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Published Wednesday June 24th, 2009 at 12:20pm

Original Article by Ed Kemp

Margaret Harless holds a photo of her German family: her birth mother, Lena Jerlitschka, with her granddaughter Nicole and great-granddaughters Fabienne and Amelie.
Margaret Harless has always known this story. It's about an unusual gift. It involves a single German woman, an American couple and a heart-wrenching decision made on an Air Force base in Kaiserslautern, Germany, in 1954. The woman - a poor, unmarried housemaid on the base - gave her 6-week-old daughter to a soldier and his wife, who both believed they could not have kids.

The gift didn't occur under a veil of secrecy or under the cover of night, but face-to-face through the arrangement of the base chaplain. When it was given, the parties involved went their separate ways.

Harless has thought about this story often, because she was that child and her adopted parents never shielded this knowledge from her.

But what entirely happened in the moment of that gift, the face of the woman who gave it and what became of her afterward - has been a mystery to Harless.

Until now.

Growing up

Harless was born July 10, 1954. She lived in Germany briefly before moving back to the United States with her adopted parents, Barney and Victoria Barnett. She lived the typical uprooted life of a military child. When she was 10, her father retired and settled in Biloxi.

Along the way she gained a brother, Barney Jr. - the child her adopted parents never thought they could have - born two years after her.

Throughout her childhood, Harless said her parents balanced their honesty about her adoption with a love that treated her no differently than if she had been theirs by birth.

"They always told me, 'You're very special because we picked you out. We didn't have to take you,' " Harless recalls with a laugh. "I never felt like I was missing anything."

But Harless also wanted to know the person who, according to her parents, had given her up because she couldn't afford to keep her and wanted a better life for her daughter.

She didn't pursue this desire during the life of her parents. Though they were outwardly supportive of any attempts to locate her birth mother, Harless said she believed different feelings lay beneath the surface.

"I don't think my mom was too keen on it. My dad was all for it, but then you have a different relationship with your dad, so I never did pursue it hard ... I didn't want to take a chance on hurting her. She didn't deserve that," Harless said.

So the years passed. Hurricane Camille in 1969 blew her family north to Moselle and property owned by her grandmother, on which Harless lives to this day. She married her husband, Johnny, when she was 17 and raised three children before attending Jones County Junior College to become a licensed practical nurse in 1982.

In 1993, Barney died. In 2001, Victoria followed.

Now retired, and encouraged by a cousin with an interest in genealogy, Harless decided to search for her mother in earnest. Her adoption papers, she hoped, would supply the key. They told where and when she was born, as well as her mother's maiden name: Maria Magdalena Jerlitschka.

Searches in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and the Web site produced nothing. A Jerlitschka had immigrated to New York City in 1913. That was it.

In November 2008, she tried the Web site - Harless recalls that even as she submitted her search form, she felt hopelessness.

"I got up from the computer and said 'I'm never going to see her. Nothing's going to come of this. Nothing. I will see her when I die.'

"I felt like I put a message in a bottle and threw it in the Atlantic Ocean. I promptly forgot it. I really did. I gave up all hope."

Wonders of technology

But something did come of Harless' message in a bottle. And, as it turned out, Harless nearly ensured that she never knew it.

At the other end of her submission was Angela Shelley, an American woman living in Germany whose career is to reunite American adoptees with their Germany birth families.

Shelley took the data supplied by Harless and performed the first step of investigation: She opened the phone book.

What she found was the name Maria Jerlitschka and made the phone call to find her alive and well and eager to make contact with her lost daughter.

There was one problem: During that time, Harless had switched from a landline to a cell phone service, switching e-mail accounts in the process.

So when Shelley attempted to bring the tidings of good news through a phone call, a telephone voice told her it was not possible. She next tried her luck with several Internet search engines to no avail.

Then she tried Facebook.

Harless' daughter, Julie Harless-McCorkle, a dental hygienist in McKinney, Texas, remembers getting the phone call from her mother about the strange Facebook messages she was getting.

The chain of events had started with a friend request from a person with the curious name of "Germany." It progressed to a message from a woman named Angela stating that she had spoken to her birth mother and was trying to locate her.

For Harless, who had pushed completely out of her mind, what was transpiring was bewildering and frightening.

"She was scared at first - you know 'was it real?' " McCorkle said. "Of course, we were all concerned."

Worried that her mom might be getting scammed, McCorkle found her fears allayed when she made contact with Shelley and quickly learned something remarkable was unfolding.

"It was amazing; I was just thrilled for her (her mother) that this opportunity had come about at last," she said.

An end

Now Harless safeguards every word from her mother, secured in plastic sleeves in a binder in her Moselle home. These letters fill the vacuum of more than 50 years and tell of a life and family she has never known.

That after working on the Air Force base for 13 years, her mother worked in an Opel car factory for another 12 years, before illness forced her to retire.

That her mother is 84 and has a daughter, Rosalinde, and two granddaughters, Nicole and Tanja.

That she cried very hard on the day Harless' parents picked her daughter up.

The letters Harless has received confirm truths told to her by her adopted parents - truths that started her on her journey in the first place.

"They always told me, 'You know your mother loved you very much. She loved you enough to give you to us to have a better life. A chance,' " she said. "I always believed that - I never had any reason not to. And one of the good things about finding her is that was the truth."

They've also brought fuller detail to the story she's always known of her adoption.

"When she (Jerlitschka) handed me over to my (adopted) mom, my (adopted) mom put her arms around her and made her a promise that she would always take care of me and provide a good home," Harless said. "And my birth mother said (in a letter) that 'I've been holding on to that promise all of these years.' "

Harless and Jerlitschka have corresponded; they have just started talking on the phone. In July, they will take the final step towards reuniting as Harless visits Germany to see her mother and her family with her daughter and granddaughter Emily.

"We've just started this journey," Harless said.

It's a journey that will include trying to find out more about her father, an American soldier who was transferred to the United States before Jerlitschka knew she was pregnant.

"It's like a door opened, and now I need to go all the way through it and see where it goes," Harless said.