An adoption tale: Uncovering a lifelong secret
David Rosenberg, once the beloved cantor at Portland's Congregation Shaarie Torah in Portland, Oregon, was, according to his widow Kim, "just a very loving, big, generous guy."
She and his children – Noah, Sam and Estee – clearly adored him. "He was one of those people you could just talk to and he'd say the right thing," said Estee.
But a continent away, in Roosevelt, New Jersey, someone David didn't even know loved him, too:
"He was our child, you know, he was conceived in love. He was always loved," said Margaret Erle Katz. Born in 1944, she was David's birth mother. During high school in Upper Manhattan, she fell in love with George Katz, captain of the school baseball team. "We were 15 and 16 when we first met," she said.
Correspondent Rita Braver asked, "Did you even understand how babies were made?"
"Nope," said Margaret. "I had no idea of anything."
In 1961, at age 16, she found herself pregnant … and she wasn't alone.
"In the years after the war, there was an explosion of unwed pregnancies," said journalist Gabrielle Glaser. She said the post-World War II years were confusing for young women. They were supposed to be sexy and attractive, but not to do anything about it until they were married. "You were supposed to be the good girl until the night of your wedding," said Glaser. "In which case you were supposed to transform magically into a sex kitten. But how did you get that information? No one knew, because there was no sex education."
Glaser is author of "American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption" (Viking), which details the history of American adoption in the mid-20th century.
Glaser said before the war, the usual response to an unwed pregnancy was a forced marriage – the so called "shotgun wedding."
What changed? "Suddenly there was a new middle class to aspire to," Glaser said. "The idea of a wedding and a baby six months later was not part of the new conservative American life."
Margaret Katz recalled, "My mother was beyond furious, because that was like, you know, the worst thing that could happen to any family at that time."
Braver asked, "You were obviously in love. Why didn't you just get married?"
"Oh, we tried to," Katz replied, "and the laws were, in New York, the man had to be 21, the woman had to be over 18. It was a nightmare, because both sets of parents did not want us to get married."
Her family sent her to a home for unwed mothers (there were some 200 nationwide).
Glaser said that adoption became an "industrial complex" with more than three million young women forced into the system.
"You also had a high demand of couples who wanted babies, because it was the thing to have a family," Braver said.
"Absolutely," Glaser replied, "and in fact, if they were not able to conceive, there was suspicion that you weren't part of this whole patriotic duty to create the American family."
Margaret and George insisted they wanted to raise their baby in their own family. But when she gave birth to a son, she was not allowed to take him home. The couple insisted on visiting him at the agency. On their second visit in May of 1962, Margaret recalled, a social worker told her, "'You can't have this child. If you don't sign these papers, you're a wayward minor, you will go away from here to juvie" – juvenile jail.
David was adopted by Romanian Holocaust survivors who, Glaser said, "absolutely adored their son."
Margaret and George married in 1963, and had three more children. She never gave up on finding her firstborn, but even today only a few states allow birth parents or adoptees to see adoption records.
Meanwhile, David Rosenberg was raising his own family. His adoptive parents passed away, and he developed severe health problems: diabetes, gout, cancer.
His wife, Kim, decided to buy a DNA testing kit: "Knowing that there was this tool where we could find more information about David's background and perhaps connect with somebody that might give us more information about his health, was very intriguing to me," she told Braver.
They connected with a distant cousin, who was able to track down David's birth family. And one night, in 2014, years after her husband George had passed away, Margaret Katz got a voicemail:
"Hi, this is David Rosenberg, I hope you're sitting down. I think you're my birth mother."
Margaret and David connected by phone, and she finally confided her secret to her other children. Soon, she and her youngest daughter, Cheri, were on their way to meet David in Portland. As Margaret recalled, "It was just like, you know, just hugging and holding, like, forever."
Interestingly, David had followed in his adoptive father's career path by becoming a cantor. But he always wondered about his own innate vocal ability, until he met his sister Cheri, a professional opera singer. "For David and myself, music was, like, our heart and soul," Cheri told Braver.
But even as he was getting to know his birth family, David was dying. "And it was both profoundly beautiful and profoundly painful for all of us," said Kim.
David passed away just months after finding his birth mother. Fifty years after he was born, laws and public mores have changed, with new acceptance of unwed mothers. And though not everyone agrees, Margaret Katz believes more adoption records should be unsealed.
"You know, it happened to millions of people," she said. "The heartbreak that must be for, you know, mothers and fathers who never knew what happened to their children, it's just not right."
READ AN EXCERPT: "American Baby" by Gabrielle Glaser
For more info:
- "American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption" by Gabrielle Glaser (Viking), in Hardcover, eBook and Audio formats, available via Amazon and Indiebound
Story produced by Kay Lim. Editor: Mike Levine.
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