Letter seeking relatives of early 20th century immigrants lands into federal agents’ hands

The struggle to find relatives of a woman’s great-grand uncle who immigrated to America in the early 1900s from current-day Belarus turned into a shocking twist with one phone call.

The woman who asked for my help (free, of course) e-mailed me today to see whether I received any calls or e-mail messages in response to the letter I sent in November. I went back onto the search, hoping I could get an answer about why my letter was never acknowledged.

I revisited the online phone directory where I had found the address of the woman’s great-grand uncle’s grandson.  Not sure whether the man moved or maybe his house was sold due to his death, I searched his address. Another name appeared for the address, giving me hope the new owner would give me information on contacting the grandson.

The call to the man’s house was strange from the first words, which I couldn’t understand. I told the man whom I was looking for and that I had sent the man a letter in November about relatives of his grandfather’s sister.

“Ma’am, you have called a federal government operation. How did you get this phone number?”

The conversation went back and forth into the importance of understanding that I contacted “a federal government operation.” He told me to delete any reference on my computer to the address where the letter was sent and I hung up on the federal agent who feared my genealogy adventure would harm his investigation.

Just 8 months ago, I was so proud to find the address of a grandson of the Belarusian immigrant. The gymnastics it took to find this grandson was an Olympic-level routine.

After finding the great-grand uncle in the 1940 Census, I was stuck on how to find this family until I got his wife’s naturalization record. All efforts to find the man’s naturalization record failed. Nothing could be found. His gambling arrest  noted on a visa application made me realize that maybe his right to be naturalized ended with that arrest.

The naturalization record for the wife was the document that put everything together.  I finally had the great-grand uncle’s children’s birth dates. I didn’t have the daughters’ married names but all the birth dates helped to narrow down the search results on ancestry.com.

Every attempt to find children of the daughters failed. Thankfully, I found the name of one son’s spouse. Her first name was uncommon, making the search easier with her very common married name.

Once I found her death notice, I had enough information to search for grandchildren of the great-grand uncle on a paid people search website. I used the information provided for free to search on Goggle.

In a few clicks, I finally had the address of a grandson. It felt like such a relief that I finally found the family of the woman’s great-grand uncle. It took many months of constant searching to share the great news that the mere $55 the woman invested in obtaining archive documents had finally paid off.

Now, the package filled with the great-grand uncle’s immigration records and a letter explaining his family’s journey most likely has  been discarded by federal agents. Many decades can pass and families can reunite as long as federal agents aren’t added to the mix.

Related post:

Nothing like a 1930 gambling arrest to help solve a mystery

Going back to my Russian-American roots 30 years later just heartbreaking

For years I have been researching the lives of my Russian and Ukrainian ancestors, but I hadn’t gone back to where I learned about being Russian-American in the 1980s.

I went to Russian American Society’s summer camp in Rockland County, New York, for two or three summers. Kids who attended the camp called it Otrada. It looks like a funny name in English but it looks like a normal Russian name in Cyrillic- Отрада.

The camp lasted for three weeks and it was an experience I didn’t appreciate as much as I should have as a child. I was too focused on the strictness of the camp.

All the girls slept in the same large room in a building next the playground. A bed and chest of draws were lined up for each girl in perfect order. There wasn’t any sleeping in or staying up late.  Forget get about sneaking outside at night. The wooden floors were so creaky.

We lined-up like ducks for our one-minute showers with the help of Russian-speaking camp staff standing next to the shower curtain. Having a long hot shower to wake up was a luxury at home.

Heaven-forbid you were caught speaking in English. I stood in the middle of the girls’ dormitory during play time for about a half hour for speaking in English.

I don’t recall doing the pledge to the American flag, but to the Russian flag. Looking back, it seemed as if I was transported to the USSR for a few weeks.

The only activities I enjoyed were playing, walking in the woods and swimming. I struggled to learn Russian, making it hard to enjoy so many of the activities.

For years, I have been looking at Otrada’s website, wondering whether the camp I remembered still exists. I was almost in tears going up the driveway for my summer camp two days ago because I didn’t know what I would see.

034 Here was my biggest fear, not being able to peek into the windows of my old dormitory. I bumped into an older woman who reminded me of a woman who worked at the camp and she told me the building burned down in 2011. Now a building with a prep kitchen, bathroom and large garage area sit where I had so many memories.

Then the condition of the playground was heartbreaking. The spirit of the camp was gone by the sight of the playground.

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Even the stereotypical Russian bear for the camp hasn’t changed since I left for home from my last camp in 1985.


Meanwhile, the Otrada’s Russian Orthodox chapel and the pool look great.

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I remember sliding into the pool and climbing up the pool’s steps when time was up. Sadly the original building where I would change into my swimsuit is gone.

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The buildings where the boys slept are still standing and being used.


I still remembers boys yelling, “No girls allowed!” at me when I tried to visit my two older brothers.


Passing by, many people wouldn’t understand the importance of this place for many children of Russian and Ukrainian immigrants.


My mother, uncle and aunt also went to Russian camps in New York and New Jersey. Sadly, many of these camps are stuck as memories as insurance liabilities have put an end to Otrada’s summer camps and others run by charities.

