Uncovering a hidden past

Adopted 48 years ago, Christiane Weideli finally finds out where her birth family came from

Christiane Weideli looks over photos from her childhood in her Vancouver home.
Photograph by: Jenelle Schneider, Vancouver Sun, Vancouver Sun
Christiane Weideli holds a photo in her hands of a gorgeous fair-haired baby girl in a white wool coat.

Weideli searches the black-and-white image for signs of herself, but finds the child smiling back at her is a stranger.

“I look at it and go, ‘Oh my God, that’s me?'” she says, struggling to sum up her reaction.

Weideli, 48, can be forgiven her confusion about her past. Until this year, the Vancouver woman had never seen her own baby picture.

The fact that she had been adopted had been hidden from her until she was an adult. She was born in Switzerland and raised by a wealthy and highly secretive European couple who took her to Peru on a cleverly forged birth certificate.

Her adoptive mother would later give her the only description she ever got of her birth parents: a Swiss farm girl and a Czechoslovakian “terrorist.”

This summer, however, through the combined effort of a Canadian documentary crew, two Swiss government adoption workers, and a Swiss police officer, Weideli finally found her true identity.

Tucked away in a box in the government archives in Zurich, the real record of her birth has swept clear the ghosts of her past, reuniting her with family members she never knew existed and with the little girl in old photograph.

“It’s more than I could have ever asked for,” she said.

Weideli’s story first came to public light in 2008 when she submitted what little she knew of her childhood as part of The Vancouver Sun’s genealogy contest.

The contest asked readers to send in a short essay detailing a particularly compelling chapter in their family history. The prize was a DNA test that allows users to trace their ancestral roots, ethnic background and surname roots through a gene-base website.

The entries were fascinating, but none could compare to the mystery surrounding Weideli’s birth and subsequent adoption by a couple who couldn’t have children of their own.

Raised in Lima, Peru, along with an older brother, who was also adopted, Weideli was in her 20s and living in Canada when an uncle told her she’d been adopted.

By then she had long since severed ties with the couple who raised her, describing her childhood as abusive and unhappy.

For years, she clung to the hope she might find the truth of her past, though she had only thin threads of information from her uncle tying her to a Swiss adoption centre operated by a woman named Alice Honegger.

That trail ran cold with Honegger’s death in 1997, the adoption business long since shut down.

Weideli had few expectations when she wrote to The Sun for help.

But a deep sadness haunted her.

“It would be a consolation to know where I started,” she said at the time.

The information churned up through the DNA kit did little to shed light on the mystery. One test result hinted that her mother had at least some North American aboriginal blood, as well as a Germanic component.

Another loosely matched her with several famous European monarchs and a man in Virginia who had also been adopted.

The many Sun readers captivated by Weideli’s tale proved more helpful.

One man in particular, identified in his e-mail as “Joe,” suggested Weideli contact Ancestors in the Attic, a Toronto-based television series that follows Canadians on a worldwide search for their family roots.

It was good advice. Like everyone else, the TV crew was immediately hooked.

“It’s extraordinary,” Ancestors producer Dugald Maudsley said of the story.

Story producer Chris Robinson first cracked the difficult case after coming across some unflattering references to Alice Honegger among correspondence related to international migration on file at the Social Welfare History Archive in Minneapolis, Minn.

Honegger’s name surfaced with American adoption authorities after questions were raised about the way she adopted out babies.

“It sounded like Alice wasn’t following the rules, specifically in terms of evaluating the couples,” Robinson said.

In particular, it appeared Honegger allowed certain couples to jump the queue to fast-track an adoption.

“In Christiane’s case, I think you could probably argue that her parents were not screened well enough to determine if they were appropriate,” he said.

With the name of the adoption centre in hand (Private Mutter und Kinderfursorge Rapperswil), Robinson took his search to Switzerland, where he learned the files from Honegger’s defunct business were transferred to a government agency in Zurich.

