We’re moving” was a phrase Bob Bryntwick heard once or twice a year during his childhood in the 1950s. There were many times when he’d come home from school to find the contents of his family’s Montreal home scattered across the front lawn. His single mother, Anne, didn’t make rent again. He’d shrug, gather his things and mentally prepare to start over in a different neighborhood, going to a new school and making new friends.
With each move, Anne took pride in their dwellings. Almost immediately, she’d freshen up the walls with a new color or paint the floral crown molding with vibrant hues. Her feet pattered on the wood floors as she danced to “Tennessee Waltz,” no matter where they lived. There were also the familiar smells of frying dough, borscht and potato pockets that filled the home. So, too, did the sounds she made giving birth — each home christened when she had a child.
Bob, now 73 and living in Mississauga, a Toronto suburb, remembers rotating the volume dial on a small black-and-white TV in hopes of drowning out his mother’s recognizable shrieks of pain emanating from the bedroom. “My mother was like clockwork,” Bob tells me, emphasizing the routineness by snapping his fingers. “Every year, year and a half, she was having a baby.”
But even as his mother gave birth annually for almost a decade, he remained the middle child of the five being raised by Anne. Bob says the newborn children were always gone after only a few days or weeks. No one explained what happened to them.
The last infant came and went when Bob was 9, and soon his memories of the transient babies faded. It wasn’t until decades later, when he sent a tube of spit to Ancestry, that he would be confronted with undeniable truths about his upbringing and his family.
More than 300 miles from Bob’s childhood in Canada, Eleanor and Alex Joseph’s hopes of becoming parents were chipped away by each miscarriage. The middle-class Jewish couple living in Brooklyn had also tried adopting, but the endeavor proved futile in 1940s New York because of a segregated system in which Jewish families could only adopt babies of the same religion. By 1950, after the couple exhausted all options, they turned to their family physician for advice. He told them he knew of a doctor in Montreal facilitating adoptions. At a price. After their meeting, the doctor got word that an infant was available. The Josephs traveled to Quebec and picked up their daughter. They named her Sharon.
Now 71 and living in Tampa, Sharon Coppola is grateful for a life in which she wanted for nothing. Her parents offered a perfect balance of temperaments: Her mother, a school aide, was smart and strong-willed; her father, a plumber, was caring and sweet. She insists she never longed to know her biological family. It wasn’t until 1989, after her mother died, that Sharon’s father unwrapped a secret he’d kept tightly bound for decades. “He came to me right after the funeral and said, ‘I have something to tell you,’ ” Sharon recalls. “He said, ‘You have a twin sister.’ ”
Alex then showed 39-year-old Sharon a letter he had received shortly after her adoption from a nurse who cared for her as a newborn (“I was glad to hear that your daughter is so much improved. She really does well, God bless her.”). The note referred to another baby and included a last name and address for the family who adopted the other child. Sharon’s father told her that he and her mother vowed not to tell Sharon about the letter or her sister. Alex, who was a twin himself, claimed that if they had known she had a twin, they would have adopted both. Sharon doubted his explanation because her cousin had told her that the Josephs borrowed a large sum of money from her grandparents to afford the adoption. There’s no way they could have paid for a second child, Sharon speculated.
She soon started on an earnest mission to find her sister. But the last name and address of the family surfaced nothing. Widespread use of the Internet was still more than a decade away — and without further context of the circumstances surrounding her adoption, which her father could not provide, she quickly hit a wall.
By 2013, however, new technology had emerged, and finding a relative was as easy as sending a DNA sample through the mail. Hoping to finally locate her twin sister, Sharon joined the Ancestry database. Like Bob, her discoveries would lead her in a direction she never anticipated.
LEFT: Sharon Coppola. (Edward Linsmier for The Washington Post) RIGHT: Reissa Spier. (Alana Paterson for The Washington Post)
Reissa Spier knew she was adopted but never cared to know the details. She understood that her father, Saul Gordon, a sales representative in the plumbing and hardware industry and a proud Jewish veteran of the Royal Canadian Air Force, and her mother, Rose Levine, a part-time bookkeeper, struggled with infertility following World War II. They adopted Reissa’s older brother in 1951 and Reissa three years later. She adored her parents, whose active participation in their Montreal synagogue instilled her with a strong Jewish identity. The family was a tightknit unit, and for much of Reissa’s childhood they lived in a duplex with her aunt, uncle and cousins residing upstairs.