Find living family from the former USSR with little effort

It is hard to find Russian language websites that are easy to use for finding family, especially ones that don’t lose popularity after awhile.

After so much searching, I have found one that is growing in popularity- ЖДИ МЕНЯ – ПОИСК ЛЮДЕЙ (Wait for Me- People Search). More than 30,000 posts can be viewed on this website.

The best part is that registration is not required to search the website, which has separate sections for friends and acquaintances, classmates, relatives and those hoping someone is looking for them. I recommend looking through all areas.

Naturally, the site only can be searched in Russian. Google Translate can easily translate most names properly into Russian if written correctly in English. The search box for  ЖДИ МЕНЯ – ПОИСК ЛЮДЕЙ is on the top middle of the website.

I haven’t had luck in finding anyone who could be related to me but the number of posts are growing every day. To take full advantage of this website, I have registered so I can add posts on my lost relatives.

Registering is simple by following these directions: click on Регистрация on the top right of the main page and fill in the form. Пароль: password;  and Введите символы, изображенные на картинке: retype numbers written above.

Then click on the box next to Я принимаю условия пользовательское соглашение (accept terms of service) and then the blue oval button below. You will receive an e-mail message with a link, confirming your registration.

Then to add a post, click on this link and follow these directions. Everything with a red star is required.

Фамилия Имя Отчество разыскиваемого: provide name as last name, first name and patronymic name (patronymic can be skipped); Девичья фамилия того, кто потерялся: maiden name;  Дата и год рождения разыскиваемого: date and year went missing; Место жительства – область поиска разыскиваемого: place of residence- region being searched; and Ваше сообщение или история: information on person being searched.

A photo can be uploaded where its says “Загрузите фотографию человека, который потерялся размер не более 4МБ”. The file cannot be larger than 4MB.

Then you have to provide information on yourself: Ваша Фамилия Имя Отчество: your last name, first name and patronymic or middle name; Ваша девичья фамилия, если меняли фамилию: maiden name; Кто разыскивает?: Who is looking? female cousin: двоюродная сестра and male cousin: двоюродный брат; Ваш контактный телефон для связи с Вами: telephone number;  Ваш Skype: Skype address; Срок размещения анкеты: length of time to keep post on website; Неделя: week; Две недели: two weeks; Месяц: month; Три месяца: three month; and Год: a year.

Then click on the blue oval button to submit your post. It will take about a day to find your post on the website.

This may seem as if it’s a lot of work to add one post but it’s worth the effort. In less than 48 hours, 60 people have viewed my post. It is a matter of time when the right person views my post. It’s rare to have Russian family find you on an English language website. The better bet is on this website.

Broken promise will not be forgotten

Six years ago, I promised my newly found Ukrainian cousins that I would visit them. My cousins, nieces and nephews of my grandfather, wrote they would be excited to have us visit.

The time passed and got closer to when I promised to visit. Ticket prices were perfect but arrangements for care of my two kids needed to be smoother while I was gone for a week.

Hoping things would be easier to arrange in the next three summers, I wasn’t worried the trip to Kiev wouldn’t happen eventually. Then the ticket prices sky rocked and the fighting between Russia and Ukraine added a scenario never imagined.

Today, I am filled with regret when I learned the cousin who gave me so much information over the years died. She was a young 65 years old.

I wanted so bad to thank her in person for helping my family to learn about the relatives my family left behind in a nighttime WWII escape of Soviet Ukraine.

She is one of two regrets from my search of my maternal grandfather’s family. The other regret was the death of my grandfather’s nephew, who unsuccessfully tried to find us through the American Red Cross.

I listened to my maternal grandmother’s brother that the family with a common name would be too hard to find in such a large city. The fact that my grandfather had four sisters who wouldn’t carry the family name and only had one brother to carry the name was also against us. Maybe they weren’t living in Kiev anymore.

I was looking at a Russian genealogy forum for years and never bothered looking at the surname list.

Then I stopped listening to my grand uncle’s negativity years after he died, I discovered my grandfather’s nephew was looking for US. I breathlessly called my mother at 6 a.m. on a Sunday and sent e-mail messages to everyone who knew about my search.

I had a friend in Moscow call the cell phone number listed in the online advertisement for the sale of my cousin’s car. The line was disconnected, a sign of what was ahead. I found his home phone number. His wife was thrilled to receive our call but we were two years late. He had already died.

My grandfather’s nephew posted that message looking for us eight years ago when I could have skipped an unexciting visit to Delaware beaches.

His children have tried to decipher his notes on the family as much as they could and sent me family photos. Many times, they couldn’t answer questions because their father knew the answers.

If only I had found him earlier, things would be so much different today. My fearful grandmother even passed a letter to a friend visiting Kiev in the late 1990s to find her husband’s family. The family had already moved to another apartment.

If only I could have told my grandmother that I had found her nieces and nephews before she got dementia.

So if you have an invitation to visit family abroad, have the money and don’t have concerns about personal safety, please don’t repeat my mistake and get on that plane to visit your family.  No one knows what could be ahead of us – job loss, a health crisis or death.

