Woman celebrates 98th birthday by reuniting with daughter she put up for adoption 80 years ago

Gerda Cole, who lives in a long-term care home, gave birth to her daughter when she was only 18 years old. As a Jewish refugee during World War II, she couldn’t help but give her up for adoption. Eighty years later, she finally met her child.

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.

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“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, traveled to Canada with her son Stephen Grist to visit Gerda in Revera Kennedy Lodge Long Term care Home.

Gerda was filled with joy as her daughter hugged her, and the two held on to each other for a long while.

“Eighty years old,” Gerda said in awe as she looked at Sonya, who jokingly responded, “Don’t emphasize my age.”

Sonya Grist hugging her mother Gerda Cole who is in a wheelchair long term care home
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Gerda, then 15, was sent by her family to England in 1939 to escape persecution of Jewish people in Vienna, Austria.

She gave her daughter up for adoption in 1942, a few years later.

“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 in the aftermath of the war. She earned three degrees, including an honors B.A. in Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.

Gerda Cole and Sonya Grist talking to each other during their reunion
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Stephen was trying to trace his family tree last year in order to prove Austrian descent to enable his family to obtain citizenship. That led him to get in touch with Gerda’s stepson.

He discovered that his grandmother, 97 years of age, was still living. 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.”

Stephen Grist, Gerda Cole, and Sonya Grist finally reunited
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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.”

Wendy Gilmour (senior vice president for long-term care at Revera), said that it took several months to come up with the plans to reunite mother and daughter.

“It is incredible the journey that all people have gone through, [Cole] and her children, and her grandchildren,” she said.

Sonya Grist pushing Gerda Cole's wheelchair
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After more than two years of dealing directly with the pandemic’s effects, the residents at nursing homes needed a celebration.

“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.

Gerda’s experience 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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