One evening in the spring of 2014, a woman named Margaret Erle Katz noticed she had a voice mail from a number and area code she wasn’t familiar with. So, she dismissed it as some unwanted telemarketer. The next day, though, she listened to it. And boy was she glad she did. The person who left the message, speaking in a faint voice, was someone Margaret had been searching for her entire life.
And now here he was, leaving her a message on her home phone, and she had nearly deleted it! David Rosenberg was Margaret’s biological son – a baby she was forced to give up in Manhattan when she was just 17 years old.
This is the story of Margaret and her search for her son.
A Bittersweet Reunion
Margaret, who is now in her 70s, had been searching for her baby boy for decades. She repeatedly tried contacting him through the Manhattan agency, which began arranging the adoption in 1962. But none of her messages were ever delivered. As for David, whose birth certificate only showed his adoptive parents’ names, he didn’t know where to start.
It didn’t help that the original records were sealed, either. But one day, his wife gave him a $99 DNA-testing kit. Thanks to a distant relative, the hunt eventually led him to his birth mother. To call it a bittersweet moment would be an understatement, and that’s because, by the time he finally found her, he was already dying of cancer.
Better Late Than Never
When David met Margaret in July of 2014, he was dying of thyroid cancer. The long-lost mother and son had a mere three weeks to make up for lost time. Margaret could have mourned all the “what ifs” and how she wished things could have been different, but she didn’t focus on bitterness.
Back in 2007, when The New York Times wrote about David’s story, it was in the hopes (as David purposely mentioned) that someone from his birth family would recognize him and provide him with his health history. He was on dialysis at the time and was looking to improve his kids’ futures. A home run would be finding his birth mother.
16 and Pregnant
In 1961, 16-year-old Margaret Erle was pregnant, and she knew that her Jewish immigrant parents would disapprove. Still, she remained hopeful. She was a good girl, after all. She didn’t smoke or drink and even donated the money she made babysitting to war orphans in Israel.
The baby’s father was her high-school sweetheart, George Katz, whom she planned to marry. They were going to raise the baby together. Well, that was the plan. Instead, Margaret’s mother kicked her out of their Washington Heights apartment and sent her to a maternity home on Staten Island.
She Was Threatened With Juvenile Prison
Alone, she gave birth to a baby boy named Stephen, whom she wasn’t allowed to hold. The agency that ran the maternity home forced her to sign adoption papers, and they did so by threatening to send her to juvenile prison.
They told her that a wealthy diplomat – someone who would give her son a privileged life she never could – wanted to adopt Stephen that same week. Young and powerless, Margaret had no choice but to let go and give her boy up. She was devastated, but she had to move on…
One of Three Million
Margaret married George, moved to a suburb in New Jersey, and had three more children. She never forgot about her lost son and always wondered about him. This hidden part of history saw many cases like Margaret’s, unfortunately. In the decades after World War II, over three million women had to give their babies away.
Almost all young, unmarried girls were funneled into a system that they didn’t understand and couldn’t resist. Sadly, they were exploited for profit and research. And the long-term effects of these forced adoptions were severe.
Had They Been Around in the 1920s…
The thing is, had Margaret and George had their first child in the 1920s or even the ’30s, things would have (most probably) worked out. In those days, when an unmarried young woman got pregnant, the parents typically organized a shotgun wedding.
But war changes things, and after World War II, parents had greater aspirations for their children. The consensus was teenagers were meant to go on to college, move to the suburbs and live the American life. Teen pregnancy was a huge no-no. So much so that forcing girls to give up their babies was the better option…
The Ritz for Unwed Mothers
Not only was a surprise pregnancy an embarrassment, but it was also an obstacle that needed to go away as soon as possible. Somewhat ironically, unwed pregnancies soared at the time – going from 125,200 in 1946 to 403,200 in 1972. With it came all the maternity homes that sprang up across the country, built to hide young, pregnant women, birth the babies and facilitate adoptions.
Some of these homes were pretty expensive, too, like The Willows, in Kansas City, where an upper-class girl would go to wait out her pregnancy in comfort while playing the piano and enjoying massages. The Willow was also known as “the Ritz for unwed mothers,” costing more than prep school.
