The Adoption
by Ute Carson
NetSagas, January 2013

There had not been such a brilliant autumn in recent memory. Even though it was already September, a month which usually brought dense fog and rain to the port city of Hamburg, this year the temperature was deceptively mild and dry. Margret and I had the door to our balcony wide open. The row houses where we shared a flat were shoulder-touchingly close and noises from neighboring balconies drifted in. It was the beginning of the fall semester, our second year at the university. We were architecture students, a field that promised plenty of opportunities in the early sixties. We lay stretched out on the floor on our stomachs, drawing.

A knock at the door surprised us. We were not expecting visitors and our watchful landlady usually screened all callers.

"May I come in?" An elderly man pushed his skinny frame toward the door. He looked like a detective, wore a long gray trench coat, was bald, and balanced horn-rimmed glasses on his beak-nose. He carried a battered briefcase with big brass snaps which he pressed to his chest as though it contained something very valuable.

"May I have a word about a matter of importance to one of you?" Too startled to say no, and not wanting to seem impolite, I gestured toward the battered green hassocks in the corner of our common room. They were laden with books and papers which were tipping toward the adjacent white-tiled stove, still silent for the season.

Margret jumped up, pushed the stack of materials off the hassocks and said politely, "Please sit down." I remained on the floor but sat up straight and pulled my short skirt down over my bare thighs. The prune-like stranger lifted the back of his coat as if it were a frock and placed himself squarely on the closest hassock, facing us.

"Dr. Schwarz... Dr. Schwarz...Dr Schwarz," he introduced himself in a soft, dreary voice three times as if to make sure we got his name. All the while his fingers drummed on the top of his briefcase so that the letters of his name seemed to engrave themselves into the brown leather. We sat quiet, expectant. "Which of you is Countess Ute von Hardenberg?" His gaze flitted from me to Margret and back to me. Even beneath his smudged glasses his eyes were prying. "I am Ute," I said. "This is my friend Margret." The stranger hesitated and then pronounced with much gravity, "Please, Miss Margret, could you give us some privacy." "No," I blurted out a bit too loudly. "She can stay." I had no intention of being alone with this hawkeyed intruder.

He seemed to be trying to take my measure as a slow smile lifted his sallow cheeks and he continued, "You no doubt honor your father's memory." I still had no idea what this was about but my suspicion was now aroused.

"Yes... of course...but how do you...?

He interjected, "Good, good, I presumed as much. I have been apprised of the circumstances of your childhood. I am aware that your father was killed in action early in the war and thus was robbed of the opportunity of watching his only daughter grow into a beautiful young lady." He seemed to be pondering my growing puzzlement. "But you can make it up to him. I will get straight to the point of my visit. I have come to encourage you to take back your birth name." I must have looked dumbfounded but before I could speak he continued, his voice more subdued than before, "Because your adoption was never finalized, your mother has lived throughout the postwar years on fraudulently acquired income and you are the bearer of a false identity." "Now, wait a minute!" I stood up, incredulous. "Who are you? And who is making these foul accusations?" "Please, please, I am only the messenger," he said in a whisper. "You may not be aware that your mother is under indictment for lying under oath. You and she have reaped the benefits of Count Franz's inheritance while your half-sister Gertrud, her father Richard and her poor Aunt..." "Which Aunt?" I interrupted rudely. "Why, Richard's sister, the Countess Beate, who feels that you have disgraced her aristocratic family." My mouth dropped open. "Count Richard and my sister have shared our inheritance from the beginning." As I stepped toward him, Dr. Schwarz got up quickly and began backing toward the door. "No need to get exasperated. I am only here to introduce myself and to inform you that I am representing them in a lawsuit being brought against your mother and you."

As swiftly as Dr. Schwarz had entered he now exited, leaving the door ajar which drew a gust of wind through the balcony door and scattered our papers across the floor. As soon as the door closed, Margret started to giggle. "Did you hear his accent? Russian? Or maybe Polish?" But I was in shock and for a while said nothing. For some reason I had focused mostly on his boots, dull and scuffed. They had clearly seen better days. After regaining my composure I sighed and turned to Margret, "I wish I had your family history. No deaths, no money worries, your parents are not divorced and you even have a grandmother who still lives with you." Margret got up, patted me on the shoulder and walked toward the little kitchen. "You need a glass of wine."