Only at 51, when Reissa was diagnosed with breast cancer, did she start down a path that would lead to her origin story. She was anxious to know if her daughter was at risk for the disease, so she asked her doctor to test her for mutations in the BRCA genes, genetic changes often carried by Ashkenazi Jewish women that signify higher risks of developing breast and cervical cancer. But Reissa’s adoption made it difficult. “I had to prove that I had a first-degree relative who also had breast cancer, and I didn’t know any first-degree relatives,” Reissa, now 67 and in remission, explains. “They said, ‘You don’t qualify because you’re adopted.’ Well, that’s backwards. I should qualify because I’m adopted.”
Ten years later and living in Surrey, south of Vancouver, Reissa had all but given up on her efforts when she started seeing ads for 23andMe. Among the various genetic tests, the service offered results for the BRCA mutations. Her husband gave her the kit for her 62nd birthday.
When the results came in, Reissa was relieved to learn she didn’t carry the mutation. What she found was far more startling. First, she learned she wasn’t fully Jewish — she was half, through her biological father. Second, she had a full sister named Rene Holm.
Rene (pronounced like “rain”) always dreamed of having siblings. She remembers as a little girl pleading with her adoptive mother for a baby sister. “It’s never going to happen,” was always the response. Rene doesn’t know why her parents — June Cohen, a Massachusetts-born showgirl living in Montreal, and Sam Cohen — didn’t have a biological child. Whatever the reasons, June, who converted to Judaism to marry Sam, made clear to Rene, now 70, that she had come at a price: “I paid good money for you,” she told her daughter.
A woman with radiant beauty yet a harsh personality, June was never warm and nurturing toward Rene. June left her husband when Rene was a toddler and took her to Worcester, Mass., eventually leaving Rene in her parents’ care. When June resurfaced a decade later, Rene didn’t welcome her return. On Rene’s 13th birthday, June brought her to a strip club for the first time and put her to work. “As soon as the show was over, my job was to go onto the stage, pick up all her clothes and take them back to the dressing room,” Rene recalls. Given her adoptive mother’s instability, Rene grew curious about her biological parents. June always said Rene’s biological mother was a young, poor unwed woman who had no other children — a tale Rene found dubious.
In 2015, Rene’s children gave her a 23andMe DNA kit as a Mother’s Day gift. But she left the box untouched for nearly a year, dreading what it could reveal. When she finally took the test, the buildup was almost all for naught. No meaningful results surfaced — until 13 months later when she received a message from Reissa, her biological sister. “It was just so surreal,” Rene tells me in her sun-drenched den in Rutland, Mass. The two formed a quick and close bond. “I just freaking love that woman,” she says as she wipes away her black eyeliner-stained tears.
But the fact that Rene and Reissa had the same parents puzzled the two women. “This couple was together, had a baby girl, and gave her up for adoption. And two a half years later they’re still together” — and then “they gave me up?” Reissa says. “We both thought this was really sketchy. Why would they have done this?” To widen their DNA net, Reissa signed up for Ancestry in the spring of 2018. When she received her results, she connected with Bob Bryntwick.
On opposite ends of Canada, the estranged siblings were piecing together their shared family tree. Reissa and Rene matched in 2016, and Bob and Sharon exchanged messages on Ancestry the following year. Then Reissa and Bob found each other, all four sharing the same biological mother: Anne Chop Bryntwick.
Anne was born in 1914 to a Ukrainian Catholic family in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She grew up on a farm with 13 siblings and never received a formal education. Bob described her as a loving and sometimes jovial woman who didn’t work and occupied her time cooking, baking, cleaning and sewing her children’s clothes. But there were many times when she collapsed into fits of grief and sadness.
