The passenger train cut through the German countryside, 90 minutes from Frankfurt to Wurzburg. Janet Acerra stared out the window and took deep breaths.
Up to now, it had all seemed like a dream. Eleven months earlier, the celebrated schoolteacher had answered a phone call at her New Port Richey home. The caller said he was her brother, which was surprising enough. Then he broke even bigger news: Janet was the youngest of 10 children born in the strangest of circumstances in Wurzburg.
Now, as she stepped from the train, she held tightly to her husband Andrew's hand. They pulled their luggage toward the terminal. Suddenly, at a set of stairs, men rushed to help with the suitcases. A blond woman bawled off to the side.
Janet Acerra's first thought: "Whoa, they really look just like me!''
Three of the siblings died shortly after birth in the early 1940s, but the six remaining — Hennelore, Wolfgang, Gerhard, Siegfried, Karlheinz and Dan — celebrated their reunion with their baby sister. They visited the Catholic orphanage where most of them had been put up for adoption. It was there in 1961 that Janet was signed over to an American couple, Margaret and Michael Mickulas of Queens, N.Y.
Janet's parents provided a secure middle-class life. They put her through college. But they shared only limited information about her adoption and said her mother had died at 16 during childbirth. Janet's biological father, they said, had been killed in a motorcycle accident.
None of this had ever mattered to Janet. The Mickulases were her parents and she loved them dearly. Same for her brother Phil, 17 years older. She had never needed to know more.
But in Germany, her siblings used orphanage records to connect the dots. And after that call from Dan, who also had been adopted by Americans, Janet could not have been more excited. Her colleagues at Forest Lakes Elementary in Oldsmar, where she had been honored as Pinellas County's outstanding educator in 2005, enjoyed watching the mystery unravel. Dan came to visit last year and had much in common with Janet. They invited the Tampa Bay Times to the house for the happy reunion.
A year later, Janet remains excited about getting to know her blood relatives. But she has also experienced moments of conflict — especially once she arrived in Germany.
"What would my mother think?'' she wondered.
Janet, 50, had cared for her mother during her last 10 years, placing her in a nursing home near the school in Oldsmar so she could be there for meals three times every day. Mrs. Mickulas had Alzheimer's and often referred to Janet as "that nice lady.'' But as she lay dying in 1998, "she looked me in the eyes and said, 'Janet.' That was her final word.''
At the same time, her father, a retired machinist, contracted cancer. He lived his final year with the Acerras in New Port Richey. Janet had always been close to her dad, but in that final year they bonded as the best of friends.
At the orphanage in Wurzburg, Janet stood with Wolfgang. He presented her with a rolled parchment paper. Inside were two small pictures of Janet at 6 months and a year. Her mother had kept a promise to the orphanage nuns to send them an update on the baby. Her handwriting was on the back of the pictures.
"I don't usually cry,'' Janet said, "but I sobbed and sobbed. It was very appropriate that I should have my mom in that room with me. It was almost like she was giving me permission to be there, telling me, 'It's okay.' ''
The more she learned about her siblings and her own birth, the more she felt blessed to have been raised by such loving parents.
Her biological father, Jakob Kiesl, owned a restaurant and was married to a woman named Berta. But the woman who bore all his children, Katharina Weisensel, was a restaurant employee and 22 years younger.
"Katharina didn't enjoy a very good reputation around town,'' Janet said, "but you know the nuns at the orphanage saw her at least every year. I guess the best you could say is at least she didn't abort the babies.'' She died of lung cancer in 1989 at age 67.
The siblings also learned more about Jakob Kiesl. He had been a Nazi soldier, working in a munitions factory. He hated Americans for destroying Wurzburg in bombings. They were especially surprised to learn that he "had a little fling with a riding instructor,'' Janet said. He fathered three boys with her. "But they didn't want anything to do with us.''
Kiesl died in June 1961, a month before Janet's birth. He was 60.
Janet keeps in touch with her siblings via Skype and email. She's grateful to know details about her birth and fascinated by the way this all came about.
"They are clearly wonderful people,'' she said. "I like them. But they're still strangers for the most part. You can't catch up with 50 years just like that. We'll keep talking. I never want to disappoint them because I'm so happy to have them in my life.
"But blood is not always thicker.''