Life & Culture

My half-sister is part of my family again - after 78 years

Mark Glanville never thought he would meet the sister his mother was forced to have adopted. But a few weeks ago he received a life-changing email


Old vintage photo with retro photo frames isolated on white background.

We always knew we had a half-sister, but we had never met her. Diana was part of Mum’s life before Dad. I never felt very connected to that period, captured in black-and-white images, half-stories and obfuscations.

Mum had left Berlin for England with her family in 1932, aged 11, after her German-Jewish father was offered an exit in exchange for training up a young Nazi journalist on the Berliner Tageblatt.

By the time she gave birth to Diana, aged 23, she was married, to Oliver de Boer whom I never knew. But Oliver was not Diana’s father. Mum had had an affair with an American army officer, John de Sanctis, while her husband was off fighting the forces of the country she had escaped. Mum breastfed Diana for three months, then, under heavy pressure from her father, was forced to hand her baby over for adoption. She never saw her again, nor fully recovered from the loss.

In 1959, aged 37, Mum married again. I became her second child. She had three further children and lived to see the birth of six grandchildren before dying of dementia in 2016, at the age of 94, never knowing what had happened to her first child.

Once, after coming across the poetry anthology The English Parnassus, inscribed, “Pamela de Boer, 1943”, the year Diana was conceived, I was prompted to ask mum about her lost daughter.

“I’d love to know what happened to her, where she’s living, whether she’s married or happy,” she answered, before breaking down and crying on my shoulder. A medium told her Diana was living in Canada.

On February 11 this year, my partner Marj received the results of scans from her oncologist in a telephone call that began, “Unfortunately…”An hour later, neither of us had moved from the sofa.

Then up popped an email, forwarded from my sister Jo, with the header, ‘Diana Fay de Boer daughter of Elizabeth Pamela Manasse/de Boer’. My mother’s maiden name was Manasse. It was an email to Jo, from someone called Paolo Sacchetti, written in response to a newspaper article Jo had written about our mother: “When my mother saw the article on Pamela she decided to contact you. She has known about her adoption and origins for many years. I am contacting you because my mother Jacqueline is now 77 years old and has finally found the courage to communicate with you.”

Included in the email was a letter from Jacqueline Silbiger. This was Diana, the half-sister I thought I would never meet or know. In an accompanying photograph of herself with Paolo, I felt as though I were looking at a photo of myself as a baby with mum, so alike were mother and daughter.

Here, so soon after the oncologist’s unwelcome tidings, was momentous news I never imagined I would receive. Overwhelmed, it took me a little time to assimilate what had just happened.

In her letter, Jaqueline tells how a friend had identified Mum in the article Jo had written for the Daily Mail about the positive effects of reading to her in the late stages of dementia. Jacqueline wrote that she had been adopted by William and Margaret Silbiger, Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.

My grandfather had insisted on Diana’s adoptive parents being Jewish but ironically, out of fear of antisemitism, they had later had her baptised. Jacqueline rebelled, and at 14 chose to be Jewish, causing a scandal by refusing to go to Christian prayers.

The Silbigers never disclosed Jacqueline-Diana’s true origins to her. Margaret told her that her birth-mother had abandoned her under a bush, and when she became a rebellious teenager she told Jacqueline that her mum had been a tart.

In 1985, after a stint working for the UN in Sinai, Jacqueline returned to London and asked her adoptive mother whether she remembered her birth-mother’s name. Margaret replied that it was something like ‘beurre’. At Somerset House she discovered the De Boer file. Mum’s “soldier” had actually been a military journalist sent to record the allied landing at Caan, but he was swiftly sent back to the States in case a scandal broke.

In correspondence she saw from my grandfather, Jacqueline learnt that Mum had been “in a bad way and crying a lot so they would have to hurry up and find a family before she broke down”

In 2020, Jacqueline published a children’s book in Italian, Lo Strano Caso di Miss Tring, (The Strange Case of Miss Tring), under the pen name Jacqueline De Sanctis. In it, a wicked father forces his daughter to abandon her baby, threatening her life. A magpie steals her necklace, the only thing she had been gifted by her mother, then the necklace is magically restored to her by a whispering tree.

