected by her biological parents was very difficult for Tania. “It doesn’t matter how young you were, the moment that you know you’re adopted, you’ll always have to wrestle with that feeling of not being wanted,” she explains. As an overseas adopted child, this was mixed up with a “constant panic about lost identity. We had no choice but to be adopted. It’s been so draining. If I’m honest, sometimes I think if I’d had that choice I’d rather have been left to die.”

All this contributed to an increasingly fraught relationship between Tania and Jenny. As things approached breaking point, there came another nasty surprise. Alexi found a blog post purportedly written by Carla accusing Jenny of having “stolen her children away”. Both siblings say they never believed the accusations, but it added an extra layer of complexity to an already difficult relationship, and shortly after Tania cut off contact with Jenny. “Our relationship was broken for a good 10 years,” she says. This, in turn, killed off any hope of contact with Carla.

In her late twenties Tania reconnected with Jenny and now yearns to do the same with her biological parents. While she hasn’t received any response to her many letters, she is planning on travelling to Nicaragua to try and find them. “I think it’s about closure,” she says. “There are so many questions I want to ask, like ‘What was going through your head when you wanted to get rid of me?’ and ‘If you couldn’t look after me properly, why did you then have Alexi?’ If a relationship happens as well, that would be a massive bonus, but it’s more about finding answers, finding out who I am.” According to Panter, this urge is quite common among those looking for lost relatives, even if the circumstances are painful. “Sometimes people need to open a wound and give it air,” she says. “By lifting the taboos around examining difficult parts of a family’s history, it allows the system to heal properly.”

And while Tania is looking for some closure, Alexi doesn’t share her desire. “I’ve known what real love is – a parent’s love. The ‘blood is thicker than water’ stuff is a load of bollocks. I think you can spend so much time imagining you’re going to find this mythical family far away that’s going to make you happy, but the reality is that things in your own family are difficult enough. I don’t really see the benefit of complicating things further than they already are.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s sceptical of what his sister’s search will bring. “It’s natural to be curious. But are you really ready for it? Once you’re actually there, you never know what you’re going to find.”

Unearthing the dark past

One person who wasn’t prepared for what his search would uncover was American David Shield, who in attempting to honour the life of his deceased grandfather discovered an unthinkable – and horrifying – family secret. Growing up as a kid in Florida in the 1980s and 1990s, David idolised his grandfather, Joseph. He recalls how he would teach him all about plants and animals, and take him fishing all over the state. But while Joseph was a loving and knowledgeable grandfather, he was less willing to delve into his own past.

Quite aptly named, Joseph Shield never spoke about his former life, and the only information David had about the family’s patriarch was what he gleaned from his grandmother. She’d said he was a German Jew, previously named Josef Seidel, who’d escaped the Nazis during the war and fled to the US in 1944. As a child, David would “proudly tell people that my Grandpa was a war hero and survivor, and [that] I was a Jew!”

After Joseph died in 2008, David started digging into his past. In 2010 his search took him to Berlin where he settled at age 27, enlisting the help of the American Jewish Committee. After searching through the records with little success, they asked him, “Are you sure your grandfather was on the victims’ side of the war?” Offended, he stormed out, and began a long search of his own, going from Amt to Amt looking for information until he eventually found the address where his grandfather had lived in 1935.

There he miraculously met Elizabeth, an old lady who had known Joseph as a child. She invited him in and they chatted for hours. “Elizabeth told me how beautiful my great-grandmother was, and that my great-grandfather was a very loud man… She showed me more photos of the years they’d all lived there.” Eventually, David asked her how it had been possible for these Jews to hide there for so long. “Elizabeth looked at me with these big, questioning eyes and said, ‘Your grandfather was not Jewish, my dear. Both Seidels, father and son, joined the SS.’”

“Elizabeth looked at me with these big, questioning eyes and said, ‘Your grandfather was not Jewish, my dear. Both Seidels, father and son, joined the SS.’

