The stolen life of a milk carton kid
Sarah-Cecilie Finkelstein was just 13 when she saw her own picture on a missing persons ad. Shocked, she came to realise that she had been abducted by her father as a toddler. Thirty years later, she and her mother are reunited and their story is being told in a new film. Simon Usborne meets the two women who missed so much.
A 13-year-old girl, sitting at a table eating cereal by herself. She doesn't understand why or how, but she will learn later that she has been a victim of child abuse, abduction and brainwashing. After a childhood on the run, she is entering adolescence in a fog of confusion and fear. But, on this morning in 1983, she is having breakfast in peace.
She scans the box of Cheerios, before her attention flicks to the milk carton. When she turns it around, she drops her spoon.
"I'd seen pictures of missing kids on milk cartons before, and always thought, 'oh, how sad - they're probably already dead'," Sarah-Cecilie Finkelstein says.
"But this time the girl in the picture was me. It was completely shocking."
She was about six in the photograph, which appeared alongside her birth name - Cecilie Finkelstein. She knew herself as Sarah (or, a few years previously, as Max, a boy she had pretended to be while living in disguise) but she looked exactly the same in the picture. Shock turned to fear.
"I got up and took the milk and poured it down the toilet," she recalls. "I was terrified. I tore the carton into little bits and threw them away, only saving the picture of me."
In those few minutes, the image transformed the way Sarah thought about what was happening to her - and who she was.
"I began to realise there must be a mother out there who loved me," she says. "I realised that I was missing, just like the other kids."
The last person Sarah wanted to see the photograph was her own father, Herbert Finkelstein. A decade earlier, when she was four, he had abused the good faith of his Norwegian ex-wife, Tone Vik Nerby to steal his daughter away for 13 years. The aftershocks that followed his decision form the basis for a short film featuring all three people in an extraordinary story of misguided love, betrayal, courage and forgiveness.
Sarah-Cecilie, now 45, has come to London from her home in New York to see the film for the first time with her mother, who lives in Oslo. The charity behind the film - Pact (Parents and Abducted Children Together) - has arranged a screening at the Houses of Parliament. Pact's founder is Catherine Meyer, whose children from her first marriage were also abducted by their father. As the film plays, Sarah-Cecilie and her mother, who is 74, hold hands.
"It was very hard to watch," Nerby says the next morning. "I wanted to dig a hole and just drop into it."
She and her daughter have come to Meyer's house near Sloane Square for their first joint interview. Meyer first met them 15 years ago in Washington, where she founded Pact while her second husband, Sir Christopher Meyer, was the British ambassador to the United States.
The three women hope that the film will increase awareness of a complex crime that authorities and courts, as well as society, still struggle to deal with.
Sarah-Cecilie's story starts in Oslo. Herbert, a Jewish chemist from New York, was living in Denmark after the breakdown of his marriage to Nerby. In 1974 he had come to Norway to spend Easter with his ex-wife and daughter. A trip to a park gave Nerby some time to prepare lunch for the family.
"It was beautiful in Oslo that day. But then the time went by. At five o'clock I called the police and asked if there had been an accident. At 6.30, I was thinking ... is it possible that he took you?" says Nerby.
Frantic calls confirmed her fears. Herbert and Cecilie were already on a flight to New York via London. He had secretly planned the abduction, even travelling to New York weeks earlier to make contacts in the Hasidic Jewish community in which he planned to hide his daughter, and slowly turn her against her own mother in what would become a one-man religious cult.
Cecilie, then aged four, understood only that she had gone on an adventure. Herbert took her to a flat in Brooklyn at the heart of a global Orthodox Jewish community.
"He leeched on to them and said, 'here I am, I want to be religious, I've been wayward and I want to raise this little daughter of mine as a Jew'," Sarah-Cecilie says.
Nerby, who is Christian by birth, had no role in the new future Herbert saw for himself and his daughter. There would be no letter or phone call -not a single message to say they were safe. He kept moving and slowly, subtly began to turn the memory of a mother into the image of a monster.
First, he told Sarah-Cecilie that she had been abandoned.
"Then it got worse," Sarah-Cecilie recalls. "He would take me to Holocaust survivor conventions and people would tell him it wasn't appropriate to take a little girl. My father would say things like, 'well they [the Nazis] were from northern Europe, you know ... and Norway is in northern Europe'."
