This is Part 1 of a pair of Essays about discovering a whole new heritage and family. Read Part 2 here.
It’s June 30 and I’m on a flight to Stockholm via Amsterdam. I’ve just read a Globe and Mail article on Eva Gabrielsson, partner of the late writer Stieg Larsson. I have been quipping with friends over the last month that I am The Girl Without the Dragon Tattoo. My story involves another Stig and Eva, also from Sweden.
Twenty years ago to the day, I was on a flight to Amsterdam with my new husband for our honeymoon. Now we are embarking on another incredible journey. Several years ago, we began a search for more information on my husband’s heritage. An only adopted child raised in Israel by a prominent couple, he was born in 1945 to a young Polish girl who, in 1942, had somehow survived the Holocaust, escaped from Nazi Europe and found her way to Israel. For a long time after the death of his adoptive parents, he couldn’t bring himself to inquire about his roots out of loyalty and respect for them.
Up until this year, all we had been able to uncover was that his birth mother’s name was Eva R.; she was born in 1928; she became pregnant by a British officer; we had a small picture of her; and her mother, Esther R., had been at the Israeli Consulate in Stockholm in 1961. On the last day of a family trip to Israel this past March, we made our way to the Swedish Foreign Ministry, hoping they could source help for us in Sweden, despite my husband’s fear that he would be disappointed and face another loss. A kind clerk told us that if either Eva R. or Esther R. had obtained citizenship, married, divorced or died in Sweden, records were public and easily accessible.
Once back in Canada, we dropped into our post-holiday life as working professionals in the sandwich generation with teens and an elderly parent at home.
One day soon after our return, I was blessed with a rare free hour of time on my hands. I sent off an e-mail to the Stockholm City Archives asking for information.
Within days, I received a courteous and personal response. A clerk had located a woman by the name of Eva O. with the same birth date, now deceased and buried in the Jewish Cemetery of Stockholm. But she was German, not Polish. I wondered if the borders could have changed after the First World War. Googling turned up an answer – the city of Katowice, Germany, had become Polish. Bingo! But I was still not certain that Eva O. was our Eva R.
I e-mailed again to ask if there was any other route I could take to confirm her identity. The clerk asked if I had a picture. I attached it and received a prompt response. He knew someone at the passport office down the street and offered to walk over and compare our photo of Eva R. with any he could find of Eva O.
Just days later, he e-mailed me back: “Ms. Crook, we have a positive ID. Not only do the photos match, it is the same photo as yours – Eva R. is Eva O.”
He suggested I request her probate inventory of estate, which took minutes. Several days later, I received another monumental e-mail: an original of her last will and testament, but in Swedish. By now feeling pretty savvy (or lucky) at the screen, I Googled “translate” and was able to read it in English. Eva R. married Swedish national Stig O. in 1950 in Israel, automatically gained Swedish citizenship and soon after immigrated to Sweden. Sadly, she died at the young age of 47, leaving three sons, all with first names starting with R.
How amazing was this? With the click of a button and some perseverance, my husband was now no longer an only child, but the eldest of four boys.
Now this Girl Without the Dragon Tattoo was on a mission to find those brothers. Searching for the probate document for Stig O. (who died only a short time ago) produced even more magical results. Within a week I had the names and addresses of the three brothers, who lived in three countries. Hoping to find a photograph of one of them, I searched on until I located a picture of the middle brother. His image jumped off the screen at me as looking remarkably similar to my husband. I took a deep breath and e-mailed him: “Dear R: Are you the brother of R and R and the son of Eva and Stig? I’m trying to track someone down for a friend.” Within the hour, he replied from his iPhone: “Yes, I am …”
I called my husband at work. “Are you sitting down?” I asked. “We found her! And as we suspected might be the case, she’s passed away and rests in the Jewish cemetery in Stockholm. But there is wonderful news, too. She is survived by three sons.” Met by shocked silence at the other end of the phone, I said: “You’re not alone. You have three brothers.”
Filled with a mixture of grief, joy and fear, my husband was speechless. Over the next few weeks, we could think of nothing else. Having no idea whether his brothers knew of his existence, we decided the best way to proceed was for my husband to write a letter to each of them with photos of him at different stages of his life, along with the photo we had of Eva. We couriered the three precious packages to three countries and waited for a response.
By the end of that week, we had heard from all three brothers and their response was nothing short of miraculous. Their mother had told them they had a firstborn brother. She grieved the loss of him her whole life and believed, because of the closed adoption policies of Israel, that the only way the four of them would come together would be if he had been told he was adopted and sought them out. And yes, they very much wanted to meet him.
And so, tonight we fly into Stockholm to meet two of the three brothers. I wonder at the serendipity that led me on this tale. Like the story of Lisbeth Salander, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the search for justice, inner peace and closure, born out of tragedy, has risen once again.
Nikita A. Crook lives on Vancouver’s North Shore.
Tomorrow: The brothers meet.