I certainly did have a complicated family history. My mother Gerda was born into an old family of the Silesian landed aristocracy, the Barons von Lüttwitz. Her mother Maria too came from royal stock and always boasted of having taken tea with the Queen Mother of England before World War I. When she was twenty-one, my mother fell in love with my father Gert who was the oldest son of an affluent upper-middle class family and an aspiring academic. When the war started in 1939 he was drafted, posted to France, and was killed two weeks before my birth. I became the talisman of my parents' passion. Until her death in 1999 my mother placed a fresh flower next to my father's photo on her nightstand every week.

Three years after my father's death, my mother married Count Franz von Hardenberg who was the adopted son of his Aunt Sybille and heir to her gorgeous vast estate near the town of Liegnitz. A military man, he rose to the rank of Staff Officer with the Army High Command. I knew nothing of his politics except that on one occasion he had used his influence to save my grandmother Maria, who was an outspoken opponent of the Nazis, from being sent to a concentration camp. Like so many of her compatriots in the resistance she had naively signed the guestbook at a clandestine gathering on a neighboring estate and was subsequently arrested by the Gestapo. Count Franz adopted me shortly after marrying my mother. I was four years old at the time, and I bore his name from then on.

Soon thereafter as the Red Army swept into Silesia my mother and grandmother fled westward with me, taking all the winter clothing they could carry, and their jewelry sewn inside the lining of their coats. Everything else was left behind, and all family documents were lost.

In the early 1950s the German government began to reimburse former landowners for their losses in the eastern territories. Thousands had to vouch for the validity of missing birth certificates, marriage licenses and in my case, adoption papers. Thereafter we began to receive monthly checks which allowed us to move from the rat-infested shelter where we were housed after the war to a spacious apartment in which we lived comfortably. I was even able to afford tuition fees and living expenses at the university.

In 1945 Count Richard, Franz's brother had brought my mother the news that Franz had been killed flying back from a staff meeting with the generals on the Russian front. Bereft for a second time, my mother turned to Count Richard for comfort and soon became pregnant with my sister Helga. Count Richard married my mother and became the only father I ever really knew. He lived with us for ten years until the marriage ended in divorce.


Not long after the strange encounter with Dr. Schwarz, Count Richard paid me a visit. He was now married again and helped his sister Beate with her thriving dog grooming business. She gave him the responsibility of walking the boarded canines. Count Richard and I had bonded in an unusual way. He came into my five year-old life after the war and though he did not particularly like children, he taught me to be his useful accomplice. Times were hard. He was unemployed, and all we had to live on was the family jewelry and my mother's breast milk, which we sold on the black market.

Count Richard was also a womanizer. I had to accompany him on his forays to the market which he combined with clandestine stops at various houses along the way. I was always amazed at how many ladies eagerly awaited him. We never left these rendezvous without an extra piece of warm clothing or some needed food. On our way home I stole vegetables from crowded market stalls. While Father distracted the stall keeper I slipped some eggs into my pockets, all the while stroking the heads of clucking hens in their straw baskets. We pilfered fruit from orchards and potatoes from unattended fields. These thieveries created strong ties, strengthened by the secrecy I was sworn to. Count Richard was shrewd and looked out first and foremost for himself. But these early days together had led to a lasting fondness for me, which never extended to his real daughter, my sister.

The Count was his charming self as he swept into our student apartment in his rumpled clothes, embraced me and Margret, and exclaimed, "You two look lovelier every time I see you." He was all sincerity and smiles as he went straight for the glasses on our coffee table, still unwashed and sticky from the previous night. Acting as if he were at home, he uncorked a pocket-size bottle of fine French cognac he had brought with him and poured himself a stiff drink. "Santè!"

