Adoption Expert: Info@AdoptionHistory.org
A Brief Historical Overview of the Life and Times of Harry and Bertha Holt and the origin of International Adoption.
- 1954-1955 Discovering Amerasian Children
- 1956 “Having Trouble Finding Little Ones”
- 1957-1958 “Swamped” with Requests for Children
- 1959 Counseling More Mothers
- 1960-1964 “House Slaves?”
- For the Love of Children
- How are the Mothers Today?
1954-1955: Discovering Amerasian Children
Bertha Marian Holt was born in 1905 to Clifford and Eva Holt. She married Harry Holt, a first cousin (Mark Baker, 2006), on December 31, 1927, and eventually, they had six children together. In 1954, Harry and Bertha Holt were convinced that God had sent them on a mission to obtain and raise eight South Korean-born Amerasian (American-Korean or mixed-race) children, in addition to the Holt’s own. (p. 4 & 8) By Autumn of 1955, hundreds of fellow Americans visited the Holt farm in Oregon each week “begging” for a child. The public’s main interest was to “see what the children look like” since they, too, were considering adoption. (p. 9) There was so much media attention that the Holts continued to receive at least 50 daily letters and applications from every state but two. They used this national interest to publicize their loyalty to Christianity. Due to being evangelists and “born-again” Christians, it was the Holts’ desire and priority to give the Korean-born Amerasian children to Christians only. (p. 12)
What is Adoption by Proxy?
The Holts used an inexpensive and efficient procedure called “Adoption by Proxy,” which considered (what the Holt’s called) a Christian “triumph” against the United States Government. (p. 12) The wanting Christian couple would give Harry Power of Attorney. He would then represent their desires and obtain the children under Korean law. The children would finally come to the U.S. as sons and daughters belonging to the wanting couples. Determined to fill the demand of numerous letters from wanting adopters, the Holts set up post in Seoul, hoping to get their hands on more children. A famous friend and reverend, Billy Graham, dedicated their Reception Center. By Christmas of 1955, the Holts receives “thousands” of letters, including 50 inquiries for children daily for a week. (p. 12)
What were some of the setbacks the Holts faced with?
The Holts mention some minor setbacks in 1955. Many established missionaries in Seoul had already reserved the children for their friends. (p. 12) Also, some Korean mothers wanted to wait for the return of their children’s American fathers instead of agreeing to release their children. Other problems came in the form of letters or crank calls, accusing Harry of bringing home “slant-eyed Orientals” or “slant-eyed monsters.” (p. 13) Harry and Bertha dismissed the issue of racism when it came to the incoming children, not realizing that it existed and that it could become the crux of many issues for the inter-racial adoptee to face, isolated. They also did not recognize that their biological daughter made a racially insensitive remark when she affectionately called a Korean-Black child “monkey-face.” (p. 28)
What was the biggest upset among the Korean adoptees and adopted parents when reading Bertha Holt’s memoir?
The biggest upset for adoptees and adoptive parents when reading Bertha Holt’s book Bring My Sons from Afar, published by Holt International Children’s Services, was to learn that the Holt had called the children “orphans” even though the Holts had collected the children from mothers and they continue to do so today. According to Bertha’s memoir, in 1954 Harry Holt (with the help of a Korean liaison or a team of followers) actually “hunted” for Amerasian children and “talked to mothers,” sometimes showing photos of children in the United States, while passing out religious pamphlets. (p. 13) Harry wrote that one mother was almost hysterical when taking her child off her back. (p. 16) She misunderstood Harry’s intention, believing that she would be able to stay in touch with her child. The mother didn’t realize that adoption was, as Harry Holt told Bertha, according to her book, “a clean break and forever.” (p. 13)
1956 “Having Trouble Finding Little Ones”
Harry mentions how a “sobbing” mother, unable to speak, was “afraid” to give him her baby, and some children were “kicking and screaming.” He attempted to comfort the mothers by preaching to them his Christian beliefs, leading many to believe that they would be rewarded by God for giving away their children. After Holt took the children, he sent them to his compound, labeling and showing them as “orphans” in the West so he could send them overseas via the Orphan Bill, a process that he and his cohorts introduced to Congress. The Orphan Bill gave the impression that the children were parentless. This was a lie. Early on, Harry had set up a non-profit bank account and called it “Orphan Foundation Fund” (p. 18) so he could take tax-deductible donations from fellow Americans to help fund Holt’s desires. Gifts to this account helped to enlarge what would become their empire.
What did the Holts depend on in order to continue their adoption business?
