Gerda Cole who now lives in a long term care home gave birth to a daughter when she was just 18 years old. But as a Jewish refugee during the height of World War II, she had no choice but to give her up for adoption. Eighty years later, she met her child for the first time.
The momentous occasion happened just in time for Mother’s Day. Gerda’s daughter, Sonya Grist, who lives in England, flew to Toronto, Canada, to reunite with her biological mother during the latter’s 98th birthday.
“Just over a year ago I didn’t know that my mother was still alive,” Sonya said. “I knew very little. I still don’t know much and there’s a thousand questions I’ve got to ask her, but I don’t want to bombard her.”
Sonya, now 80, arrived in Canada with her son, Stephen Grist, to visit Gerda at Revera Kennedy Lodge Long Term Care Home.
Gerda squealed with joy as she hugged her daughter, and the pair held onto each other for a long time.
“Eighty years old,” Gerda said in awe as she looked at Sonya, who jokingly responded, “Don’t emphasize my age.”
In 1939, then 15-year-old Gerda was sent away by her family to England to escape the persecution of Jewish people in Vienna, Austria.
Several years later, in 1942, she gave birth to her daughter and gave her up for adoption.
“I had very limited personal education, and this, combined with wartime, left me no recourse but to have Sonya adopted under the advice of the refuge committee,” she explained. “The condition was not to have any further connection with the child.”
Gerda moved to Canada after the war and went on to earn three degrees, including an honors BA in Jewish studies from the University of Toronto.
Stephen was tracing his family lineage last year to provide proof of Austrian descent so the family could obtain citizenship in the country. That led him to get in touch with Gerda’s stepson.
He learned that his grandmother was alive and 97 years old at the time. The news shocked him, and he didn’t know how to break it to Sonya, so he waited two weeks before telling her.
“The idea that her mother was still alive and she would have the opportunity to meet her was so exciting it just threw us all for a loop,” he said.
When Stephen finally told his mother, she said, “I want to get on an airplane to Canada right now and give her a big hug.”
That’s when he started tracking Gerda down, managing to contact her through her nursing home.
“When I heard, I just couldn’t believe it,” Gerda said. “This must be … a miracle. It means so much to be able to live to see this moment.”
According to Wendy Gilmour, senior vice president of long-term care at Revera, the plans to reunite the mother and daughter took several months.
“It is incredible the journey that all people have gone through, [Cole] and her children, and her grandchildren,” she said.
The celebration was exactly what the nursing home residents needed after over two years of dealing with the impact of the pandemic.
“It’s been tough, it’s been a difficult time for the homes and our residents, and to have a party — which is something we haven’t done in a long, long time — brings back excitement into the home,” Wendy said.
As for Gerda, the event still seems surreal.
“(This reunion) has been amazing and surprising, but wonderful … I’m still pinching myself. I can’t believe it. This is something to live a few more years for,” she said.
We’re so happy to see this mother and daughter finally reunited after eight decades! Witness Gerda and Sonya’s first meeting in the video below.
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