"Did Dr. Schwarz unnerve you?" He grinned at me. My face turned beetroot red with anger but I was at a loss for words. He instantly lowered his gaze and turned into the shape-shifter I knew him to be. "I feel a little bad, Ute dear," he began. "You have always been like my own daughter but things have turned nasty in recent months. My sister has discovered a deception. And you know how she is, she will get to the bottom of any falsehood. She has found out, quite by chance I should add, that your adoption by my brother Franz was never finalized. Your inheritance deprived her of hers." "But not yours and Gertrud's," I interrupted. "No, but you see, my circumstances have also changed. I have new responsibilities, and your mother can no longer help financially." "So it's all about money, right?" "Oh, no," he protested and immediately resumed his dissembling. "It's about honoring the dead. You see, we never fully considered your father's feelings. I mean, what his wishes might have been. I am sure he would have liked his surname to pass on to his daughter." The Count topped up his drink. "I am not pressuring you, only appealing to your sense of fairness. I have known you always to be very fair-minded. This is your chance to make up for our thoughtlessness toward your dead father." "And the money would go to whom?" It seemed too transparently obvious. "I'm not sure, really. We would of course see to it that you and your mother are provided for. Please, just think about our request." Then he placed the half-empty bottle on the table and with a generous swipe of his hand announced, "I'll leave this for you to enjoy. I must be off. I know, Ute dear, you will make the right decision." And with a flourish, he vanished.

"It's all about money, disguised as honor," Margret trumpeted once the Count was out of earshot. Then suddenly we heard pounding rain on the roof, an unanticipated downpour.


I was torn. I had blissfully lived with my adopted name and its privileges and never considered what my biological father might have wanted. The following day I sat through lectures with a knot in the pit of my stomach. Later that evening I decided to pay my paternal grandparents, Aenne and Karl Köhler a visit.

They were waiting at the train station when I arrived, bent slightly forward at the waist like twisted branches laden with snow. It was not age that had crippled them but the burden of a destiny I could not imagine them bearing day after day, the terrible sorrow they continued to shoulder. They were a tolerant, educated couple who had resided in a small town near the Baltic Sea before the war where my grandfather had been a judge. My grandmother wrote stories, poetry, even a play that was performed in the local community theatre. Before the Red Army stormed their town, they abandoned their home, changing location again and again as troop movements shifted until the war ended. In the ensuing years as the country slowly rebuilt, they settled in western Germany and despite their advanced years started a new life. My grandfather joined a law firm and began to attract a small clientele. But tragedy had already done its damage.

My grandparents had five children, four boys and then a daughter. On a walk with her nanny, the toddler was fatally struck by a motorcyclist who lost control of his bike and careened off the road. My father, the eldest of the five siblings, and a second son were killed in the war, and the third son returned home shell-shocked and soon died. The youngest boy was sent to Sweden where he was taken in by relatives and survived unscathed. He became a Swedish citizen and never returned to Germany. No wonder that I was doted on as the only remaining jewel from a trove of lost treasure.

As was customary, the main meal of the day at my grandparents' house was taken at noon and only light snacks were offered in the evenings. My grandmother had lovingly prepared slices of apples, a variety of cheeses and cold meats served with crusty brown bread. A bottle of white wine whetted our appetite. I ate fast, then delved into my story. My grandparents listened intently and without interruption, though when I described Dr. Schwarz I noticed my grandfather's nose twitch. After I finished, circling back once or twice to fill in a forgotten detail, grandfather responded first. "Your mother nearly did not survive the news of your father's death. They were very much in love. So when, three years later, she met Count Franz and brought him to meet us, we were relieved and happy for her. I supported your mother's intention to have you adopted. We wanted you to be integrated into your new family, of course not knowing that death would strike again. Count Franz's own adoptive mother was a refined but rather simple-minded lady who took to your mother and you with one reservation. You were not of the aristocracy, and your mother, as she put it curtly "had strayed by marrying a commoner." Here my grandmother smiled and broke in, "Your mother adored your father but if she could have changed one single thing about him she would have turned him into a Count."

Grandfather picked up where he had left off. "I went to Seidorf to inspect the adoption papers, and found them in order save for a few typographical errors. Franz planned to sign them during his next furlough from the front. I know he returned once before his final fatal flight. But owing to all the turmoil at that time, nobody can know for sure if the papers were ever actually signed."