The American Social Agency “denounced” proxy adoptions “furiously,” and the Holts perceived opposition or criticisms as “devilish schemes,” accusing the American agency of printing “propaganda” against overseas adoption. (p. 16) Bertha even complained in her memoir that due to the long governmental process, some Korean mothers took their children back home even though the Holts had already assigned these children to American couples. She believed legislatures were “shameful” for making adoptions so difficult. In Seed from the East, the Holts earnestly prayed for their way, even saying, “the devil and all his angels can’t keep them [wanting adopters and Korean-born children] apart.” The Holts depended on proxy adoptions to continue their business.
“Having trouble finding the little ones.” – Harry Holt
By the summer of 1956, Harry reported that he was “having trouble finding the little ones.” (p. 27) At this time, the Holts had already given 750 wanting Christian couples approval for a child. By fall, the Holts were “deluged” with additional inquiries. (p. 29) In October, Harry made a radical decision to go ahead and assign full Korean children to Caucasian families (instead of only mixed-race children) “since the numbers of families wanting children increased far beyond the number of Amerasian children available.” (p. 33) Before Christmas of that same year, they received 300 letters, including 96 more inquiries for children. (p. 35)
1957-1958: “Swamped” with Requests for Children
The Holts feared that the U.S. Welfare Agency would make “serious trouble” (p. 37) which could possibly slow down or halt their business activities. They mailed 6000 cards, advising their followers to write their Senators regarding the “Orphan” Bill. (p. 37) The Holts wholeheartedly believed that they were working God’s will rather than selfishly fulfilling their own stubborn wants. Harry used Samuel 2:8 to affirm his activities: “Surely He raiseth the poor out of the dust and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set him among princes and to make them inherit the throne of glory.” (p. 36) He believed that adopted children were “the first fruits of this Christian labor of love.” (p. 39) In contrast, however, the well-being of Korean families were not considered. The Holts focused solely on giving the children to wanting and waiting couples.
How did Mexican authorities react when Harry asked if he could send the children to North America?
Harry also traveled to Mexico to see if there were “orphans” available (p. 39), but the Mexican authorities were “insulted” when he asked if he could send the children to North America (p. 40). Eventually, he found a governor who was favorable to the idea. He also traveled to Germany and Austria but was unsuccessful there (p. 40). Upon returning from a worldwide search, he decided to build a compound in Mexico within that year. (p. 41)
During the first few years, the Holts continuously introduced extensions to the Refugee Act and the Orphan Bill. Once during this time, Harry blew up at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul for their delays in issuing proxy adoption visas. (pp. 51-52) Seventy waiting Christian couples had already paid their fees. The Holts mailed 92 letters from people who had already adopted. Only 22 visas were issued on October 22, but on Oct. 31, the Holt team still managed to take 80 Korean children. (pp. 51-52)
What was Holt’s ‘Glad” file, and why was it so important?
The Holt’s “Glad” file (consisting of records showing processed adoptions) expanded to five filing drawers in their home office. (p. 62) When an American newspaper included a photo of an adopted and barefoot Korean boy eating from a paper plate and sitting on the ground of his American home, Harry told Bertha, “never let anyone in Korea see the picture.” (p. 72) Ultimately he feared the Koreans would stop allowing the children overseas because the child was pictured barefoot. (In today’s advertising campaign geared to potential parents and financial donors, the children are shown smiling with their new parents. It is also interesting to note that in many cases, the wanting couples are led to believe the child belongs to them even before obtaining the child. This is the agency’s deceptive way to get the couple emotionally attached prior to receiving the child so that the couple will pay “whatever it takes” to follow through with the adoption. Big bright, and beautiful photos of children are shown in Holt’s marketing campaign, but rarely happy children with their Asian families. (Some might consider this type of advertising as propaganda)
The Holt team prepared and mailed 3500 New Year greetings, finding this an effective way to gain a solid following and gain requests for more children. (p. 78) By the end of 1958, the Holts had joyfully sent 1069 Korean children to foreign Christian couples. (pp. 79-80)
1959 Counseling More Mothers
By the winter of 1959, the Holt compound grew to 7000 square feet, including multiple buildings. 50 Koreans had been trained to help, and Bertha boasted many American adopters asked for a second child after receiving the first one. The Holts were “flooded” with phone calls, and nothing seemed to discourage Bertha–not even an article reporting “bad” adoption cases such as death. (pp. 44, 45, 66, 68) Instead, she praised that controversy brought “an avalanche of inquiries” from interested people. (p. 81)
That same winter, the Holt’s biological daughter wrote that their Korean liaison did a “good job” talking to mothers when they went to the country in search of children. (p. 82) The Holts would introduce themselves, give a reason for the visit, hand out a religious brochure and preach such stories as “Buddha’s bones are still in his grave, but Jesus’ grave is empty.” (p. 87) Sometimes, the team might show photos of smiling Korean children with Caucasian families and then ask the Korean mother if she had ever thought of letting her child go to America. Molly wrote that the mothers had always admitted to thinking about it. That particular May, Bertha reported that 20 “quietly sobbing” mothers watched their children leave for the states by airplane. (p. 88) Bertha documented how another Korean mother remained calm while signing the paperwork but “sobbed convulsively” as the Holts pulled away and her child waved good-bye. (p. 88)
How many children died in Holt’s compound?
