Help My Mother Meet Her Mother

My mother’s story has been told to me in pieces to me throughout the years, in much the same way as it was slowly revealed to her. Long before I was old enough to be told of her past, it was made known to me through the muffled cries coming through her bedroom during long nights of my childhood as I would sit quiet outside her door, tracing hearts onto its veneer with my fingertips. My sweet and wonderful mother, who bathed her children and all else who came to know her in affection, was always deeply saddened within. What I could not understand as a child is known to me now and compels me to share her story in hopes of easing her sadness.

As with many tragedies, my mother’s story begins with war. My grandmother became pregnant with my mother in post-war Germany in 1956. As a Sinti, a sect of Gypsies who were persecuted during WWII, it was something of a miracle that my grandmother had survived into adulthood at all. But she had, and had grown into a strong and brave young woman who fell in love with a kind young man, my grandfather. They wished to marry but because of my grandmother’s diminished social standing as a Sinti were not allowed to do so. Not to be deterred, they forged their own sacred bond nonetheless and remained together despite the disdain they faced. Though the war had officially ended, the prejudice against minorities was still alive as was, as my grandmother would soon find out, the corruption of the agencies within Germany. Nonetheless, my grandmother was exuberant when she found out that she and my grandfather were pregnant. She then made a decision that would prove to have dire consequences by visiting a gynecologist to check on the health of the beloved child she was carrying.

During her visit, the doctors came to understand that my grandmother was both a single mother and a Gypsy and immediately contacted the authorities. As she was exiting the hospital, she was forced into a Volkswagon bus – kidnapped – and stolen away to a supposed home for single mothers. Much more a prison than a home, my grandmother was locked inside for the remainder of her pregnancy. After giving birth to my mother, she was kept there for an additional six weeks for the purpose of breast feeding before she was thrown out without her child. The home reported that they were keeping the child since a single Sinti mother was unfit to raise one. Overcome with despair, my grandmother fought desperately to regain her daughter. Partly due to the post-war tyranny of social organizations and partly due to her perceived inferior status, she was unable to rescue her. When my grandmother became pregnant again later on she hired a man who had helped other persecuted people escape Germany during and after the war to smuggle her out so that she would be able to keep her son once he was born. While this man was afterwards arrested for helping her, my grandmother was able to escape with her unborn child. My mother, however, still remained in the single mothers’ home.

With far more taken children than they had staff, the home used a neglect policy to deal with those kept there. Babies will only cry for so long once they come to realize that no one is coming to their aid. My mother lived in this setting for three years before being sent to an orphanage that, quite fittingly, was a former concentration camp. This institution would keep children up to the age of fifteen, when they would then be turned over to labor camps. However, the main goal of the orphanage was child trafficking. They would sell children to people who would then use their child ownership status to receive government subsidies. As can be imagined of a place that was no more than a façade for black marketing, the conditions here were also insufferable and the children were widely abused in an attempt to make them more docile. Those who survived were often left as mere shells of humans; others did not survive at all.

My mother remained at this place for several years, relying only on her inner strength and the bond she shared with her fellow prisoners. Once, when she was four years old, she was visited by a woman dressed strangely in oversized men’s clothing who secretively gave her a small red harmonica and told her to hide it before leaving. Not understanding who this person or act of kindness was, she kept it carefully hidden, afraid to ever play it for fear of her one small possession being found and taken away. Then, at the age of eight, she finally left the orphanage when she was sold to a couple. As hard as her life had already been to this point, it became even more unbearable living with these two. With them, she suffered extreme abuse in every form imaginable. She ran away many times but was caught and returned to the couple each time, resulting in additional and increased abuse. At the age of thirteen, my mother made what she had decided would be her last attempt at escape. This time, she went directly to the headquarters of social work where she ran up the many stairs to the top floor of the building, burst into an office and made it out onto a window’s ledge before anyone could stop her. Perched there, with her malnourished underweight form covered in marks and scars, she told the social worker that if someone did not listen to her and help her right then that she would leap and end her life, and with it her misery. Finally, they agreed to listen.