It was my grandmother who surmised my unspoken quandary. She had left the table and come back with a thick art book. She fingered through the index and flipped to a page with a picture of Uta, Dutchess of Naumburg. "Look at his picture. On a visit to Naumburg your parents stopped at the cathedral and saw there the statue of Uta. Your father, who was convinced that you would be a girl, decided on the spot, ‘We'll name our daughter Ute, only change the spelling slightly to give her name a softer sound.' Your father marveled at the beauty and self-contained expression of this lady. He would have liked for you to keep that name forever. As for the surname, he would not have cared either way." I was so relieved. I loved my given name and would always bear it proudly.

But I was not finished. "What is this about, this lawsuit?" I queried. "Money of course," my grandfather bellowed. Countess Sybille left a curious stipulation in her will. Upon her death the estate would pass to her son Franz, then to his children, only then to his siblings Beate and Richard and finally to your mother. She expected of course that your parents would have several children. But Countess Sybille preceded Franz in death. She vowed to remain in her castle come what might and was murdered by the invading army. So she never knew that he died in the war, without having any children."

Matters were beginning to fall into place. "Why did you make a face when I mentioned Dr. Schwarz," I asked. Grandfather grimaced as he always did when caught off guard. "I must reserve judgment and investigate further but he may have been the Polish clerk who worked at the office in Seidorf. My stay there was brief but I do recall a young man who fits the description of Dr. Schwarz. He volunteered to me at that time that he intended to enter law school."

I did not sleep well under the comfortable featherbedding that night. Half awake, half dreaming, vague memories bubbled up. I recalled a morning when my parents were in their bedroom during Count Franz's last leave at home. I had run into their room and jumped onto their bed. Swept up into my new father's arms, I giggled pleasantly, then disentangled myself and, glancing back teasingly, ran back into the hallway to play. There I overheard my mother say, "I am so pleased you will honor my request to adopt Ute. You two seem to get along so well." "She is a sweet little girl and I will certainly keep my promise. But be patient, dear. My mother has to warm to the idea of the adoption. There is no rush, right? I will be back soon and never leave you alone again." I heard my mother sob, whether from joy or fear I could not tell.

A secret abides, a secret wants to be revealed. What really happened?


A letter from my sister awaited me upon my return to Hamburg. She is six years younger than I, and when she was a baby I had treated her like one of my dolls. Later on as our interests diverged, we shared little of our lives. But like Aunt Beate, under whose influence she had come, my sister always felt that she had been shortchanged. In her eyes I was the more beautiful one, favored by my grandparents, had more friends and better schooling.... The list was endless. As often as I tried to right the balance between us, Helga always had a new agenda. She felt neglected and disadvantaged no matter what. I was nevertheless sympathetic to her feelings. I had been dealt a fortunate hand. My fiery, passionate Grandmother Maria favored and protected me like a lioness. I had stayed with her when my mother was ill or being courted, which in the years after Gert's death was not infrequent. I in turn loved Grandmother Maria fiercely. My sister never had such a bond with anyone in our family. I was closer to her own father than she was. My mother tried to share her affections between us, but I was, after all, the child of the great love of her young life.

My sister's letter was brief and calculating, clearly dictated under Countess Beate's auspice. "Sister," it began, "I have always admired you but you have never requited my feelings. Everything in life has gone your way, and I have had to content myself with being second-best. Can you not at least leave me my name? My father is not your father, and your father is dead. I am the only real Countess. Please do me this ONE favor and I will never ask you for anything again. Take back your Köhler name and let me be the Countess von Hardenberg. I beg you. Helga." I wanted to weep. Instead I crumpled up the letter and threw it into the wastebasket.


My mother was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Her svelte figure matched the pearls she always wore, even in the air-raid shelter. She had an understated poise and style which elicited caring protectiveness in most men. She was the real Countess. I loved her though my feelings for her could not rival those for my Grandmother Maria. My mother sensed this, which must have added sadness to her life, already much burdened by loss.

My mother stayed with Margret and me the day before the hearing. I gave her my bed and I shared Margret's. That night we went to a neighborhood Italian restaurant and had a good time. Mother studiously avoided any talk about the hearing. Every time I subtly broached the subject, she became strangely evasive. "Everything will be fine. Let's just enjoy ourselves." And so we did. But her calm outward demeanor belied her underlying anxiety. I knew that she would hold her ground against any false accusations. I also knew that for my mother honoring a promise was a token of love.

