By Thomas Fields-Meyer
October 28, 1996 12:00 PM

JAYNE BERNSTEIN’S CHILDHOOD—complete with piano lessons, school plays and time as a junior high cheerleader—was just about perfect. Except for one gnawing issue. “I felt like I never really belonged,” she says. “I was somehow different from everyone in my family.” Her feeling was more than just intuition. Born in Greece, Bernstein had been adopted as a toddler by a Teaneck, N.J., couple, who told her lovingly from the time she was small where she had come from and how they had chosen her to be their cherished daughter. “I did feel special,” says Bernstein, now 40. “But I always wondered about the mysterious woman who had me.”

Then last fall, Bernstein’s husband, Eric, told her of a TV news report revealing that thousands of Greek children may have been illegally sold to U.S. families in the 1950s—without their parents’ permission. Recognizing the name of the lawyer mentioned in the report from her own adoption records, Bernstein says, “I started to cry.” She was even more anguished when she learned the full story. In the ’50s, still recovering from the dislocations of World War II and the Greek Civil War that followed, hundreds—perhaps thousands—of poverty-stricken couples and unwed mothers left their infants in children’s shelters or hospitals for safekeeping. Later, when they tried to reclaim their babies, many were told the children were gone or had died. Unaccustomed to questioning authority, most believed the stories. In fact, many of the children had been sold—shipped to America and other countries, where unwitting couples paid steep black-market fees to adopt them.

Bernstein, now a singer and the mother of three daughters, wasn’t the only adoptee riveted by news of the scandal, which involved doctors, lawyers and hospital officials. When a Greek TV program broke the story in May 1995—after a Greek lawyer raised questions about her own adoption records—it caused a furor. The Greek government stepped in, ordering the release of thousands of files from hospitals and orphanages. “It was on the news every day, on talk shows, everywhere,” says Fanis Papathanasio of the Greek state TV network. In the U.S., hundreds of the adoptees—now men and women near middle age—sought each other out, formed support groups and contacted Greek organizations working to reunite families. Bernstein reached one such Greek group last June. Three weeks later she was told the identity of her birth mother—Sophia Kefalou, now 63 and living in a small town in southern Greece. “It’s like a raging storm has subsided,” says Bernstein. “I know where I came from.”

In September, with two other adoptees who had become friends—Andrea Friedman, 40, of Queens, N.Y., and Maxine Deller, 41, of Elmont, N.Y.—Bernstein traveled to Greece in search of her roots. At the Athens airport, Kefalou greeted her long-lost daughter. “My happiness is indescribable,” Kefalou says. “God does make miracles happen.” She was 23 when she gave birth to Bernstein—born Christina—on April 4, 1956, in Corinthos. The girl’s father had promised to marry Kefalou, but then refused after learning her family couldn’t afford a dowry. Forsaken by disapproving friends and relatives, the young mother ventured to Athens, where she placed the baby in a children’s home. Told to leave when the girl reached 4 months, Kefalou returned to her village to reconcile with her family; when she came back a few months later to retrieve the baby, “I was told she was not there,” she recalls. “I had not signed any documents. I was illiterate. I had no support, no money. What could I do?”

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, Gilbert and Caryle Alexander, now 70 and 67, who had a 6-year-old son but had lost two babies—a girl just 24 hours old and a 22-month-old son stricken with cancer—wanted desperately to adopt a child. After seeing a news story about Greek adoptions, they contacted a Greek lawyer, who soon sent news of an 18-month-old girl. “We were elated; we were walking on the clouds,” Gilbert recalls. The elation ended when the child arrived three months later, in February 1958, so ill from malnutrition and pneumonia that the Alexanders drove from the airport to a pediatrician’s office. At first unable even to chew, with time she grew healthy. “She was a beautiful child,” says Caryle.

The Alexanders never suspected the adoption might have been illegal and were shocked by recent news of the scandal. After four decades, “we never thought of her as adopted,” says Gilbert. “We were extremely frightened of losing her.” Ultimately they came around, realizing, says Caryle, that Jayne wouldn’t “give up 40 years of love because she found her natural mother. There’s enough to go around for everyone.” For her part, Bernstein felt relief at reuniting with her birth mother. “Finally the pieces of the puzzle are in place,” she says.

Andrea Friedman’s life, too, has fallen into place. Her adoptive parents, Henry Friedman, now 74, and his wife Pearl, who died in 1978, tried to conceive a child for a decade. A friend led them to a Greek lawyer who was arranging adoptions for $2,000. “We were told the children were from an orphanage,” says Friedman, a retired jewelry manufacturer.

What they didn’t know was the true history of the girl they adopted, whose Greek name was Maria. Her mother, Katerina, now 57, had given birth out of wedlock in a small village outside Epirus. Like Kefalou, she had fled to Athens, living with an aunt until a welfare agency advised her to place the infant in a children’s home until Katerina could support her. “I never imagined they’d give her away,” says Katerina, who, forbidden direct contact, visited daily to watch her daughter through a window. “One day I went there and I didn’t see her anymore,” she recalls. “A nurse took pity on me and said, ‘Don’t wait. They gave the children to Americans.’ Losing her pained me tremendously.” Yet, feeling powerless and despondent, she could do nothing.

Andrea, who oversees group homes for mentally disabled youths, had never sought her birth parents. But hearing last April of the scandal, she contacted a Greek organization, which found her mother in just two weeks. Soon she was communicating with Katerina—now married with two grown daughters. Though she was initially anxious about visiting, says Friedman, “as soon as I saw her eyes, I knew it was right.” The feeling was mutual, says Katerina: “My happiness reaches the sky.”

That sort of joy continues to elude Maxine Deller, who returned home from Greece with her origins still a mystery. She grew up in Elmont, just east of New York City, the only child of George Deller, an insurance broker, and Jeanne, a homemaker. Though it was a loving home, she always felt out of place. “I always felt Greek,” she says. “I love Greek music. I love Greek foods, the smells, the noises.”

As a girl she also adored her parents’ story of her arrival from Greece on an airplane—but didn’t know that to get her they had paid $1,000 to a Greek-American lawyer, Stephen Scopas, who was later indicted on baby-selling charges. (Though forced to resign his post as New York City magistrate in 1959, he was acquitted since it was believed that the adoptions were legal in Greece.) Both adoptive parents died by the time she was 26, and she floundered, quitting college and taking various jobs. Since 1986 she has sold cars for Conway Motors in Baldwin, N.Y.

Though Greek groups were unable to secure information about her birth parents, Deller was determined to try. Two days after arriving in Athens, she drove with Friedman and Bernstein to her birthplace, the port city of Patras. Remarkably, in a record book still at the orphanage—now a school—she found the note that accompanied her on Oct. 4, 1955, when she was left there. “Her name is Maria,” it read. “Please feed her lest she will die.” Says Deller: “I was in shock.” Yet the book yielded no other leads, and a week later she returned home, where she continues her search.

Before the trip, Deller had bought a golden heart, broken in two, hoping to wear one half and give the other to her birth mother. “I thought that would be very special,” she says. “I didn’t want to have to bring it home.” Now all she wants are some answers. “The other kids, they heard from their mothers, ‘I tried to get you back.’ I want to hear that…. Just tell me something.”