The More Prison-Like Homes
But this place was for the rich girls. Most of these girls were sent to homes where as many as 20 girls shared the same overcrowded dorm room. Some were so cramped that pregnant girls had to sleep on sofas or even examining tables.
The Florence Crittenton home in Phoenix, for example, was the opposite of The Willow – it felt more like a prison. Stepping into the courtyard meant being surrounded by a 12-foot chain-link fence, topped with barbed wire – for their “protection.”
Cruel and Unusual Punishment
All the girls whose parents couldn’t afford the fees associated with the homes had to earn their keep. They had to do laundry, scrub floors and peel potatoes – all while pregnant. Lakeview was the maternity home where Margaret stayed, owned by the Jewish adoption agency Louise Wise.
The home allowed George to visit Margaret, and the girls could go out on chaperoned excursions to town. The staff, however, weren’t so kind. They read the girls’ letters and even their journal entries. Above it all, no one prepared these teens, who had little to no awareness of their bodies, for the trauma of childbirth.
She Couldn’t Even Hold Him
They had to deliver their babies alone and were then quickly separated from their babies. When Margaret asked the delivery nurse if she could hold her son, she sneered, “Of course not.” After the babies were born, they were placed in foster care or boarding homes for a minimum of three months.
Why? It allowed the agencies and the doctors they employed to “observe” the infants – because they wanted to match them with the right couple. But the truth is that these agencies were also able to keep extracting money from the adoptive parents, who paid to be on the waiting lists.
A Series of Bizarre Experiments
Between 1950 and 1966, Louise Wise’s budget went from $190,000 to $1.34 million. The worst part was that these places were harmful to the child. They would conduct bizarre experiments on newborns, like shooting rubber bands at an infant’s foot to “measure” their cries. It was supposed to gauge their intelligence.
Some agencies put one-day-olds on college campuses for home economics students to take care of them as part of their coursework! Some of you might know the famous story of the Three Identical Strangers, which exposes how these agencies separated twins and triplets for “scientific research.”
Erased From Existence
In Margaret’s case, Louise Wise wrote that the 17-year-old was a “gifted scholar” who wanted to study at a prestigious science school, which was untrue. They also wrote in their reports that George was a “fair-skinned, freckled college student” when, in reality, he was olive-skinned and still in high school.
The thing is that couples who couldn’t conceive were simply so desperate for a baby that they didn’t ask questions. Most states sealed an adoptive child’s original birth certificate so that the truth couldn’t be discovered either way. Once the adoption was finalized, the baby got a new birth certificate and a new name. The birth mother was essentially erased from existence.
Like It Never Happened
During her stay at home or in the months following the birth, anyone informed Margaret of her rights as the biological mother. She was never offered a lawyer, either. “Everybody just wanted to make like it never happened,” Margaret said.
“I was praying for a miracle to keep him.” Margaret tried for decades to find out her son’s whereabouts. Every time George had a health issue that could be hereditary, she called Louise Wise. But the agency tended to be dismissive and plain rude. Discouraged, Margaret resorted to just praying for her son’s happiness and safety.
But She Was About to Be 18 and Married!
In 1962, Margaret and George went to a government building in Manhattan to visit the baby. But officials separated Margaret from George (then 19) and put her in a room by herself. One woman came in, closed the door, and instructed her to sit, as Margaret recalled.
“A diplomat wants to take the child this week,” she told her. Shocked, Margaret tried to explain that she was about to turn 18 and that she was going to marry her son’s father. The woman dismissed her pleads and simply pushed a form across the desk…
Shame, Guilt, Fear, and Frustration
She told the helpless teen: “If you don’t sign these papers right now, your child will stay in foster care for God knows how long.” She added, “You’ve got nothing to offer him.” Margaret couldn’t help but cry tears of shame, guilt, fear, and frustration.
She scribbled her signature, not realizing it would take more than 50 years to see her son again. “What if there’s an emergency?” she asked. “If there’s anything medical, tell the agency, and we’ll notify his parents,” was the response.
Like Witness Protection
David might as well have been in witness protection – it was that impossible to locate him. The sealed adoption papers were seen as a means of protection from the stigma of illegitimacy and the shame of being an unwed mother.
