As an 18-year-old Jewish refugee at the height of World War II, Gerda Cole gave her newborn daughter up for adoption – and 80 years later the couple finally reunited just in time for the holiday mothers.
Cole’s daughter, Sonya Grist, who lives in England, traveled to Toronto on Saturday to reunite with her birth mother – on the latter’s 98th birthday – after learning she was still alive and living in Canada.
“I’m shaking,” Grist said while waiting to meet her mother for the first time.
“A little over a year ago I didn’t know my mother was still alive. I knew very little. I still don’t know much and there are a thousand questions I need to ask her , but I don’t want to bomb her.”
Grist, now 80, arrived in Canada with her son Stephen Grist on Saturday, to meet Cole for the first time. Cole, who resides at Revera Kennedy Lodge long-term care home in Scarborough, said the plan had been in the works for several months after the home was contacted by Cole’s grandson.
The couple held each other, unable to let go, as Cole cried out in delight.
“Eighty,” Cole said in shock, looking at his daughter, who jokingly replied, “Don’t stress my age.”
“When I heard I just couldn’t believe it,” Cole said. “It must be…a miracle. It means so much to be able to live to see this moment.”
At 15, Gerda was sent by her family to England to escape Jewish persecution in her native Vienna in 1939.
Several years later, in 1942, Cole gave his newborn daughter up for adoption at age 18 due to her economic circumstances.
“I had a very limited personal upbringing, and that, combined with wartime, left me with no recourse but to have Sonya adopted under the guidance of the shelter committee,” she said. “The condition was to no longer have any connection with the child.”
Cole came to Canada after the war and earned three university degrees, including an Honors BA in Jewish Studies from the University of Toronto.
Stephen Grist was descending his family line last year, to provide proof of Austrian ancestry so the family could obtain Austrian citizenship, when he made contact with Cole’s stepson.
When told that Cole was still alive and was 97 at the time, he didn’t know how to break the news to his mother and waited two weeks before letting her know.
“I just thought oh my God, that just blew my mind,” Stephen Grist said. “The idea that his mother was still alive and that she would have the opportunity to meet her was so exciting that it overwhelmed us all.
“When I told my mum Gerda was still alive, she just said, ‘I want to get on a plane to Canada right now and give her a big hug,'” he said.
That’s when he started tracking Cole down and contacted her through the long-term care home.
Wendy Gilmour, senior vice president of long-term care at Revera, said family reunification plans have been in the works for several months now.
“It’s amazing the journey that all the people have been through, Gerda and her kids and her grandkids,” Gilmour said.
Gilmour said the celebration was just what residents needed after more than two years of battling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on long-term care.
“It’s been tough, it’s been a tough time for the houses and our residents, and throwing a party – which we haven’t done in a long, long time – brings excitement back” into the house, a- she declared.