Bob was one of five siblings in the house. There was the oldest, Ed, born in 1939, the result of Anne’s first and only husband, Alex Bryntwick. She left him not long after Ed was born, but they never legally divorced. Next came Ann in 1946, the product of one of their mother’s flings, according to Bob. Bob, the middle child, was born in 1948. Then there were his younger siblings, Barbara, born in 1949, and Michael in 1956.
Bob, Barbara and Michael were all told their father was Max “Mike” Mitchell, a tall, gregarious man whose presence could take over a room. Mike, who was born and raised in Montreal in a Jewish family, never stuck around for long, Bob says. He would float in and out of their lives, often for a weekend here and there each year. “Every time that big black car was sitting in front of our house in Montreal, we knew it was him — my dad,” Barbara Louis, 72, tells me over the phone from her home in Vernon, British Columbia. The kids would rush in, and Mike would hand them candy, gifts or sometimes money to use at the corner store. On a few occasions he took them on day trips.
Over the course of Mike and Anne’s almost decade-long relationship, according to the siblings, they bore more children. “I was young, and I didn’t understand why she would keep on having babies,” Bob says. When he was a teenager Ed told him that their other brothers and sisters were sold to families. “Mike was getting $10,000 per child,” Bob remembers Ed telling him. Understanding that the various pregnancies amounted to selling the babies made sense to Bob and Barbara, who described their family as poor. Barbara remembers eating better when Mike was around. “There was money when he came through,” she says.
What the Bryntwick children suspect was happening in their home was not illegal in Quebec in the 1950s. Neither Canada nor the United States had federal laws barring the sale of babies. In 1955 there was only one Canadian province that banned the act, and in 1956, The Washington Post reported, 32 states had “no criminal statute barring baby sales.” This lack of oversight bred an exploitative environment.
There were several factors that made Quebec the ideal place for what is now referred to as the black-market baby trade. In part, it was because of a complex social welfare system, which at the time included both government-run and private institutions segregated by religion, according to Magda Fahrni, a history professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal. But with most of the population being Catholic, the church had a powerful cultural hold over the province and many people turned to religious resources for social services. Because of the church’s influence, the majority of Quebec followed the religion’s moralistic rules: Premarital sex was a sin, abortion was illegal and unwed child rearing was discouraged. But if a single, poor pregnant woman wanted to avoid going to the church for help, the most feasible option was a disreputable, underground and often unsanitary maternity home, where she would give birth and then the sale was facilitated through a network of brokers, doctors, lawyers and clergy.
After World War II, there was significant societal pressure to have children in Canada and the United States. For couples who could not have children of their own, adoption was popular and one of the only ways to attain a nuclear family. With not enough Catholic families looking to adopt, the church-run orphanages were overcrowded. On the other end of the spectrum, there were not enough Jewish children up for adoption and too many Jewish couples across North America looking for one. But it was illegal to adopt a child of a different religion in Quebec, so the imbalance created a classic supply and demand problem.
“Of course, we don’t want children to be commodities, but the reality of looking at any of this stuff is that they are treated as commodities [at the time],” says Karen Balcom, a history professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and the author of “The Traffic in Babies: Cross-Border Adoption and Baby-Selling Between the United States and Canada.” There was “a premium, or desire, for a child who is, or can, be made to appear as Jewish,” she adds.
There were a few ways of achieving this, Balcom explains. Because the clergy oversaw birth registrations, some black-market brokers would employ a “phony mother.” This scheme meant the Catholic mother, who gave birth at a maternity home run by the brokers, would hand off her newborn to a Jewish woman, who would pretend to be the mother and bring the child to a rabbi to register the child’s birth; a Canadian or American Jewish family could then legally adopt the child in Quebec. Other schemes involved a clandestine handover of the child to the adoptive family inside a hospital immediately following the birth.
It is unclear why there were so few Jewish babies up for adoption. Pierre Anctil, a history professor at the University of Ottawa who has studied the Jewish community in Quebec, says it could be because of cultural differences. “I’m thinking that the Jewish community of the time was much more liberal-minded than the Catholics,” Anctil tells me, adding that many young Jewish women in the post-World War II era were more empowered and independent, getting university-level degrees, pursuing careers in education and the medical field. They also may have had better access to contraceptives and safe abortion, Anctil says, and in more progressive communities, it would have also been less taboo for a single, Jewish woman to raise a baby on her own as opposed to the pressure and shame Catholic women felt to give a baby up for adoption.