“I did not know when I wrote that book that I would ever find my mum,” Jacky, as I now know my half-sister, wrote to me. “My existence has been about trying to fill that deep dark hole inside of me, to placate that sense of loss. I would wander the embankment looking for someone who really loved me. I did not know it was Mother.” I sent her pages from my memoir, The Goldberg Variations, proving how much Mum had loved her. “To think that my ‘Pam Mum’ loved me so much is like a blessing,” she replied.

Writing is the necklace Mum gave Jacky. Jo’s article was the key to her discovery. She is a writer, like Jo, myself, Mum and, we now know, her American father.

Jacky’s story often uncannily echoed our own in other ways. Italy has always figured large in the Glanville family’s lives. I have lived between Puglia and London for 20 years; my brother, Toby, speaks fluent Italian and played football at youth level for Formia; my sister Liz has lived in Rome for 40 years.

Jacky now resides in Tuscany, but she also lived in Rome and, extraordinarily, even worked in the same office where Liz works today. Like Mum, Jacky had had a baby in her early twenties, to Umberto, the love of her life, whom she had met in 1967 at Ostia Lido (another coincidence, my first date with my first serious girlfriend, Paola, a Roman girl, was at Ostia Lido, in 1977).

Jacky had to cope with another dreadful loss after Umberto died in a scuba-diving accident, when Paolo, their son, was only 18 months-old. She later married Julian — an Oxford graduate, like myself — only to divorce later.

Jacky now subscribes to, “an all-inclusive, all-encompassing metaphysical take on the Infinite”. Like our mum, she has had encounters with poltergeists and other supernatural experiences. “I believe,” she says, “that there is something great, amazing and mystical that led us back to each other. A force that heals the pain no matter what. I feel it is ‘Pam Mum’ speaking to us from that loving place near God, trying to put right what went wrong.”
Mum’s final years were ravaged by dementia. There were glimpses of the sophisticated, engaging woman she had been, but clawing on to that person became increasingly difficult. Jacky has reconnected me to the shared mother she seems to resemble in so many ways, and I have gained a sister.

I wrote this article for Keren David, the JC’s features editor and she started to edit it. Then strange things began to happen.

First, two months after Jacky made contact, I received another mystic message, completely out of the blue, this time from Peter and Jane de Boer, the adopted children of my mother’s first husband, Oliver. They had been researching his past and found a strange entry on the internet which stated that he and my mother had had a child. This was clearly Jacky. How did the author of that entry know about her? Oliver, Jane told me, had converted to Catholicism at the behest of his second wife, Sibyl de la Bédoyère, who had been my mother’s former journalistic colleague. She had also cuckolded Oliver and had a child, Peter, by another man.

Then a close friend of Keren’s messaged her to say she had heard about my article through Jane, who had been her foster sister.

And then, a day later, Keren was looking at Facebook when she saw pictures of a Haggadah posted by another friend, the journalist Emily Simpson Banks. Emily had found the Haggadah as she unpacked books in her new home, and had no memory of ever having seen it before.

One of the pictures showed that the book had been presented by the Vienna Talmud Torah school on the occasion of the engagement in 1929 of Miss Florence Manches to Mr James Arthur Glanville. Could that be any relation to Mark Glanville, Keren enquired. Emily had no idea. Keren sent me a picture of the book. And yes — these were my grandparents, and now I am in touch with Emily — my second cousin —who possesses a large amount of Manches family memorabilia, including a family history by my great-uncle, Sidney.

When I asked Emily if she knew where in Eastern Europe our family came from, she sent me a few pages of Sidney’s history. After so many recent shocks and revelations, I was starting to become blasé, but this made me shiver again. The answer was Kutno in Poland, the hometown of Sholem Asch. I had only just been asked to sing at the biennial festival there in October 2023.

“This is pure proof that there is far, far more vibrating under the surface of EVERYTHING,” wrote Jacky. “To me it looks as if an invisible yet sacred hand organised all of this.”

Something else just happened out of the blue. Marj’s picture-framer introduced her to a friend who has been cured of an advanced cancer by a barely-known wonderdrug prescribed by a top oncologist.

Marj is Glaswegian, the oncologist is Scottish and the only pharmacy selling the drug Marj has now been put on is in Glasgow. Coincidence?

‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’

Who am I to argue with the Bard, or my half-sister?

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