Message left in a family painting solves a family mystery

A painting in my grandparents’ living room will never leave my memory. As a child, I wondered why my grandparents had such a huge painting of a Russian religious monument along the river that runs through Kiev.

My mom only could tell me that my grandfather paid an artist to duplicate a postcard he kept from his birthplace. I wish he could have told me which church his parents had him baptized.

Today, I learned a clue was in that painting. Last week, I started to get anxious again to find my grandfather’s baptism record. My researcher Nikita Kovalchuk suggested looking at records from a church named St. Vladimir near the street where my grandfather lived before the war.

I thought to myself what is the chance that the painting of St. Volodymyr (also a name for Vladimir) and that my uncle being named Vladimir were connected to the church where my grandfather was baptized.

Then, this afternoon I got an e-mail message from Nikita that he found a record. I was thinking he found a random person carrying my grandfather’s surname but he really found my grandfather’s baptism record.

Finally, the mystery is closed thanks to seeing that the name Vladimir had an importance to my grandfather. The biggest surprise in the baptism record was my grandfather’s birth date.

Every document I have on my grandfather has his birth date as March 21. My mother never heard of her father’s birthday being another day. So it came to be a surprise that the baptism record lists his birth date as March 8.

Then I realized that maybe my grandfather acknowledged the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. This website confirmed that my grandfather’s birth date on his immigration records is his adjusted birth date.

Another surprise in the baptism record is that my great-grandparents had a peasant woman from their birth village serve as the godmother. Why would a peasant travel almost 240 miles to a baptism unless she was a relative?

My researcher in Russia’s Kursk Region didn’t pickup this surname for one of my direct ancestors from these great-grandparents. Then I looked at the transcribed church records for these great-grandparents and the peasant’s surname is noticed several times for godparents of both great-grandparents’ relatives. My great-grandparents’ marriage also was witnessed by a man with the same surname.

This baptism record may have confirmed that one of my direct ancestors carries this surname. Maybe this simple record has opened the door for even more research in Kursk Region. It is amazing what determination to find one record will return as a gift. shakes off the fluff in my DNA matches

I was giggling when I heard would readjust its criteria for determining DNA matches. The announcement came that some people would lose a lot of their matches. must have been talking about me.  I had close to 5,000 matches yesterday.  Today, (let’s all giggle together) I have 387 matches. Do the math and you’ll see I have lost 92 percent of my “matches”.

I am not surprised. After all,’s database only includes Americans.  It doesn’t sell DNA tests abroad. I am pretty unique as an American.

My parents were born in Russia and Ukraine and all of my great-grandparents were born in Russia. One great-grandmother was born in Russia, where it is now eastern Poland, but her roots were German from current day Poland.

I hardly fit the profile of a typical Ancestry DNA customer. I can easily guess that most customers have ancestry from western Europe and British Isles.

So surprise, surprise I don’t have any matches closer than 5th to 8th cousins. I have 7 matches with high confidence, 93 matches with good confidence and 287 matches with moderate confidence to people predicted as my 5th to 8th cousins.

Before Ancestry DNA’s readjustments in making matches more accurate, I had mostly 5th to 8th cousin matches with low and very low confidence levels. I also had so many more “matches” to people with Russian and Ukrainian ancestry.

My 100 matches to people with Russian and Ukrainian ancestry has been knocked down to 29 matches to those with Russian ancestors and 12 matches to people with Ukrainian ancestors.

I should be happy to have almost 400 matches but then I took a closer look at my matches’ trees- 66 matches have locked their trees, 94 matches haven’t linked their accounts to trees and 49 matches have trees with less than 50 people. knows many of its customers are annoyed with a noticeable number of DNA members not posting trees or having locked trees. It has introduced a new tool.

Straight from’s website: “DNA Circles are the latest way to discover who you’re related to—even if you aren’t DNA matches. Each DNA Circle you’re part of is based on one of your direct-line ancestors. It will include everyone who has that ancestor in their family tree and has DNA evidence that links them to you or someone else in the circle. In other words, a circle includes all the identified genetic descendants of a particular person. It’s a great way to discover cousins you never knew you had.”

We’ll see if this will have an impact on making closed off customers to share their trees.

After these changes to Ancestry DNA, I am happy I got the Ancestry DNA test for free three years ago as part of the beta group. I have gained nothing from the Ancestry DNA test.

I still believe it is worthwhile to get the test if you are looking for American cousins or your Russian or Ukrainian relatives came to the USA no later than the early 1900s. I don’t have much hope in this test for people such as me who are descendants of people who came to America during World War II and the 1950s and have family mostly abroad.

Anyone looking for Russian and Ukrainian cousins whose family never left their homeland or immigrated to other European countries, Australia, Canada and USA should try the Family Finder test at Family Tree DNA. If only sold its DNA test abroad, the potential for people such as me would grow daily like a weed in a rain forest.

Related post:

A Russian-American’s insider view of the Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder Test




Find my family village. Hold your genealogy horses!

One of the biggest mistakes in genealogy is rushing to the next step without doing all your research. Too many times, I hear people rushing into finding their family’s village well before their research is done.