Black-market operations were very profitable, with the going rate for a baby ranging from $3,000 to $10,000, according to news reports in the mid-1950s, equivalent to more than 10 times that today. There’s no way of knowing how many babies were sold to couples in Canada and the United States, but in 1956 the Baltimore Sun reported that the baby trade across North America was valued at $25 million annually, which is about $250 million today. The mothers rarely got much of that money. “Nothing that I have read or seen are the women who give birth benefiting financially,” Balcom says. “They get kicked out on the street with like 50 bucks.”
In most cases, historians say, a mother selling a child was a one-off. But what the Bryntwick children believe happened in their household was almost methodical, though it is unclear how much money was being made or how it was distributed. Recent DNA testing indicates at least eight children were born to Anne and Mike between August 1949 and April 1957, six of whom were adopted. In other words, it’s an extreme case from a former era in which babies were all too often treated as mere goods. But it’s also an unusual version of a familiar story from our era, where DNA has brought to light numerous family secrets — albeit few secrets as byzantine and sprawling as the baby-selling operation that, as they were discovering decades later, linked the Bryntwick children to one another.
The Bryntwick Family
Anne Bryntwick had 11 children over nearly two decades. Based on DNA testing, of the eight she had with Max “Mike” Mitchell, six were adopted.
Anne and Mike, whose relationship consisted of occasional weekend visits for almost a decade, were not married. Mike had a wife, whom he was married to until his death.
Anne Chop Bryntwick
June 5, 1914 – March 18, 1967
Max “Mike” Mitchell
May 2, 1926 – Oct. 1, 1991
Before she started a relationship with Mike, Anne had three children.
Nov. 10, 1939 – March 18, 1990
June 6, 1946 – Feb. 23, 2016
Born Feb. 14, 1948
The following are Anne and Mike’s children.
Born Aug. 5, 1949
Born Aug. 16, 1950
Born Oct. 5, 1951
Born Oct. 9, 1952
Born March 15, 1954
Born April 15, 1955
Born April 17, 1956
Born April 26, 1957
Bob and Barbara remember the last child their mother had in 1957, a year after Michael was born. They named the new baby Richard and Barbara took to him. “I’d help change his bum and carry him and play with him like he was my little doll,” she says. But her time with Richard ended abruptly. “I remember Dad coming home,” says Barbara, who was 7 at the time, “and he took him right out of my arms.”
The incident was Anne’s last straw, Bob says. He clearly remembers the day his mother and Mike ended their relationship, soon after baby Richard. Watching through an upstairs window, Bob saw his mother walk to Mike’s car and sit in the passenger’s seat as they talked. Twenty minutes later, she got out. “She finally closed the door, walked upstairs and that was the end of Mike Mitchell,” he recalls.
For the kids who remained in Anne’s care, their home life was unstable and, for Barbara, dangerous. The eldest sibling, Ed, had a short temper, and she says he was physically and sexually abusive — frequently sneaking over to Barbara’s bed and touching her inappropriately. “Quietly in the middle of the night,” she says, noting that she shared a bedroom with him and Bob. “I remember that so vividly. So vividly.” Ed wasn’t the only one who violated her. Some of the men Anne brought home also abused her. “Those kids that got sold out to the families are the luckiest kids alive,” Barbara says. “We were left behind, and we went hungry, and we were cold and beaten.”
Nine years after Mike exited the Bryntwicks’ lives, Anne died of colon cancer and the five siblings went their separate ways. Ed took off on his own and died of colon cancer in 1990. Ann and Barbara hitchhiked to British Columbia. Both got married young and divorced not long after. Ann died of cirrhosis of the liver in 2016. Bob stayed in Montreal, went to McGill University, got married and worked in sales.
