NEW PORT RICHEY
A man with a deep voice identified himself: Dan Slick from Mechanicsville, Md.
"I just have a few questions,'' he said.
"Does the name Katharina Weisensel mean anything to you?''
Janet Acerra knew the last name but had never heard of Katharina.
"Were you born on July 11, 1961?''
"Yes,'' she answered, "that's my birthday.''
"Do you know if you were adopted?''
"I don't know how to tell you this, but I'm your brother.''
Silence. Acerra gripped her telephone.
"Are you sitting down?'' the man asked.
"There were 10 of us. You're the baby.''
• • •
Time enough for Janet Acerra to earn two college degrees, marry twice, lose two babies at birth and survive cancer. Time enough to travel the country on a motorcycle, raise a stepdaughter and be honored as the 2005 Pinellas County teacher of the year.
But in all that time, she had done nothing to learn about her own beginnings.
Two months after that call, the teacher is on a mission. She has looked into her brother's face and seen her own.
Learning about her birth family hasn't changed who she is or made her love her adoptive family any less. But knowing the facts has answered lingering questions and connected her to a heritage that is rich, fascinating and sometimes just plain weird.
• • •
Which brings us to mother and father.
Jakob Kiesl and his wife, Berta, owned a small restaurant outside Wurzburg in northern Bavaria. But Jakob devoted his romantic attention to a tall, blond woman 22 years younger, Katharina Weisensel. She ran the restaurant; Berta labored in the kitchen. They all lived upstairs, kept separate bedrooms.
It's not clear why Berta would tolerate such an arrangement. In war-torn Germany, her options were likely limited. In any event, she assumed a different identity: grandmother.
On April 25, 1942, Katharina, then 19, gave birth to a son. He died the same day. They named him Friedwald.
The babies started coming like clockwork.
Gerhard Andreas arrived in November 1943 but lived only four months. Ursula was born in August 1945. Little is known about her. Hannelore came next (September 1946) and lived with her parents.
Then came a change of strategy as Katharina endured the stares and whispers and did her best to conceal her bulging belly. Wolfgang, born in September 1948, was placed for adoption. Gerhard (1952) wound up in foster care. Siegfried (1956), Helmut (1959) and the baby later known as Janet Marie (1961) all were placed for adoption. For some reason, Karlheinz, born in May 1958, remained with his mother.
Many years would pass before curious siblings began piecing together the details. They benefitted from liberal access to records at the Catholic orphanage in Wurzburg and Hannelore's recollections of her childhood.
The obstacles were across the Atlantic.
• • •
Frau Pickle, an orphanage nurse, dressed the baby girl in lederhosen and white knit stockings for the TWA flight from Frankfurt to New York. Margaret and Michael Mickulas waited at Idlewild Airport, eager to meet their daughter.
The Mickulases had just lost a baby at birth and at 44 considered another attempt too risky. They were too old to adopt a baby in the United States, but a relative had been stationed in Wurzburg at the end of the war and knew of the orphanage. Frau Pickle handed off the baby and the Mickulases took her to their home on Maspeth Avenue in Queens.
They named their daughter Janet Marie.
Five years later they moved to Long Island. Michael Mickulas worked as a linotype machinist. Janet excelled in school and loved her brother, Phil, 17 years older.
"As far as I was concerned,'' she said, "this was my family. These were my parents. They gave me such a great life and a wonderful brother.''
But they didn't give her the full story of her birth parents.
They told Janet that her mother died at 16 at childbirth and that her father died in a motorcycle accident before she was born. She knew the mother's last name: Weisensel. "That was about it,'' she said. "We never talked about it. I just assumed I was the only child.''
Janet earned a bachelor's degree in elementary education at Long Island University and then followed her parents to Florida when they retired to Clearwater in 1980. She got her first job teaching school at Tarpon Springs Fundamental. Her career soared as she was named the state's top elementary science teacher in 2000. Then the top teacher in Pinellas. And this year: one of three state finalists for the Presidential Award for excellence in science and math.
All that was about to take a back seat to the real excitement brewing.
• • •
Katharina Weisensel gave her final son a name when he arrived in 1959: Helmut Gunter. Frau Pickle at the adoption agency already had parents picked out for him, a U.S. Army soldier stationed in Heidelberg and his German wife. Nine months later, Russ and Ludmillia Slick took their baby home. They named him Dan.
He grew up in Michigan where his father worked for the Army reserve center. Dan had a brother and sister, earned degrees at Michigan State and Western State universities and became an aircraft design engineer. He married Beth, a respiratory therapist, and they had a son and a daughter, three years apart.
In 2007, Wolfgang and Hannelore were tracking their family tree. Hannelore, now living in Liverpool, N.Y., called Dan's mother. She denied having an adopted son but later told Dan about the call. Dan didn't give it much thought. But Beth went to work on her computer.
On Nov. 27, as he dressed for work, Dan mentioned to Beth that he would like to know his medical history. "I just kind of voiced it,'' he said, "and she spun around, opened a drawer and pulled out a piece of paper. She said, 'I have the phone number of your brother, Gerhard. Can I call him?' I was stunned.''
Now the search focused on the baby. The siblings in Germany with access to the orphanage records found the Mickulases' address in Queens. Beth, using a Google search, tracked a Michael Mickulas to an address in a neighborhood just outside New Port Richey. It was Janet and Andrew Acerra's home. They had cared for her father during his final days.
Beth typed in Janet Acerra and found her biography. She read about Janet's honors and learned she had taught at Forest Lakes Elementary in Oldsmar since it opened 16 years earlier.
Beth and Dan stared at her photograph. She looked like Dan.
• • •
Katharina Weisensel's two youngest children wasted no time getting to know each other. They talked for hours on the phone, exchanging 50 years' worth of information and experiences, musing about the dynamic of their biological parents. They prepared for an October trip to Germany to meet the other siblings.
"We had a bond I can't describe,'' she said. "All these years we had no idea the other existed, and now we wanted to know everything.''
Finally, on Feb. 19, they were to meet in person. Janet paced and talked nonstop, pausing only to peek out the window.
A red Chevy rental rolled up the driveway. Before Dan could knock on the door, she threw it open and leaped into his arms. They held each other tight, breaking only to stare in each other's tear-filled eyes.
"It's like looking at yourself, isn't it?'' Dan said.
"Unbelievable,'' Janet answered.
Bill Stevens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (727) 869-6250.