It took nearly 80 years before the sisters could finally meet. Until recently, 79-year-old Maria from Poland didn’t even know she had siblings in Germany. But her sister Ursula, who is three years younger, had grown up with her mother’s memories of Maria. Their mother had searched for her lost daughter for decades and missed her for her entire life. Thanks to research by a Polish local historian and the support of the Arolsen Archives, the sisters were finally able to meet virtually for the first time.

Maria and Ursula sit in front of computers with their families. They are separated by several hundred kilometers, and by technology. Someone has to help them with the connection for the online meeting, turn on the sound and set up the camera so the sisters can get a good look at each other when they meet for the first time. Do they look alike?


Gertrud had to flee without her daughter

Ursula, the younger sister, lives in Germany. She only knows her sister Maria from a picture that their mother, Gertrud Koch, kept in her wallet. Ursula can see immediately that Maria looks very much like Gertrud. “My little Brigitte,” her mother used to say when she talked about her first daughter. She gave birth to Maria on December 7, 1942 in Breslau and named her Brigitte. But Gertrud was separated from Brigitte after a bomb alert at the end of 1944 and had to flee Poland soon afterward. Despite searching intensively, she never found her daughter again.


Gertrud spent years searching for her lost daughter. This newspaper appeal (ca. 1950) includes Brigitte’s photo in the bottom row on the left (framed).


Brigitte became Maria

Brigitte wound up in an orphanage and was adopted by a Polish family – and Brigitte then became Maria . Maria’s adoptive father, a lawyer, had even changed her name to Brigida Widiger shortly before the adoption to erase all traces of her origins. When Maria turned 18, her parents did manage to tell her she had been adopted, but her father said in the same breath, “Don’t look for information, you won’t find anything.”


Local historian researches mysterious orphanage

Maria was finally able to discover her true identity thanks to local history enthusiast Dariusz Giemza from Poland. He has spent several years researching the mysterious history of the former orphanage in his hometown of Duszniki Zdrój (formerly Bad Reinerz in Silesia), where Maria lived. Dariusz has compiled a wealth of information and documents to bring to light the true origins of the children from the orphanage.


»Revealing the history of these children has become my mission in life, and it has led to incredible discoveries. It has been many years of hard work, sleepless nights, and trawling through dozens of archives.«

Dariusz Giemza, local history enthusiast from Duszniki Zdrój
A childhood photo of Maria, ca. 1948. (Photo: private collection)
The former orphanage in Duszniki Zdrój. (Photo:

Fake identities

Toward the end of the war in 1945, the orphanage run by the Sisters of Notre Dame in the Silesian town of Bad Reinerz (now Duszniki Zdrój) took in German children rescued from bombed cities, especially Breslau. The orphanage also housed children born to Polish women who had been sent to the region by the Nazis as forced laborers. Most of the children left the orphanage in 1948 with new names and identities. Some of them were adopted by Polish families.


New information about birth mother

Maria’s daughter read a newspaper article about Dariusz’s research and got in touch with him, hoping that he might know something about her mother’s background. Together they determined that Brigida Widiger and Brigitte Koch must be the same person – even their dates of birth were the same. Dariusz found out that Maria’s birth mother, Gertrud Koch, had fled to Bavaria. In December 2020, Maria and Dariusz turned to the Arolsen Archives to find information about Gertrud.


»With the help of the authorities, my personal details were falsified and new documents were issued for me. My real mother Gertrud Koch searched for me. But I was never able to obtain any information myself because I do not have an adoption certificate.«

From Marias inquiry to the Arolsen Archives

The Arolsen Archives found Marias younger sister

Because the work of the Arolsen Archives focuses on the victims of Nazi persecution, there is hardly any information about Germans from what is now Poland in our collection. Nevertheless, there was one revealing document that our team could use to search for clues: Brigitte’s name appeared on a list of children who were in the orphanage in Duszniki Zdrój in 1945/1946 – and Gertrud’s address in Bavaria at the time was also listed there. With this clue, we were able to locate her second daughter, Maria’s younger sister Ursula, through the German authorities. Maria and Ursula began calling and writing to our team. They sent pictures and shared their stories and memories with us. Finally, they contacted each other directly and arranged their first meeting via video conference.

“My mother always missed Brigitte”

Ursula grew up with her mother’s memories of “little Brigitte.” She never imagined she would actually meet her missing older sister one day. We asked her what her mother had told her about Brigitte/Maria and how it feels now that the mystery of her lost sister has finally been solved.


What happens next?

It has been an exciting year for Maria, Ursula and their families. Their children, nephews, nieces and friends are also delighted to be in contact, and they are already planning to meet in person. This could happen as soon as the spring of 2022 in Poland. Maybe the sisters will even meet in Wrocław in the house where Brigitte used to live with their mother Gertrud and their grandfather.


Maria (middle) visited her former orphanage in 2021 with her daughter (3rd from right), her son (2nd from right) and Dariusz Giemza (right) to learn more about her story. She was received by the mayor of Duszniki Zdrój and his wife (left).


Dariusz Giemza will also stay in touch with the sisters. He is happy to have been able to solve another family mystery from the orphanage in his hometown with the help of the Arolsen Archives. And there are many more fates to clarify – Dariusz has a list with the names of over 200 children whose identities were falsified. We’ll keep searching!

Support us
Learn more