Michael, who was 10 when their mother died, was sent to the Weredale House, a now defunct boy’s home run by the Quebec government, where he says he was abused. He described it as worse than jail, a place he landed a few times after running away from the home. In his late teens in the early 1970s, he became a nomad — roaming North America and Europe, using drugs, panhandling, camping with hippies and working in a labor pool. In 1981, after years of self-destruction, he moved to Ontario. Now 65, Michael lives in Stoney Creek, about 70 miles south of Toronto, and has been sober for more than 20 years.
“It’s her love that actually saved me,” Michael tells me, referring to his mother, Anne. “It was what I carried with me all my life. So, I was able to weather the bad things that happened because I had a sense of love.”
When Bob explained his childhood to Reissa Spier, she realized she had some delicate news to share. Despite what Bob was told growing up, Mike was not his biological father. Reissa, who had become fascinated by genetic genealogy, recognized that their genetic match on Ancestry was half that of her connection with Rene Holm. Instead of her match with Bob being labeled as “sibling,” it said “close family.” Reissa understood that Bob was in fact her half brother, sharing only the same mother. “I was the one who had to tell Bob that he had a different father,” Reissa says. “It was a difficult conversation to have.”
LaKisha David, a genetic genealogist whose research is focused on descendants of enslaved Africans brought to the United States, says Reissa’s analysis is correct. Ancestry uses labels like “close family” because the percentage match for half siblings, grandparent and grandchild relation, aunt or uncle and niece or nephew relation are similar. It’s then a matter of process of elimination, she explains. “So, if you know the age, you know these other bits of information, you can eliminate these other relationships,” she says.
Reissa took the lead in continuing to piece together their burgeoning family tree, and the growing popularity of 23andMe and Ancestry worked in her favor. Over 12 million people have used 23andMe, and more than 20 million have used Ancestry’s DNA product, according to spokeswomen for both companies. Recent spoils of these websites have gone so far as to help solve murders and track down unethical fertility doctors.
LaKisha David believes these websites are a “great thing” because they allow people to better understand their histories. “It will expose the stuff that folks want to keep a secret. A lot of our older generations don’t like to talk about this stuff,” she says. “For a lot of people, DNA is the only way they can piece together their story.”
Reissa received another “close family” connection on Ancestry in the summer of 2018. His name is David J. Mitchell; his father was Mike Mitchell, as was hers. Upon further review of his genetic map, Reissa understood that he, like Bob, is her half brother. Not wanting to scare him off, Reissa sent David a note without mentioning what she suspected. But she was confident in her understanding of their genetic connection. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said to people: DNA doesn’t lie. People lie,” Reissa says.
It was only when they spoke on the phone a few weeks later that Reissa told him they have the same father. “It was a surprise,” David, now 67, told me in May 2019. “I’m still absorbing it.” Reissa learned that David was one of eight children Mike had with his wife, who was Roman Catholic. A strange revelation was that David and Reissa were both born in Montreal on March 15, 1954.
David never suspected his father had this other life. From what David could remember, his parents “were close,” he said. “We grew up like middle-class royalty in Canada in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s.” David said his father, who died in 1991, was self-employed, but he declined to give specifics on how Mike made money, saying he didn’t want to divulge too much information because he was writing a book about his family.
When we spoke, David said he wasn’t sure whether his mother, who died in 2000, was aware of Mike’s relationship with Anne. He defended his father’s involvement in the adoptions, placing doubt that Mike benefited financially from the alleged arrangement. “He helped her through some difficult times,” David said, referring to Anne. “I think the impulse that I’ve been able to determine and document was that he was, in his own way — may have been misguided as a young man. But in his own way, he was endeavoring to help her.” David declined to offer evidence to support his assertions. He also questioned the extent of his father’s relationship with Anne, which consisted of occasional weekend visits for almost a decade, according to Bob and Barbara: “That’s an interpretation that comes from Bob, who was a very young boy at the time.”
Bob disagrees. “[Mike Mitchell] was having a strong relationship with my mother for 10 years, and these kids were coming out on a regular basis,” he says. “It was going to feed his family, wasn’t going to feed ours.”
Over the years, I have attempted to make additional contact with David, but my requests were rebuffed or went unanswered. I also attempted to contact the other living Mitchell siblings but did not hear back.
