My Jewish Past and Finding My Family

The journey of a woman searching for her natural family.

Sonia Billadeau January 30, 2014
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In late September of 1990, at 10:30 a.m. on a Friday morning, I parked my rental car in front of the modest, two-story bungalow in North Hollywood where my parents lived.  I had never been there before. I had never even met them!

Gerhard and Irine gave birth to me in December of 1949, a little more than a year after Gerhard arrived in California. He had been a refugee from the Jewish ghetto in Shanghai, China, a decade-long home to European Jews who escaped Hitler but lacked the resources to enter the United States. Gerhard was the first of his family to arrive in the U.S. Sponsored by an American GI, he arrived in Los Angeles with $100 in his pocket. At a dance, sponsored by the local Jewish Community Center, he met his future bride, Irine, and their relationship quickly became serious. They began to discuss a future together, but there was one problem: Gerhard was a good Jewish son who could not get married without the participation of both his parents. Getting his parents out of China and into the U.S. was proving to be a messy business.

Gerhard’s parents sat in Shanghai awaiting an opportunity to follow their son to America. Although they repeatedly applied to emigrate, the U.S. government continued to deny their request. Gerhard and Irine were married in a civil ceremony four months before I came into the world. Then, to save themselves and their families shame and embarrassment, they moved to San Francisco and relinquished their first child. I was adopted and raised in Berkeley by an older Jewish couple who had waited a long time for me. There were few Jewish babies available in those years and by the time they finally welcomed me into their lives, they were already close to middle-age.

I had a good childhood, but like all adoptees I was curious about my true heritage. So when both my adoptive mother and father passed on in the late ’80s, I began to think seriously about finding my birth family. All I knew at that point was their last name. The search was relatively easy, although with delays it took a year and a half. Up to 1952, California adoption papers carried the last name of the birth father (if the couple was married) or mother if she was unmarried. Armed with that information and guided by some wonderful people with AID (Adoption Identity Discovery), I located my birth announcement in the SF Chronicle, thereby giving me the first name of my birth father. A month later I discovered my mother’s name by finding their marriage application in the SF County Hall of Records. I still lacked two critical pieces of information: 1) Where are they living now? and 2) Could they possibly still be married? Another year would pass before I found the answers.

While doing some professional research at Stanford’s Green Library, I took an extra hour to pull down some Bay Area phone books and check out how frequently that last name appeared. The first few books yielded promising news, as the name was fairly uncommon. As I pulled down the 9th phone book from the Bay Area group, I realized it had been misshelved. It was a Metro Los Angeles book. I decided to check it out anyway. Opening that L.A. phone book was a fateful act. It was truly the turning point in my search. There, on a page of the book, was a listing for my birthfather. What had, up to this point, been a compilation of historical facts and records was now quite alive and real. The last piece of information was supplied to me be an adoption search guide associated with AIS (Adoptees in Search) in Southern California. She searched the LA County voter registration records and found that a Gerhard and Irine were registered at the same address in North Hollywood. Still married! How lucky could one adoptee get?? Luckier than most, for sure.

Throughout the next month, friends alternatively encouraged me, treated me for shock, and worried that I was in for a huge dose of H-U-R-T. Meanwhile, I debated with myself about how I would make my initial contact. In the end, I wrote a letter to Irine and sent it registered mail, signature and return receipt required. Three weeks passed before I received the post office receipt. Another three weeks went by before the phone call finally came. It was a Tuesday and Irine left a message on my answering machine that she had gotten my letter and she was most anxious to talk to me. Tied up in an all-day work assignment, I had to wait five hours to return that call. Those five hours seemed longer than the entire six weeks that preceded it. That evening, when we finally connected, we talked for almost an hour. She apologized for the lengthy response time and explained that they had been traveling abroad for the first three weeks but that the second half of the wait had been due to my father’s inability (unwillingness?) to tell their other two children. Oh My! I hadn’t thought about siblings. A sister and brother! Wow!

I still remember what it felt like to walk up those stairs and ring the doorbell on that North Hollywood house. I remember our first tentative hug. Then my birth-mother and I sat down to talk.and talk and talk and talk. I don’t think either of us quite knew where to start, but it began to get a little easier after the first couple of hours. There were disappointments (she didn’t look much like me), fears (she was scared I would be angry and demand to know why they hadn’t kept me), and amusing similarities (we were both life-long tea drinkers). At 6:00 p.m. my birth-father, Gerhard, came home from work. He had been driving around for an hour-and-a-half gathering the courage. It went fine. We talked for an hour while Irine finished preparing dinner. He had had a fascinating life and I soaked up every story.

After dinner, my new sister, Laura, and her family (a husband and two children) arrived and we compared everything from high-school pictures to hair thickness to the size and shape of our feet. I would have to wait another month to meet my brother, David. He lived out-of-state then, but we spoke by phone and started to get to know one another. It felt good and it felt right. I had family again and they welcomed me. Gerhard passed away suddenly in 2000, but my birthmother, whom I now call “Mama,” is still quite healthy and active. When I married in 1993, Mama and my adoptive brother, Henry (all I have left of my original family), walked me down the aisle. Laura’s daughter, Julie, who was a baby in 1990, came to visit my husband and me for a week last summer and we will travel to LA to witness her Bat Mitzvah next June. Laura and I talk on the phone fairly frequently, as I do with Mama, as well.

We are very, very different in many ways, but through them I have met many fascinating people–  people I would never have known otherwise. Among my birth-parents’ friends and relatives are concentration camp survivors, German Kindertransport refugees, and other Shanghai refugees from all around the world. I treasure the fact that I found not only my birth parents, but two full siblings as well. Few other adoptees are that lucky in their searches. I know that I will continue my relationships with all of them for the rest of my life.

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Sonia Billadeau


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