It was also for the adoptive parents; the birth parents wouldn’t be able to reclaim their child suddenly. All these secrets fit the culture of the time. It was believed that nurture trumps nature, and if children were adopted into “good homes,” they could become productive members of society.
He Had a Wonderful Childhood
But David was never adopted by a diplomat, as Margaret was promised. Those who raised him were a couple named Esther and Ephraim Rosenberg, Holocaust survivors from Romania living in the Bronx. The truth is David had a great life and a wonderful childhood. He loved them, and they loved him.
Fast forward to 2014, and Margaret got the voice message from her long-lost son, who was living in Portland, Oregon at the time. “I love you,” he told her finally. “Thank you so much for trying so hard to find me.”
Discovering All the Early Lies and Secrets
Margaret learned only then that she was lied to all those years ago – that a diplomat never adopted David right away. Instead, he spent the first eight months of his life in foster care. His first adoptive parents “returned” him after only 11 days. The reason: the arrangement wasn’t working out.
His foster mother reported how “for days afterward, he was upset, and seemed troubled by nightmares.” Meanwhile, Margaret and George got married in 1963 and lived a long time together until George passed away in 2000 at 56. He never got to meet his first son…
He Always Wondered
It took about two years for David to be adopted by Ephraim and Esther finally. Margaret and George had no idea that their home in the Grand Concourse in the Bronx (where they moved to in 1963) was a few blocks from David’s living with his parents.
Margaret would take her daughter Lisa to the Joyce Kilmer Park nearby, where David happened to play frequently. When the Katzs had another child in 1972, they moved to Roosevelt, New Jersey. Meanwhile, the Rosenbergs moved to Toronto.
From Toronto to the Israeli Army
In Toronto, David developed two passions: Jewish studies and hockey. At 20, he moved to Israel and joined the Israeli Defense Forces, then earned two degrees from Hebrew University. His adoptive father, Ephraim, was a cantor and scholar, and the couple showed David a lot of love from the very beginning.
They were also upfront about him being adopted. David always wondered why his birth mother abandoned him, but he didn’t want to hurt his adoptive parents by asking them too many questions.
Meanwhile, in the late ‘70s, Margaret joined ALMA, the Adoptees’ Liberty Movement Association.
Scouring the Records for His Name
The women at ALMA encouraged Margaret to start the search for her son’s birth record in the city’s archives, with the hope that she would be able to find him when he turned 18. While her other children were in school, she would take the bus into Manhattan and walk to the main public library.
She scanned countless records and even found her son’s birth name, Stephen Mark Erle. But that was the furthest she got. At the time, George developed severe gout, which she called the adoption agency to notify them.
Making Every Effort
Although a caseworker promised to notify the adoptive family, she never found out if they did. Margaret updated them again when her husband was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease sarcoidosis and then diabetes. Every time, caseworkers assured her they would contact the family.
Just after David’s 20th birthday, Margaret made a trip to the agency’s office. She stood on the doorstep and rang the buzzer. She was asked to identify herself. Margaret gave her name and said she wanted to leave contact information now that her son was a legal adult.
Thanks to 23andMe
She also asked if they could tell her how her son was doing. The woman didn’t respond, so Margaret rang the bell again. Finally, the woman declared: “If you don’t leave, we’ll call the police.” By the time December 2013 rolled around, the married man of three did a DNA test through 23andMe – the one his wife bought him.
By May 2014, he was reunited with this biological mother and his full siblings. He was happy to hear that his “baby sister” was a singer, just like him.
Finally, the Long-Awaited Reunion
Margaret and her daughter Cheri, an opera singer, finally met David in person in July 2014. They stayed with him in Portland for a few weeks. Remember, David was living his final days with thyroid cancer, so he was weak and frail.
But he still embraced his long-lost family with energy and showed them around Portland and ate the cakes Margaret baked for him. When mid-August came along, and it was time for them to leave, he cried: “I don’t want you to leave.” In November, he called his mother one last time.
All He Knew…
His adoptive parents both died before David turned 30. David ended up becoming a cantor, just like Ephraim. When David started a family of his own in the mid-‘90s, he asked a cousin in New York, a lawyer, to help him find his birth mom.