On the other end of the line, Swiss adoption workers Priska Luther and Martina Scholl gamely rolled up their sleeves and began the search for Weideli’s name — if it indeed, existed — among the thousands stored in the archive boxes.

It took eight months before Robinson got the word the two women had been successful.

The file was discovered lying on top of dozens of others in a box stored in the archive attic marked for “foreign adoptions.”

“That just blew the whole thing wide open,” Robinson said.

In late August, Weideli, along with her best friend and the Ancestors documentary crew, flew to Zurich to read for herself the contents of the file.

In it, she learned the identities of her birth parents: Edith Frieda Hermine Docekal and Oldrich Docekal.

Her adoptive mother had, at least, been partially right about their heritage. Edith Docekal was a Swiss national and Oldrich from Czechoslovakia, though there is no evidence he was a terrorist.

Weideli also found her own Swiss certificate of birth identifying her as Daniela Docekal, born Feb. 3, 1961 — a birthday a full 10 months earlier than the date assigned to her by her adoptive parents.

“That was kind of a bummer,” Weideli said. “I went to Switzerland at the age of 47 and came back a week later a year older.”

Letters written by her birth mother, Edith Docekal, to the adoption agency following her daughter’s birth describe the heartbreaking decision to surrender the baby into Honegger’s care.

She was pressured by her husband to give the baby up and was too poor to take action on her own. In the letters, Docekal described working full-time as a waitress, struggling to care for her older daughter while her husband appeared to work only sporadically.

She repeatedly pleaded with the agency to give her time to pay the mounting foster-care costs and to arrange for a train ticket to bring her baby back home.

“I have already purchased a bed and baby carriage for Daniela,” Docekal wrote.

In the end, the mother bowed to the wishes of her husband and the agency and gave the baby up.

But just thinking of her child, she wrote, “causes me pain.”

On Sept. 2, Weideli made one final stopover before returning to Canada. Travelling to the small town of Wirges, on the outskirts of Koblenz, Germany, Weideli spent a quiet evening with her long-lost sister. The whereabouts of Angelika Docekal Schraeder had been tracked by a Swiss police officer who specializes in missing persons.

In a private moment, away from the cameras, the sisters hugged each other in silence.

“We didn’t speak the same language … but there was a recognition of everything we’d gone through to get to that point,” says Weideli.

The conversation that followed, aided by a translator, helped the women to better understand each other.

Both had difficult childhoods, though Weideli came from wealth and Schraeder from poverty.

Weideli learned the marriage between Edith and Oldrich lasted until Edith’s death from cancer in 2003, but it had been a bitterly unhappy union.

Schraeder, meanwhile, remained close to her mother throughout her life, but always felt a lingering resentment. She was eight years old when her baby sister disappeared and a headstrong Edith had refused to talk about the adoption.

Her mother’s letters, which Schraeder had never seen before, proved a soothing balm for the old hurts.

The letters “showed us how hard our mother had tried to get me back,” Weideli says.

Weideli also briefly met her birth father during the same visit. Oldrich Docekal, now 85, lives with Schraeder and her family.

According to Weideli, her birth father has always maintained he has only one daughter.

“We said hello,” she said of that reunion.

Back home in Vancouver, Weideli is still trying to absorb the reality of her new world.

She and Angelika continue to speak by telephone about once a week, though conversation is stilted because of the language barrier.

“I guess I’m going to have to learn German,” Weideli said.

She is grateful “beyond words” to all those whose hard work and determination led her to her family. The unsettling gaps in her existence have now been filled.

“I am so lucky,” she says.

The Ancestors in the Attic episode featuring Weideli is currently in the editing process. It is scheduled to air sometime in early 2010 on History Television.

For most of the crew, the outcome of the story is as good as it gets. As for Robinson, “I wish only that her mother had still been alive.

“I have a feeling that she was a bit of a hero in this whole thing and would have been the person who could have told Christiane everything she wanted to know,” he says.