A World War II Soldier Seeks Information About His Background, 1943

In a poignant series of letters to Ruth Brenner, Director of the adoption agency that placed him, one young man stationed abroad during World War II shared his hopes and fears and pleaded for information about his natal origins. Brenner responded sympathetically, but explained that she could not violate her agency’s confidentiality policy. The two nevertheless became close enough for him to call her “Godmother” and for her to agree to serve as the executor of his will. This young solider died in China, his desire for reunion frustrated. Following are three excerpts from their correspondence in late 1943.

My dear Godmother:

I hate to have to bring this up in a personal letter but I recently wrote to the Board of Health in Flatbush and they sent me a curt refusal to divulge information pertaining to my origin and family. They suggested emphatically that I should get this information from the institution I was in. Very polite but coldly abusive. I believe I have a decent right to know more about and be free to call on members of my own family if I so chose. I an no animal I am a man conscious of this phase lacking in my makeup. Please respect the fact that I am an individual too and let me live with myself peacefully. I cannot and refuse to make my adjustments to conform to an institutions code while I am still capable of thinking. . . .

Again I must ask you to divulge more pertinent information as to the identity and present whereabouts of my blood relations. And that word is not singular, it is plural. I want to know also if I have any brothers or sisters. Yes if I learn I do, I certainly intend to meet them. I feel it would do me more good than harm and after all these years with the same thought in mind I’m more convinced than ever that it is a necessity and not curiosity that makes me make these requests. It is something I am no longer in doubt of. I am positive, and because I have no means of accomplishing my desire I am greatly upset and concerned.

Perhaps this time you will feel disposed to assist me in this matter. Perhaps you will not. But I shall learn some day if I live. . . .

Your godson, . . .

* * *

My very dear. . .

Now in reacting to your disappointment you have again asked me for more information as to the identity and present whereabouts of your relatives. When you make this kind of request of me, it is in my more official capacity of representing the agency as its executive director. As you godmother, I am concerned for and deeply identified with you in your wishes and needs and want to do my best to be helpful to you in any way that I can. As director of the agency, I am responsible for carrying out our responsibilities and obligations, both to the children coming to our care, but also the parents who entrust their children to the agency. For the sake of the children, the agency asks parents not to expect to be told of their whereabouts, and at the same time the agency agrees that information about parents will be kept confidential. . . .

If you could only see that each time you experience a setback which happens often enough to young people. . .you are thrown back on the unknown family and imagine that they would be all that for which you long.

Love from. . . .

* * *

Dear Mrs. Brenner:

I still believe you are wrong in your opinion that I try to learn of my parents only in times of stress. But we’ll let it go at that: For many years I have had one thought in mind, and certainly it gets stronger not weaker and that is to learn more of my own business. This, if I ever have time to do, I shall do. That, I am determined and nothing shall deter me. I realize you feel you have your responsibilities to your organization and we’ll let it go at that. But I feel and am quite convinced you know—that your organization failed in its own responsibilities. . . .

Yes there are responsibilities of an organization of your type and so when we mention such responsibilities I weigh them and find they do not balance. Am I bitter, no; but am I different, yes. Is that not enough then to prove how really silly those “rules” are? Do I know what I shall do if I should know who my real mother or father is today? The answer to this is no. But do I know how I shall be if I do not know these things? Yes, definitely. Just as I am today—living—for self escape. So far I have been fortunate—yes I can find diversion in hard work and accomplishment, but I am not pleased at being a moody person, trying hard to get along with people, afraid of society, and being overly sensitive and on edge. . . . I feel I need to know.

Your godson,. . .


Source: Letters to and from Ruth Brenner, October 5, 1943. October 25, 1943, and November 6, 1943, Viola W. Bernard Papers, Box 160, Folder 6, Archives and Special Collections, Augustus C. Long Library, Columbia University.

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