The young girl had nightmares. As she began to forget what her mother looked like, the potential threat around her seemed to grow.
Meanwhile, in Oslo, Nerby encountered resistance among the authorities to get involved in what they dismissed as a domestic dispute.
She found solace in her work as a nursery school teacher and wrote letters and made phone calls. Two years after the abduction the Norwegian consulate in New York found Herbert and a date was set for a custody hearing. Nerby flew to America full of hope.
For a trial period, she would be allowed to see her daughter twice a week.
For the first two meetings Nerby tried to reach Cecilie behind the fearful face of Sarah, a girl she thought she knew. At the third meeting, she waited. And waited. And nobody came. Herbert had fled the city, abducting his own daughter for a second time. Nerby stayed in New York for several months in a futile search for her daughter. Before Christmas she had to return to Oslo alone.
Herbert travelled across North America with his daughter, becoming ever more paranoid and deluded. Sarah became Max for a time, with short hair and boys' clothes. Chicago, Phoenix, Miami; in the following 10 years, she would not call anywhere home for more than a few months.
Sarah-Cecilie approached adolescence as a damaged, very religious and anxious child. She developed an eating disorder and attempted suicide. When she saw herself on the milk carton, she was too fearful to do anything about it.
"The threat all along was: 'If you're found and taken back to your mum, you'll lose your religion and your culture and I'll have to go to jail - you'll lose your father,'" she recalls. Around the same time, Sarah was sexually abused by a friend of her father.
Later, when Sarah-Cecilie was 15, Herbert agreed to marry her off to an Israeli man twice her age. But she refused and a year later she left Herbert and returned to New York, to live with friends. Here, seeds of doubt took root.
"I felt this deep yearning and curiosity, this pull," she says. "I needed to know who my mother was."
Help came from an unexpected source. Sarah-Cecilie and Nerby had known Herbert's sons from his previous failed marriage, but they did not know his first move from New York to Norway, where he then met Nerby, had also been a parental abduction.
His sons, Albert and Steve, escaped and returned to their mother in New York. They found reconnection with her difficult, and then felt abandoned by their father when he disappeared with Sarah-Cecilie. In 1979, Steve slipped and fell while drunkenly climbing a mountain in a storm.
"He was 19 and very troubled," Sarah-Cecilie says. "I think he felt some guilt about not letting my mother know that my father had been planning to take me."
Years after his brother's death, when Sarah-Cecilie had fled to New York, Albert found a phone number for his stepmother and gave it to Sarah. When she was 17, she found the courage to call her mother out of nowhere. Nerby picked up the phone.
"I was so shocked," she says. "I remember I just asked you: 'How are you?'"
"I think I just said, 'oh, I'm fine'," Sarah-Cecilie says.
Hours later, Nerby was on a flight to New York. Today Sarah-Cecilie and her mother have an obvious, deep bond. But it was not easy.
"We didn't know each other and had so much pain and insecurity, yet we were so intimately connected," Sarah-Cecilie says.
Sarah-Cecilie continued to suffer depression in her twenties and spent time in hospital. She could not trust men and only found love aged 30, when she met John, a librarian who is now her husband.
A year after they met they moved to Norway, where they lived for 10 years and had two sons, Aidan (9) and Daniel (5). Her proximity to her mother helped to repair their relationship.
Sarah-Cecilie and her family now live in Long Island, where she is writing a memoir. In 2008, during a visit to New York, she met Herbert for the first time since she left him, aged 16.
"I wanted him to meet his grandson, but I was determined that I would never see him again after that," she says.
Her work with Pact softened Sarah-Cecilie's feelings. She wanted to include her father in the film, but he said he would only talk to her and not directly to camera. In the film, Herbert, now 84, shuffles around a dirty apartment. A single-bar heater keeps him warm.
"When we first saw each other we both burst into tears and gave each other a warm hug. It was beautiful in a way, but it wasn't easy," she says. "We had some big fights and I pretty much broke apart afterwards."
She says her father still doesn't seem to understand the wrongs of what he did, and has mental health problems. She has some sympathy for him, but has she forgiven him?
"I've come to terms with who he is," she says.
In Oslo, Nerby lives alone, but speaks to her growing family almost daily. As she and her daughter laugh about what a happy granny she is, Nerby suddenly turns to her daughter.
"I want you to tell the children about your father's good sides, that he did something wrong, but that he had good sides. Because it is important to know the truth."