After 80 years apart, a Toronto woman is reunited with her daughter on her 98th birthday

As an 18-year-old Jewish refugee during the height of World War II, Gerda Cole gave up her newborn daughter for adoption, and 80 years later, the couple was finally reunited just in time for Mother’s Day.

Cole’s daughter, Sonya Grist, who lives in England, flew to Toronto on Saturday to be reunited with her birth mother, on the latter’s 98th birthday no less, after learning she was still alive and living in Canada.

“I’m shaking,” Grist said as he waited to meet his mother for the first time.

“A little over a year ago I didn’t know my mother was still alive. She knew very little. I still don’t know much and there are a thousand questions I have to ask her, but I don’t want to bombard her.”

Grist, now 80, arrived in Canada with his son Stephen Grist on Saturday to meet Cole for the first time. Cole, who resides at Revera Kennedy Lodge Long Term Care Home in Scarborough, said the plan had been in the works for several months after Cole’s grandson contacted the home.

The pair hugged each other, unable to let go, as Cole squealed with delight.

“Eighty years old,” Cole said in shock as he looked at his daughter, who jokingly replied, “Don’t emphasize my age.”

“When I found out, I just couldn’t believe it,” Cole said. “This must be…a miracle. It means a lot to be able to live to see this moment.”

Grist flew from England with her son to join her mother after learning she was still alive and living in Canada. (Mark Bochsler/CBC)

At age 15, Cole was sent to England by his family to escape persecution of the Jewish people in his native Vienna in 1939.

Several years later, in 1942, Cole gave up her newborn daughter at age 18 due to her financial situation.

“I had a very limited personal education, and this, combined with the war, left me with no choice but to adopt Sonya under the advice of the refugee committee,” he said. “The condition was to have no further connection to the child.”

Cole came to Canada after the war and earned three university degrees, including a bachelor’s degree with honors from the University of Toronto in Jewish studies.

Stephen Grist was reviewing his family’s lineage last year, to provide evidence of Austrian ancestry so the family could obtain Austrian citizenship, when he contacted Cole’s stepson.

When she was told that Cole was still alive and 97 years old at the time, she did not know how to break the news to her mother and waited two weeks before letting her know.

“I thought, oh my gosh, that just blew me away,” Stephen Grist said. “The idea that her mother was still alive and she would have the opportunity to meet her was so exciting that she blew us all away.

“When I told my mother that [Cole] she was still alive, she just said, ‘I want to get on a plane to Canada right now and give her a big hug,'” she said.

That’s when he started tracking Cole and contacted her through the long-term care home.

Cole met his grandson, Stephen Grist, for the first time. (Mark Bochsler/CBC)

Wendy Gilmour, Revera’s senior vice president of long-term care, said plans to reunite the family have been in the works for several months.

“It is incredible the journey that all people have made, [Cole] and their children and their grandchildren,” Gilmour said.

Gilmour said the celebration was just what residents needed after more than two years of dealing with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on long-term care.

“It’s been tough, it’s been a tough time for households and our residents, and having a party, which is something we haven’t done in a long, long time, brings the excitement back” to the household, he said.

Cole celebrated his 98th birthday on Saturday, the day before Mother’s Day. (Mark Bochsler/CBC)

Leave a Comment