All he knew about her was what he was told – that she was an ambitious teenager in trouble, a girl rooted in her faith who insisted a Jewish couple adopts him. But when his cousin began searching, he got nowhere. This was before the days of DNA testing.
First, He Found His Fourth Cousin
Then his wife, Kim Danish Rosenberg, brought home the DNA kit. In early 2014, emails from 23andMe started coming in with details of David’s relatives. One was a woman named Sandy Baumwald, who was his fourth cousin.
During a phone call, Sandy asked David some questions about their shared family tree. He told her, “Sandy, I don’t have a clue. Aside from my three kids, you’re the first relative I’ve ever spoken to. I’m adopted.” At 52, he felt a strong urge to know more. A lot more. Especially for his health.
A Miraculous Stroke of Luck
He had been diagnosed with diabetes in his 20s, and by 2007, he learned that he was in the late stages of thyroid cancer, which robbed him of his tenor’s voice. Stumbling upon his fourth cousin proved to be a miraculous stroke of luck.
Sandy happened to be a lawyer in Athens, Georgia, and a passionate genealogist who had already conducted hundreds of family searches, adoptees included. She urged David to obtain any records he could for clues about his mother. She then went ahead in the daunting path to finding a match.
With the Help of an Unusual Last Name
All David had was his birth certificate, birth date, adoptive parents’ names, and a six-digit number. That number matched one in the city index that Margaret had searched before. In the index was a one-line entry of David’s original name.
And so, one night, after three weeks of looking, Sandy hit the jackpot. She found the boy born on December 17, 1961, with the name Stephen Mark Erle. It helped that the last name was unusual, which made it easier to find the match.
Sandy looked through the list of graduating classes at Bronx High School of Science in the early ‘60s. She found a graduate named Allen Erle. “I was getting warmer,” she recalled of that moment. She then looked through social media profiles and found a wine importer in Israel named Ari Erle.
She decided to contact Mr. Erle for advice on “choosing a Kosher wine.” During their conversation, she learned that she was distantly related to the Erle family and wondered if this man was Allen’s son. It turns out he was.
Hitting the Jackpot
“Does he have an older sister?” Sandy asked him. Yes, he told her — in New Jersey. At that point, all she needed to do was a simple Facebook search, which led her directly to Margaret Katz — who was clever enough to include her maiden name in her profile in the chance that one day, her son might find her.
David, meanwhile, was nervous. “What if she doesn’t want her life disrupted?” he asked Sandy. “Go for it,” she said. “You’ve got nothing to lose.” And she was right about that.
As shocked as Margaret was to discover that everything she was told was a lie, so was David to learn that she never considered him an obstacle to her future – as he was told. He learned that less than two years after he was born, Ms. Katz had eloped with his father and that he had three siblings.
Margaret and George never told their children about the baby they gave away. The truth is they rarely discussed it themselves – it was too painful. “You could never talk about it,” Margaret asserted. “I just held it in quietly.”
He Kept the Photo for His Whole Life
When George passed away, she found a small black-and-white photo of David when he was an infant, tucked inside his wallet. Eventually, David got a hold of his files and noticed that he wasn’t legally adopted until November 26, 1963 — two months after his parents married.
There was no record of the ten notifications Margaret said she left for her son’s file. There was, however, one note: “Your birth mother returned to the adoption agency in 1981. She expressed interest in you and asked about your well-being.” Of course, that message was never passed on to David.
In their early conversations, the mother and son found out some remarkable coincidences. George was a talented athlete who gave up a baseball scholarship to Ohio State University since he got married early. He was also a devoted Rangers fan.
In Toronto, David became a skilled hockey player – so much so that the Rangers’ recruiters even invited him to try out for the team. He declined, though, saying he wanted to become a cantor instead. David always wondered if his musical talent was hereditary.
On the First Night of Their Reunion
“I can’t tell you where it comes from,” Margaret told her son, “but your youngest sister, Cheri, is an opera singer in Berlin.” The pieces were slowly coming together. By the time they had their reunion in Portland, David’s cancer had spread to his bones and lungs.
On the first night of their reunion, Margaret said she dreamt of David’s adoptive mother smiling on them from heaven. Not long after David passed away, she was sitting at her dining room table in New Jersey, looking through the photos she had received of her son’s life. They now sit on her shelves filled with albums.