After hearing of her sustained abuse, child services took my mother out of the couple’s custody and placed her in a girls’ home. Unlike everywhere else my mother had ever lived, this place had no regulations and no locked doors. While this should have provided my mother with her first taste of freedom, it instead allowed for continued danger. Since the home had no limitations on who could visit and when, my mother was one night awakened by being mauled by the drunken boyfriend of one of the other teenage girls living there. Unable to protect herself in this place either, she once again ran away. This time, however, when she was caught there was intervention by a social service worker who worked to place abuse victims in special case homes. The home she found was with a nun who I would grow up knowing as my Oma (grandmother). It was this nun, my surrogate grandmother, who finally allowed my mother to tell everything she had experienced. For the first time in her life, my mother experienced understanding, security, hugs, birthdays and holidays. Slowly she began to rebuild herself and her life. She even took out her secret red harmonica and began to play it. She stayed there, finally knowing love, until she became an adult.

Shortly after moving into her own place, my mother met a red-haired U.S. soldier, my father, who she would marry and subsequently move to the United States. Here, they had me and my siblings. My mother raised us with such care and affection that one would never know that she had spent almost the entirety of her life without either. If not for that hidden sadness, those nights of trying to discreetly cry herself to sleep, or the deep sorrow that would fill her eyes as she played her harmonica beautifully for her children, I would have never guessed myself. As I grew older and began to question more, I was finally told what my mother knew of her past: the orphanage, the couple, the girls’ home and finally, finally, my Oma. Through telling her own story she finally was able to find the strength necessary to ask her own questions about her biological parents and how this all came to be. By this time she had the additional advantage of the internet. She dove into researching the haunts of her childhood and found far more atrocities than she ever knew. Of those children who had been imprisoned in the orphanage with her, many had died at young ages of either stress related diseases or suicide. The few survivors she was able to locate also shared barred memories of other children they had witnessed abused until lifeless who had then disappeared. With this verification, my mother mobilized and devoted herself to having the former orphanage and its attendants exposed for what they truly were. Eventually, she and her fellow victims won by having the site excavated. The remains of children were found within.

Though this was a personal victory for my mother and those who had suffered alongside her, her work also made her extremely aware of how much child trafficking continues to exist today. She continued to spend her life and energy to help rescue other stolen children worldwide and reunite them with their families. It was through this work that she came in contact with a gentleman also involved in child protection services who had the resources to help her do what she never dreamed was possible: to locate her biological mother. Her mother was still living in Germany and in poverty and poor health. My mother did what she could to help her from afar, contacting health insurance and retirement agencies so that her mother could receive medical care. Though my mother succeeded in getting her help through her tireless efforts, her mother’s health continued to worsen. First she was given a pace maker for heart problems. Then she underwent back surgery that resulted in her being unable to walk. Then she developed throat cancer. In the past few months, my grandmother’s health has continued to decline dramatically, resulting in her being placed into hospice. My mother speaks with her as frequently as possible, urging her to hang on until they can finally meet. It was during one of these recent conversations that my mother learned that the stranger with the harmonica at the orphanage all those years ago was indeed my grandmother in disguise, dangerously risking everything to catch one small glimpse at her lost child.

This brings me to my purpose in sharing this story today. My mother continues to be an activist for children and families victimized by child trafficking and through her heroic influence I myself have grown to be someone who works with charities, such as Child Savers and the food bank. While neither of us has ever asked for help for ourselves, I am asking now. My family cannot afford to send my mother overseas to truly meet her own mother for the very first time. Meanwhile, the window of opportunity to do so is quickly closing as my grandmother’s health deteriorates daily. Please help me to gift this opportunity to them both, as they have suffered enough and without one another for far too long. The money collected will be used to purchase a roundtrip ticket and a hotel stay so that my mother may finally spend time with her mother. We both know well that there are many other worthwhile causes out there that we support as well, but any help towards this goal would be appreciated beyond words. It is a gratitude which can perhaps be best conveyed by a harmonica’s sweet song.


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Ingi Thompson-Tate 
Richmond, VA
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