Rush into this major step, you could feel like a horse led into an empty barn at feeding time.

Too many people assume when they have family stories and a few documents, that will be enough to start research in the family village.

In genealogy, you can’t research too much, especially with the factors involved when dealing with immigrants. Not many immigrants understood immigration officials when they arrived in their new homeland. Maybe some immigrants understood the language of their new country but officials could have misunderstood them or been confused by the stress of processing immigrants.

Then, immigrants had to document their lives in their new homeland on documents in a new language. Sometimes it wasn’t easy or cheap to find help in properly filling out the forms.

I have different birthplaces and birth dates for some relatives. Luckily, I’ve done my research to confirm those details. In some cases, I spent money and time in researching records in the wrong place.

There is nothing like being annoyed at yourself that you should have known better or some know-it-all relative saying with a big grin,  “Boy, you really screwed up. Hope it didn’t cost you too much money.”

So here’s how you can earn some bragging rights for uncovering the mysterious family village. Follow these suggestions and you can restart or start your search with more confidence and success.

1. Interview the oldest relatives in your family. If relatives say, “I don’t know much.” Then say, “Please tell me what you remember.” Even if relatives can’t remember very specific details, try getting details such as closeness to another country’s border, big city or another region. Someone else could help you knock down the not-so-specific details to more concise information.

2. Learn about the family’s religion, class and profession. Not all Russians and Ukrainians are Orthodox or Jewish. The other religions are Old Believers, Russian Baptist, Catholic and Lutherans (mainly Germans living in the Russian Empire).

2. Get all possible immigration documents. Here are the records you should consider obtaining if your relatives came to the USA: petition for naturalization, application for immigration visa and alien registration, ship passenger record, declaration of intention for naturalization and Alien Case File.

3. If your family came to the USA in the early 1900s to 1950, I highly suggest paying $20 for an index search request at to see which immigration records are available on your family.

4. If your family was held in German concentration camps or labor camps during World War II, make a free search request with International Tracing Service.

5. If your family escaped the Soviet Union during World War II by using German ancestry to relocate to Germany, search for your family here under data category “war records”. This database will tell you whether there are Einwanderungszentralstelle files (goldmine for genealogy research) on your relatives that you can obtain at U.S. national archives in College Park, Maryland.

6. If your relatives married, served in the military or died outside of the Russian Empire or USSR, I would recommend obtaining their marriage, military and death records. Those records could have the family village.

Once you have attempted to collect this information, it is time to research the family village. It is important to remember that just like many  other countries, too many names of towns and villages duplicate in Russia and Ukraine and some names for towns and villages change over time.

If you are not familiar with Russian or Ukrainian, use Google Translate to translate keywords for search engines. Information in Russian or Ukrainian are likely to be more bountiful than English.

This all seems a bit much for one piece of information, but the cost for researching family in Russia and Ukraine can run pricey. Investing hope and money on the right village will have great returns.

Interesting results with making myself a twin on Family Tree DNA

Out of curiosity, I decided to transfer my DNA autosomal data to Family Tree DNA. That is nothing unusual until you know I already took the  Family Tree DNA Family Finder test.

I read on the forum for 23andme, another DNA genealogy testing company, about a guy who submitted two tests of himself and found different results. So I decided for $39 to give this experiment a try. I don’t think Family Tree DNA wants many people duplicating themselves in its database.

When I  saw my free 20 matches, I recognized all the matches from my current Family Tree DNA Family Finder test. The information given for each match was the first initial and last name, estimated relationship and amount of shared DNA data. If there were a new person in the matches, I wouldn’t be able to contact them. The e-mail addresses are not provided with the free 20 matches.

I got lured into paying $39 for the full transfer because I was promised “more than 101 matches” would be unlocked. That would mean that I would have 121 matches from my twin account. My other account has 91 matches.

The joke was on me when I finally got all my matches 48 hours later. My twin account only picked up nine more matches, not the 30 I was expecting. All of my new matches are 5th-remote cousins and have Russian and other eastern European ancestry.

One surprising theme among the duplicate matches is that those matches were slightly weaker than from my original Family Finder test. I somehow had slightly fewer DNA chromosomes in common with my mother, aunt, uncle and my other duplicate matches.

I am still annoyed that I got much fewer matches than promised, but maybe this duplicate account will pick up some great matches as time goes on. Anyone who hasn’t done the Family Finder Test but has tested through 23andme and AncestryDNA should at least try the free transfer to see the first 20 matches.

Current Family Tree DNA customers could try transferring their DNA data from 23andme and AncestryDNA for the curiosity. At $39, I think it is still worth the price for my small number of new DNA matches. The regular transfer fee of $69 is not what I’m willing to give up for a few more matches.

Minor traffic violation leads to a pile of immigration records

My grandfather wasn’t too thrilled when he was cited for riding his bike without a working light at night in 1947 when he lived in Germany. The pile of papers that accumulated due to this minor traffic violation is beyond words.

I contacted International Tracing Service last year to obtain records about my grandfather’s time as a POW of the German army during WWII. The agency maintains records of  persecution, forced labor and the Holocaust of Germany’s Nazi era. My luck was that ITS couldn’t find  his POW records.

