On May 7, 2022, Holocaust survivor Gerda Cole attended her 98th birthday party. The recreation room at the Revera Kennedy Lodge long-term care home in Toronto, where Gerda lives, was decorated in blue – her favorite color – and she wore a crown and sash.
It’s not every day that someone turns 98, but this 98th birthday celebration was no ordinary: the celebration also marked Gerda’s reunion with Sonya Grist, the 79-year-old daughter she decided to get adopted in 1942. while living in England as a Jewish refugee.
The tearful reunion, which was documented in a Washington Post article, was, according to Gerda, “the best thing that ever happened to me.”
It was also a long time coming.
Shortly before giving Sonya up for adoption, Gerda escaped the Nazis and her native Austria via the Kindertransport in 1939. A few years later, at just 18, she was pregnant, in a marriage failed, destitute and still separated from her. family; although Gerda’s mother would survive the Nazis, her father would not.
“It was tough,” Cole told The Washington Post why she left Sonya with a German couple in England. “If I had been in a better position, I would have tried.”
The couple have been separated for eight decades. Meanwhile, Gerda found work as an accountant with a part-time job at Burger King to fund her passion for travel. (She also loves archeology and has volunteered at archaeological sites in Israel!) She married five times, moved to Canada in 1965 and went on to earn three college degrees. She had no other children of her own. Gerda often thought of Sonya, but by condition of adoption, she was forbidden from any communication with her biological daughter.
So, at the same time, Sonya grew up in England without her biological mother. She ended up getting married, having three children and working as a tour guide. Although she had searched for her biological parents before, she was unlucky.
Fortunately, her son Stephen found Gerda by chance!
In 2021, Stephen was trying to verify his Austrian roots in order to obtain European citizenship. Armed with the names of his biological grandparents, listed on Sonya’s birth certificate, he was able to find more information about them.
“I was spending an hour a night going down these rabbit holes and discovering some remarkable information along the way,” Stephen told The Washington Post.
Yet he could not find Gerda’s death certificate, which he would have to send to the Austrian Embassy during the citizenship application process. Eventually he found Gerda’s stepson via Facebook and reached out – only to find his biological grandmother was alive!
“My first reaction was, I want to go see her,” Sonya Grist told reporter Sydney Page, adding, “I was thrilled.”
Despite initial hesitation after hearing from the Grists, Gerda decided it was time to meet. On May 6, 2022, Sonya and Stephen left England for Canada. The next day, they met Gerda for her birthday – and Mother’s Day.
“I made so many mistakes, and yet she went looking for me and she found me,” Cole said. “It was amazing.”
Sonya, who feels the same way, said, “I carry no malice, no grudges, nothing.”
According to the article, the couple formed an instant connection, discovering that they had things in common, such as a love of travel and learning new languages.
They plan to meet again – and next time Sonya and her son will bring their whole family.
“I would love to join their family,” Cole shared. “At this point, there is nothing more I would like to be together.”