Bertha’s accounts at the Holt compound cause us to become disturbed over the number of children who died in their care. Were the children really orphans? We wonder why the Holts did not suggest for the Korean parents to help wean and tend to their children in their commune. For example, it is mentioned by 1959 that 85 children died. Was this death rate higher than normal? Could the deaths have been prevented if the Korean parents had been allowed inside the commune and involved with their children’s care?
At times, it is mentioned that the Holts admitted children to the compound even without acquiring written permission from parents. For instance, they took a child from a grandmother and from the orphanage superintendent based on his fear that the child’s mother would “sell her as a slave” because the child’s father was an African-American. No proof of this fear was ever given, and the child was taken into the compound. (p. 89)
The Holts use their evangelical friends to peruse and pursue more children, scouring the country regularly to promote their program in neighboring orphanages and by talking with fellow administrators. Their efforts expanded to any area they could reach. Harry even traveled to Baja, California, where he hoped to find children who “might be made adoptable” after a flood had hit the town. (p. 100) Instead of looking for extended family members who could provide care, the Holts hurried to devastated or rural areas with plans to immediately send children to waiting couples who had paid the fees.
Why was it so critical that the Holt’s maintain that they did not ‘sell’ children but rather provided a ‘service’?
The Holts wanted to make a clear distinction between them and other agencies. They would maintain that they did not “sell” children but rather provided a “service” of obtaining children for wanting couples. The November Newsletter of 1959 became Holt’s first official regular mailer, in which children are continuously called “orphans.” (Today, they are called children “served”) The current news of the day was that the Mexican Government did not allow resident missionaries. The Holts had found a way into the country by working with the “orphans,” thereby “preaching” with their actions. At this time, the Holts planned to provide care to pregnant women via what they called “unwed” mothers with “illegitimate” children. Their hope was to provide services “through this difficult time” of pregnancy.
In December of 1959, Harry wrote home concerning his idea of sending “our orphans” to Paraguay, a country he believed to be “begging for immigrants,” with plans to start a “colony with girls” due to having a friend who owned “several thousand acres.” (p. 101)
1960-1964 “House Slaves”
The Holts found that using fellow Christians to further their program was an effective way to distribute awareness of their work, gain money and expand their practices. In January of 1960, the Holts received $7000 in donations from Newsletter recipients and others. (p. 108) In the Fall Newsletter, Bertha wrote her interpretation of Korean culture, spreading false information, generalities, and stereotypes to their readership. One such sweeping statement told by Bertha was that since “orphan girls” were without fathers, “no one will want to marry her.” (p. 118) This motivated Mr. Holt to start a “teenage program” for older females where the girls would “work eight hours, cooking, cleaning, serving, helping in the office, or with babies and children, or at various other tasks.” (p. 118) She wrote, “They attend an adult school in the afternoon until 9:00 P.M.” This program, in the eyes of Holts, would prevent the girls from becoming “house slaves.” (p. 118)
That year ended with the Holts sending out 4000 New Year’s Greetings with 2580 Newsletter to their American supporters. (p. 124) In the West, the Holts were hailed as modern-day saints. A made-for-television movie, and several newspaper and magazine articles helped to increase the family’s wealth and boost their reputation.
How did Bertha describe the Korean teenagers in the commune?
Summer of 1961, Bertha and the children moved to South Korea to join Harry. (p. 133) Bertha experienced firsthand life at the commune. One day that summer, she mentioned that Harry had “wasted” an entire day waiting for a toddler “whose mother didn’t bring her.” (p. 139) A few days later, Bertha reported that the Korean teenagers were becoming more disrespectful, refusing to carry out “orders,” and even forming a “self-government,” leading their own. (p. 139) By fall, Bertha complained in her diary that they had even more teenagers who refused to work. She wrote, “Now we had 100 teenage girls who were a big headache.” (p. 143)
What were the scare tactics the Holts used to influence the Korean children?