Then yesterday, I got an e-mail message with “your grandfather” in the subject line. I was thinking this was a scam message until I recognized ITS’ e-mail address. The attached file had 43 pages of records that documented  my grandfather’s life in  Germany and his application process for immigration.

After I looked over these documents, a few mysteries were finally solved. Some of the records my grandmother had kept shows my grandfather was born in the same eastern Poland town as his mother-in-law. It didn’t make sense how the information could get so twisted.

Now, I understand my grandfather was trying to prevent his family from being forced back to the USSR. My grandmother was grabbed twice so she could be returned to the USSR but my grandfather got her back before her truck left. Claiming Polish citizenship in documents would keep my family safe from repatriation.

I also wondered whether my mom correctly remembered the path her family traveled when they escaped Kiev in 1943. The records from ITS confirms her information and completes the story by adding another German town to the journey.

These records also show the effort it took to get approved for immigration. I wondered how long it took for my grandfather to get that important yes.

My grandmother kept records showing Argentina rejected my family for immigration. From ITS’ records, I learned that my grandfather also applied for immigration to Canada months after the war ended. My grandfather must have applied for immigration to Argentina next.

His luck arrived in 1949 when he applied for immigration to the USA. My grandfather didn’t give up easily on his dream for his family to have a better life.

These documents also answered why my family was identified as Polish immigrants on a ship passenger list when they arrived in the USA. My grandfather had changed his wife’s and daughter’s birthplaces to Poland on some records while other records had the real birthplace of Kiev. My grandfather also made the same change to his marriage location. Placing the wrong nationality on the passenger list was an easy mistake to make when immigration officials had so many records to review.

The mistakes in birth dates and spelling of names show the imperfect science involved in documenting people during a world war. I was amazed by the number of spellings German officials used for my family’s Russian names. Luckily, I gave three versions of my grandfather’s full name and that probably helped in getting these documents, which were free.

Anyone who had foreign-born family living in Germany during the war should check whether ITS has any family records. ITS has provided me with more records than U.S. national archives on my grandfather.

Nothing like a 1930 gambling arrest to help solve a mystery

For three months, I have been stuck in how to help a woman find her great-grandfather’s brother who came to America in the early 1900s. Nothing I searched on Google nor would lead me to her relative.

Then, I noticed just this week that updated the 1920 U.S. Census records. Just out of curiosity, I searched for the man in the new records.

I hit the jackpot when I noticed an address for a man with the same name, birth year, birth place and arrival year as the man I am searching. The address was three blocks away from where my man got caught illegally gambling 10 years later. Personal details in the census record  for this man matched the information provided in the alien registration form I obtained from the USCIS Genealogy Program.

So I followed this man’s family to the 1930 Census. I finally found the family living at an address mentioned in the alien registration form.

That gambling arrest made it possible to find this man. He did not stand out among the other men with the same name and birth year who came from Russia in the early 1900s until I found the address near the place of his gambling arrest.

The mystery of where this family went after the 1940 Census is just that. The four children of my man have such common first names, along with a very common surname. I can’t find any of their birth records. Tracking down those children will involve more detective work.

I was stuck once again until I realized the oldest child was born in Russia. That means that she likely applied for American citizenship to make life easier. Or maybe the genealogy gods already know she avoided naturalization by marrying an American man.

So I searched every way possible to find her naturalization records. Nothing, of course, is available on Then I searched for her mother and several women with the same name, birth year and birthplace were found.

Luckily, the mother applied for naturalization when she lived at one of the three addresses her husband listed on his alien  registration form. I am waiting for an answer from US national archives to see whether her naturalization records are available.

Thanks to the research I’ve done on my family, I know these records will likely have the birth dates, birthplaces and addresses of her adult children when she applied for naturalization.

I am crossing my fingers that a few more details on these children will lead me to living grandchildren of the married couple who came with so many dreams to America.

Here’s to another year of adventures

It’s been three years since I decided to share my journey of researching my Russian and Ukrainian family. I’ve had some incredible successes while I still face some major brick walls.

Just in this past year, I finally found the birthplace of my grandmother’s oldest brother, saw my grandfather’s grave in southern Russia on my birthday and met another paternal Russian cousin on Facebook.

This all happened because I forced myself outside of my comfort zone and started using Russian language forums a few years ago. I am daughter of a Russian and an Ukrainian but I cannot type a Russian sentence on my own. Russian is not an easy language to learn.

Thanks to Google Translate, I have gone farther than I expected in my research from the convenience of my home. A lot of my information on my family I have uncovered through strangers in Russia and Ukraine has been free. Even more information was obtained at prices much lower than would be charged in the English-speaking world.

I am excited by what this coming year has awaiting for me. I have spread numerous posts on many Russian forums that will be discovered by the right people at unexpected times.

Results in Russian and Ukrainian genealogy research doesn’t all come from fancy professional researchers. It’s mostly about the effort you put in and how much you challenge yourself.

I thank you for being interested in my journey. I wish you success in your journey and encourage you to contact me at bepa.miller at when you get stuck.