At first David didn’t believe it. “Grandpa was such a gentle, quiet man…he could have never done anything bad to anyone!” But further research led him to discover that his grandfather had in fact carried out missions that rounded up Jews and forced them into camps. The revelation was crushing. “I felt ashamed, and it took me years until I was actually able to tell other people. One person I never told the truth to was my grandmother. Somehow she must have suspected something, but she never wanted to know more.”

Wrong father!

Just as David found out that his grandfather wasn’t the man he thought he was, Daniela encountered a literal case of mistaken identity hunting for her long-lost father. Growing up as a child in Bavaria, she never knew her dad: all she knew was that he and her mother had a brief fling in the 1960s, and that when her mother became pregnant he refused to acknowledge he was the father. Her mother said  he visited her once as a baby and brought her a big teddy bear. “This was the only thing I had from him. But after that there was no contact,” says Daniela.

She gradually grew curious. When she was 12 she sent a letter but never received a reply, and by her twenties was determined to make contact. “I didn’t have a photo of him or anything. I was curious to know what he looked like, I wondered if he was a nice person, if I would like him.”

She made several attempts to find him, including doing a 1000-km round-trip from her home in Berlin to the fancy hotel in Bavaria where her father worked as a barkeeper, only to find he wasn’t there. Finally, after two years, she managed to get hold of his phone number and organise a meeting. “I rang him and told him that I’d like to meet him just once. He sounded surprised, but said ’okay’.” It turned out he lived in a van in a campsite in Bavaria, and had recently been forced to stop working because of illness. Daniela was intrigued, and wanted to get to know her bar-keeping, van-dwelling dad.

“He was very charming and welcoming. He cooked a tasty meal for me in his tiny camper kitchen – you could tell he had worked in hotels – and told me about his life. I can see why my mum liked him. He was exactly her type: tall, intelligent. I liked the way he moved, how he talked, how he looked at me. I felt a strange sense of being home. He seemed to really accept me,” she says. “But as we were smoking a final cigarette, he told me that he never really believed I was his child. I thought it was a little strange, but I left with the feeling that this was the beginning of the rest of my life. I finally had contact with my father!”

But a few weeks later she received a letter. “He was saying that I wasn’t his daughter. He’d attached the results of a DNA test – he had sent in the cigarette butt I had left behind when we had that last smoke!” Confused and hurt, Daniela called her mother, who for about a year continued to insist that he was the father, until – after constant pestering – she finally admitted it could have been a man named Franz, an old friend of hers. “I think he was in love with her, but the feelings weren’t mutual. It turned out he had left me the teddy bear. My mother wasn’t happy, but I contacted Franz.”

He agreed to meet, but on the condition that Daniela brought her mother along. “He was very intelligent and I liked him, but he was also suspicious of me, and talked almost exclusively to my mother. I remember he asked her, ‘Why did you never think it could have been me?’ It was very awkward. He seemed very hurt that my mother hadn’t accepted him as a father. I got the impression that he would have been there for us. I felt like he was still in love with her.”

Daniela visited him a few times, and slowly he seemed to warm to her. “On my final visit, it finally felt like he accepted me.” Sadly, just as a genuine connection began to blossom, he fell ill and died very suddenly. “I never got to say goodbye,” she sighs. However, in a strange twist, soon after Franz’s death she received a call from the sister of the mistaken father explaining that he too was very ill. He had been moved from his camper van to a care home, and Daniela went down to Bavaria to visit. “He was happy to see me – and I was happy I got to say goodbye to him.” He died two weeks later. Daniela says that, at least in this case, she “finally got some sort of closure”.

Stories of reconnections with long-lost loved ones often pertain more to Greek tragedy than happily-ever-after cinematic fairy tales. But even though they don’t always get what they’d hoped for, Panter says people rarely regret their search. That’s certainly the case for Valentina: despite what she learned about her father’s criminal past and the years of therapy she needed to come to terms with the situation, she’s adamant she loves him.

“There’s nothing that can shock me about my father any more,” she remarks drily. “I have learned to accept people as they are. I think you have to if you have a family like mine. Because if I start judging with my own moral compass, I might lose him – and I don’t want to lose him.” She pauses. “It’s not easy to have a dad like this, but it’s better than nothing.”