January of 1963, the Holts held “evangelistic meetings” four nights a week at their compound. One sermon asked whether the listener would go to heaven or hell. (pp. 179-180) Scare tactics? The isolated Korean children were solely under the influence of the Holts and their evangelists. The Holts got licensed to operate an agency in Oregon. By this time, they had transported 2734 Korean children overseas. (p. 180) Summer of 1963, the Holts sent out 4000 additional Newsletters to their American supporters. (p. 180)
What was Bertha Holt’s hope for every adopted child?
In 1964, ten years after the Holts first became motivated to visit Korea and take eight Amerasian children for their family and thousands of full-blooded Korean children for fellow Christians, the Holts had finally run out of wanting Christian families. (p. 199) Instead of stopping their activities (that began with the intent to give children to Christians only), they “reluctantly” changed their policy to allow NonChristians to adopt. Bertha ended her book, writing that this change was of great controversy back then and still today. (p. 199) She prayed “even more earnestly that every adopted child would become a born-again Christian.” Harry Holt died in April 1964.
For the Love of Children
Bertha Holt tirelessly continued adoption work, accumulating at least forty awards in her lifetime. She is so revered and renowned in the West that there is even an elementary school named after her. This tenacious woman passed away in August of 2000. Harry and Bertha Holt did not only find new families for children but also changed the laws worldwide to allow children to be dislocated from parents easily and economically. A total of 157,145 South Korean children were removed from their families between 1958 and 2005. For every child, there are several family members who are impinged upon for the rest of their lives. No adoptee that I know of have been given their parents’ death certificates, proving our status as orphans as claimed by the agencies.
Read: Were 200,000 Korean Adoptees labeled as “orphans” in order to be processed for international adoption?
The Holts have penetrated their practices into countries all over the world. Holt International’s 2005 Annual Report shows that with the help of their partners, they have “served” 47,942 children just for that year. That same year, it’s interesting to note, Holt International received almost $20 million dollars in revenues and other support. Adoption agencies have already established businesses in one hundred countries. Rather than advocating family counseling, support, and resources (which would have made less profit–although they now show an attempt due to being scrutinized), the agencies get paid very well when they send the child overseas. Their non-profit status helps to deceive the public into believing they are providing a service for everyone involved. While it was intended for the adopted children to live utopian lives, how are the parents left behind still coping?
How are the Mothers Today?
The Holt agency has a published book called To my Beloved Baby: Writings of Birth Mothers, which cannot be found in the U.S. Unlike the stereotypical birth mother, these women were not teens like the public has been led to believe. These mothers believed they had no right to offer their own “inferior” love to their babies. These modest women assumed that they would receive God’s blessing for releasing their children to the agency as if it was GOD who had arranged for their babies to be placed with a more “admirable” family. Sadly, these mothers assumed their children would come back for them. One mother shared how the doctor, nurse, and birth father tried to reassure her decision to relinquish her rights by reminding her she needed to be “cheery” for when her child returned as an adult. (Mothers, 2005) A false promise? Another 32-year-old mother told of how she cried for days after leaving her baby with Holt. (Mothers, 2005) A 37-year-old mother confided that the pastor had named her son out of the hope that the baby would be a follower of Jesus. (Mothers, 2005) Another mother cried, “Why did you take after your unworthy mother?” (Mothers, 2005) Counseling sessions led her to believe her baby might have an easier life by being adopted abroad, so she chose that route. (Mothers, 2005) These mothers hoped they were doing the “right” thing in conjunction with the agency’s religious beliefs.
Did the Korean parents know they were relinquishing all rights from ever having a future contact or a reunion? Did the agency educate them on the long-term ramifications and impact of sending their child overseas? Were these vulnerable mothers given a pressure-free choice?
Using a belief that God had ordained the Holts (and still does) to move children to “new” and “improved” families, the Holts have radically changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of families and children worldwide and continue to do so. This article is dedicated to all adoptees who have committed suicide, including one of Holt’s adopted sons, Joe (1984), and another Korean-born adoptee (Eric Lew Jones) sent to the infamous Christian cult leader Jim Jones (best known for inducing his 900 followers to drink cyanide-laced Flavor Aid, which led to their death). May these two young men and all families separated by adoption be nurtured by the Great Mother of the Universe.
Bertha Holt, Bring My Sons From Afar, Holt Children’s Services, Eugene, Oregon, 1986
Writings of Birth Mothers, To My Beloved Baby, Holt Children’s Services, Seoul, South Korea, 2005
Mark Baker, The Register-Guard, Children Changing Lives,” OregonLife, 2006
What are adopted people saying today from South Korea about their adoption experiences? Find out here.
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