A couple in Poland have tracked down the biological son they never knew existed, 34 years after his birth.
In 2016, Elżbieta and January Zieliński’s learned the tragic news that the person they believed to be their son had died in a fire at the age of 30. A subsequent DNA test revealed, however, that he was in fact not related to them.
A four-year search, and some help from internet sleuths, has now led them to find the child that Elżbieta actually gave birth to over three decades ago.
Po 34 latach odnaleźli biologicznego syna. "Cała rodzina jest w szoku" – mówi nam pani Elżbieta. https://t.co/K85Go8pybW
— PolsatNews.pl (@PolsatNewsPL) August 7, 2020
Elżbieta gave birth by caesarean section under full anaesthesia in a hospital in the city of Radom in May 1986. Several hours later, she was presented with a baby she was told was her son, whom the couple named Maciej.
The baby’s behaviour, however, worried Elżbieta and January. He refused to drink breast milk and was constantly agitated, with concerns growing during his childhood.
He also bore few physical similarities to the rest of the family – with a darker complexion and slim body – and had little in common with his brothers, Wojciech and Grzegorz.
“Maciej was different,” recalled Elżbieta, speaking to TVN in 2018. “The difference was visible in everything: in interests, in behaviour. He felt bad in our family. He did not want to be with us at family celebrations; he was constantly running away somewhere.”
“I explained to myself that it could be genes from the extended family,” added January. “It never occurred to me that he might not be my biological son.”
During high school, more serious problems arose. Maciej began to play truant from school, and took up smoking, alcohol and drugs. He ended up in rehab, but quickly relapsed. When he turned 30, he decided to leave the family home, becoming homeless.
In autumn 2016, police informed Elżbieta and January that two homeless men had died in a fire in a vacant house in Radom. There were suspicions that one of the men was Maciej, although his body had been so badly burnt that DNA testing was needed to confirm his identity.
It was then that the couple discovered there was no DNA match to January. Further tests revealed that the man was also unrelated to Elżbieta. Traces on Maciej’s clothes, however, confirmed that he had been brought up by the couple.
Rodzina państwa Zielińskich dopiero po 34 latach dowiedziała się, że syn, którego wychowywali, nie jest ich biologicznym dzieckiem. Prawda wyszła na jaw po pożarze.
— tvn24 (@tvn24) August 7, 2020
“It was a shock to me and my family,” Elżbieta told TVN. “I lost a loved one, and at the same time I found out about a person who may be missing somewhere, who perhaps subconsciously feels that something is wrong in his life. I started to think about my child who is somewhere, somewhere alive.”
It is still uncertain how the mix-up happened. A few months after Maciej’s death, the couple returned to the Radom hospital to try to find their biological son, but were told all documentation was destroyed after 10 years.
Elżbieta Cieślak, spokeswoman for the hospital, says they are not planning to provide any further comment. “We have decided to leave the assessment of the case to the institutions established for this purpose,” she added, quoted by TVN24.
According to Polsat News, the case could not be investigated by prosecutors because the statute of limitations had expired, whilst the justice ministry was also unable to intervene.
“However, I decided not to give up, because the thought that my child lives somewhere in the world is haunting me,” Elżbieta told Polsat. “I do not want to disturb his peace or his family, I just want to know if he is happy.”
In June, the Zielińskis decided to publicise the case on a popular Facebook group, “Lost Years Ago” (Zaginieni przed laty), that seeks to resolve missing-person cases.
Within a few weeks, sleuths among the page’s 170,000 followers had located a suspected match. At the end of July, he was confirmed to be the Zielińskis’ biological son.
A representative of the Facebook page did not reveal how exactly the man had been identified, but told Radio Dla Ciebie that “all possible children who were born that day were checked”.
“We are shocked; it is a great surprise,” Elżbieta told Polsat. “Because of the second family that raised my biological child, I cannot say much. They don’t know about anything yet, and we’ve agreed that they should find out from their son.”
The discovery will be “a huge burden for the other family”, according to psychotherapist Violetta Nowacka. “It is a double loss, because they found out that the person they lived with was not their biological son, and that their real son died.”
Elżbieta and January are yet to meet their son in person, but are considering reporting the case to law enforcement. However, lawyer Maria Wentlandt-Walkiewicz says it could be difficult to prove where the mistake occurred.
“The passage of time may make the proceedings more difficult, but it is by no means a barrier to proving where and at what moment the children were exchanged,” she told TVN24.
A similar case was reported in 2009. In 1984, three baby girls – two twin sisters, Edyta and Kasia, and another child, Nina – were admitted to a hospital in Warsaw. During their stay, Edyta and Nina were switched and given back to the wrong parents.
The girls grew up only a few kilometres apart, and Edyta was regularly told she had a “body double” living close by. After meeting Kasia in person, the mix-up was revealed. Following a court case, the families received nearly two million zloty in compensation.
The father of the twins, Andrzej Ofmański, called the situation a “tragedy”, and claimed his wife had suffered from severe depression after discovering the mistake.