Next morning in the courtroom, Count Richard arrived in his usual disheveled attire, hair uncombed as if he had just jumped out of bed. His stout sister Beate, wearing a white ruffled blouse and looking awkward without her aristocratic pet dachshund, sat stiffly on the hard bench with an air of righteous self-assurance. My sister Helga, also in a white ruffled blouse, flicked her long brown braids through the air menacingly from time to time. The three sat like birds on a wire, facing us. Dr. Schwarz, looking even more hawkish than I recalled, crouched at their side. As it turned out, he was not their lawyer but a witness. When my mother spotted him, she exclaimed, "Why, that's Max. What is he doing here?" I could not answer her because we had just been ordered to silence. In the following cross-examination our accusers spoke on script, like parrots.

The judge, twirling a black fountain pen, had each of them tell the adoption story which was further embellished with each retelling. My mother swore that the adoption papers had been signed and duly notarized. Not a single bead of perspiration was visible on her brow. When she finished, Dr. Schwarz had his moment of glory. He carried his well-guarded briefcase to the bench, snapped the brass locks open, produced a single piece of paper, and held it up triumphantly. "There is no signature on this document." His cheeks paled to yellow under more questioning. How had he come into possession of this document, the judge wanted to know. Dr. Schwarz did not hesitate. He gestured toward to Beate. "Before we took flight from the advancing Russian troops, the Countess instructed me to gather her documents. It was all very last minute but I fetched them, to my own detriment. I did not even have time to locate my law school degree." Our accusers glared at us, sensing victory.

The judge called a recess in the hearing during which Dr. Schwarz's document was examined. Then my mother was called again to the stand. In a calm, firm voice she told the judge that she knew Max from the office in Seidorf. "Max was absent on the day of the signing. A young woman named Doris witnessed the signing in his stead."

No one could have foreseen the sudden appearance of my former nanny. Doris approached the bench, toothless, her lips curling over her gums like a rabbit nibbling a carrot. She began her testimony, rising to her unaccustomed role. "I was there that day," she started, her eyes ablaze. I had come up to the castle because we had promised Ute a party with girls from the village the day she officially became our new Countess. To me she was always a Countess, such a sweet little thing. Max was out of the office and could not be found. So I was called to witness, and I did. Right afterwards Count Franz left to return to the front. Later in the week I trekked westward with the women. I now live in a nursing home in Kassel." Unbeknownst to us, my mother had summoned Doris. Across from us the three parrots sat speechless, knocked from their perches.

When the judge reentered the courtroom to announce the verdict, my skin prickled. I tried to catch my mother's eye but she turned away. The judge stated that the date on Max's document did not match the date on the alleged adoption papers. "Dr. Schwarz's document appears to be a declaration of intent, composed long before the preparation of the official adoption papers." He continued, "Many unusual things transpired in those war-torn times, and much remains uncertain to this day. Some things are simply not ascertainable. Case dismissed." He then gazed admiringly at my mother. It was as if he had come under the spell of a true Countess -- and a devoted mother.

Suddenly we all shuddered as a clap of thunder ended the proceedings and the courtroom went dark.

I jumped up and hugged my mother, then turned to see the reaction of our accusers. Beate and Helga were incredulous and irate, parrots with their feathers plucked. Only Count Richard blew us a kiss on his way out. He still had not tucked in his shirttail.

That evening Margret and I took my mother and Doris to dinner at Hamburg's exclusive Fürstenhof Hotel. My mother had called my sister and pleaded with her to come along, but Helga declined saying, "Aunt Beate has bought tickets to the ballet. I'll visit you soon."

Over dessert I asked, "Did I ever have that girls' party?" Doris busied herself with her chocolate mousse. My mother leaned over and tenderly caressed my hand. "No dear, the Russians were already burning down neighboring villages to the east. We had to leave in a hurry and were lucky to get out alive." Did I notice a conspiratorial glance flit between my mother and Doris? Or did I just imagine it?

When we left the restaurant the night was balmy and a myriad of stars twinkled in the sky as if dancing. A promise had been kept but the truth would remain forever hidden.

- ~ -