Reissa asked David to pass along her contact information to his siblings, saying she’d like to talk to them. No one has reached out.
In a noisy, dimly lit corner of Bâton Rouge Steakhouse & Bar in Montreal in March 2019, five siblings sat around a dinner table for the first time as a group. “This all feels way too comfortable,” Rene said, looking around the table at Bob, Michael, Reissa and Bram Eisenthal, a new addition. He was born in 1957 and is most likely Anne’s last child, known as baby Richard. Like Reissa and Rene, Bram was adopted by a Jewish couple in Montreal.
When I glanced at the siblings all next to each other, I could see the resemblance. Rene and Bob share warm and kind eyes, while he and Reissa are similar in spirit and smarts. Michael and Bram — the two youngest — look strikingly similar. Their expressions mimic each other — similar modest smiles and dark eyes. “I said, ‘He looks familiar,’ but now I realize I’m looking in a mirror,” Michael said, though Bram’s hair has thinned while Michael sports thick salt-and-pepper locks, which he covered with a camouflage ball cap.
As the courses came and went, the siblings compared notes on their lives and personalities. “I think I have ADD,” one said. “Me too!” echoed another. “Do you have trouble sleeping? I do.” Bob and Reissa discussed their cancer diagnoses, a common thread among some of the siblings. Sharon Coppola, who couldn’t make the reunion, had breast cancer, too, and is in remission. They recounted how they found one another and pieced together their story. “You were the key to everything,” Reissa said to Bob.
Bram, who like all the adopted siblings besides Reissa was an only child, told me over breakfast that morning that he had a lonely childhood and longed for the companionship of brothers and sisters. He was largely quiet at the restaurant that night. Someone from the group pointed out his silence and asked if he was okay. “I’m still soaking it all in,” he responded. He then glanced around the table at the strangers he now knew as his family and added, “It’s wonderful being here with you all.”
Along with Sharon, another sibling was missing from the Montreal dinner. Barbara, traumatized by her childhood of instability and abuse, expressed no interest in getting to know her newfound siblings. “I’m an old woman now with bad memories,” she said when we first spoke in 2019. But Reissa’s consistent, heartfelt emails hoping for a connection finally got through to Barbara. She now has a relationship with all her siblings, including Michael, whom she hadn’t spoken to for more than 40 years. “It didn’t really hurt me by meeting them. If anything, it enhanced me,” she says.
Since the gathering, two more siblings have surfaced — Naomi Baum, born in 1952, and Jon Sherman, born in 1955, both also adopted by Jewish families — further completing the Bryntwick family tree. All eight children born from 1949 on are full matches, meaning they have the same biological parents. But questions linger for the expanded Bryntwick family. For one, Bob swears that Anne had a child every year from 1949 to 1957, so one year is unaccounted for: 1953. And there are conflicting theories among the group regarding Sharon’s supposed twin. Barbara believes that she could be the twin, but there’s no way to identify fraternal twins through DNA. Even though, according to their birth certificates, she was born in 1949 and Sharon was born in 1950, Barbara questions those records because her mother didn’t register her birth until she was 7 years old.
Complicating the matter, the six adopted children all likely have falsified birth records. When the Quebec government opened up its adoption records in 2018, Reissa applied to find any documentation of her birth. After several follow-up conversations with a social worker, Reissa received a formal response notifying her that the records include only her “adoptive name and the names, occupation, address of your adoptive parents.”
“I do not exist,” she explains to me, “except as the daughter of my adoptive parents. There is no birth record, there’s no original birth certificate, there’s no record of live birth. … I have no way of proving that I was born in Canada, on a specific day.” She adds, “It’s as though [my siblings and I] just magically materialized for our adoptive parents and we didn’t exist until then.”
The bonds between the siblings have solidified over the years — they have a running email chain and Facebook Messenger chat. Since the 2019 gathering, many have met up one-on-one. This summer, Reissa, Bob, Rene and Naomi all got together in Toronto.
There is a consensus among most of the siblings — now in their 60s and 70s — that finding one another later in life was meant to be. “The fact that we all met again is something I knew would happen,” Michael says. “I always had a sense that they would come.”