I’ve never heard of anyone regretting, dipping into savings to see their newly discovered family. Maybe relatives won’t be as exciting or inviting as expected but to walk the same ground as your ancestors cannot be regretted.



Newest Ancestry.com database will turn brickwalls into dust

The biggest struggle in genealogy can be as simple as a name. Names get complicated as soon as people leave their homeland.

Immigrants change their name to assimilate in their new homeland or immigration officials misunderstand how to write foreign names and then give whatever letter combinations they see fit.

Then future generations pound their heads into genealogy brickwalls when trying to research their immigrant relatives. Immigrants who filled out form after form somehow vanish from the paper trails that were supposedly left behind.

Thanks to Ancestry.com’s newdatabase-U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007, the mystery of name changes is solved if you have the right information. But if your family came from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, you are praying your family didn’t have name changes too impossible to figure out.

So here are some simple rules to follow. Many of these records include first and last names of parents, something that can’t be found on many Russian language birth and marriage records.

1. If you are not familiar with translating names into English, visit this website. Russian names are complicated to spell in English and this website is very detailed about figuring out names for English spellings.

2. The biggest changes in spelling names that will be noticed are switching v’s to w’s or ff’s and y’s to j’s and unnecessary use of iy combinations, i.e. Romanow for Romanov;  Borisoff  for Borisov; and Petrovskiy for Petrovsky. Even names of birthplaces will be found with strange English spellings.

3. If relatives cannot be found by using last names, use different spellings of first names with the birth years or spouses’ first names as keywords. Some Russian first names are not as common and will bring up fewer results to make the search easier.

4. If relatives are not found by using birthplaces by appropriate spellings, be open to misspelled places. My grand uncle’s birthplace of Kiev was spelled Kesin when he knew to spell it as Kiew from living briefly in Germany.

5. If good matches do not appear, reconsider the matches that have birthplaces of the closest city. Sometimes it was easier to spell the closest city for immigrants struggling to learn English than the actual village where they were born.

6. Remember that names of towns have changed over the years. Search for Leningrad, not Saint Petersburg or St. Petersburg; and Stalingrad, not Volgograd. Here is a Wikipedia page that lists town and city name changes in the former USSR.

7. If birth dates seem later than from what is known in the family, consider that your relatives may have changed their immigration records to appear younger and more attractive for employment and immigration approval.

Once you collect the information you need, I highly recommend reading this post- Nothing like a good chuckle from ancestry.com– on the U.S. City Directories, 1821-1989 database. Information from that database and ancestry.com’s newest database are a great combination for trucking past the brickwalls and onto discovering new cousins.

Why some documents will never tell the full truth

Take a look at my family documents and I see so many lies. Not just accidental mistakes.

My father was “born” in Warsaw, Poland. His half-sister and brother were “born” in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Their mother was “born” in Reval, Estonia.

It is “documented” on birth and immigration records. The birth records look so real that it is hard to believe they are fake.

I don’t blame my grandmother for these lies. My family was born in Soviet Russia. In post WWII USSR, every brave soul wanted to immigrate. The United States limited how many immigrants were approved for each country  to come live the American dream.

With the massive population of the Soviet Union, the chances were lower to get approved for immigration, compared to Italy and Greece. So it was beneficial to make it appear as if immigrants were citizens of the smaller countries.

Not only were immigrants fighting to win slots for US immigration, they were dealing with the realities of a war in their backyard- lack of food, shelter and work. Identification documents got lost while constantly moving to safer locations and documents were destroyed in bombings.

That’s what happened to my cousin’s family. Their barracks with their identifying documents inside were bombed. They got a new life on paper with a new French surname, the same surname as friends from southern Russia.

Then came another lie. The mother of my cousin made herself 10 years younger. She feared being rejected for U.S. immigration for being close to 50 years old.

My relative was a newly divorced woman traveling with her daughter. They survived the experience of being forced laborers on the German railroad. Work as a nanny was the only job the mother could find and it was so demanding that she placed her young teen-age daughter in an orphanage.

Lying about her age to give herself and her daughter a new life in America was well worth it after all they experienced.  Later, the lie caused a mess when the mother was truly eligible to collect U.S. Social Security. It was quite the mess for a better life.

I know my family is not alone in lying on documents and buying falsified documents. So many buildings with civil records were destroyed in the war, opening doors for many people to move on with new identities without worries about being caught.

The methods for getting new identities were whatever could be made possible. Shock was my only reaction when I heard from a son of my grandfather’s friends  about how his parents’ got their Russian name.

His parents lost their records. They came across a flipped over car and found a couple who died in an accident. My grandfather’s friends went into their pockets and stole their identifying documents.

I feel bad for the couple who died nameless because their documents were stolen. My grandfather’s friends couldn’t have been the only ones who went to this extreme.

Soldiers stole clothing from dead soldiers to survive the cold and wetness, civilians sneaked onto farms to find food and others stole documents to replace the ones lost.

Documents carried by relatives during WWII aren’t guarantees of accurate information. Untold stories and possibly shocking tales may come from simple looking family documents.



One website could become the Russian version of Find A Grave

“Every person is endowed with an immortal soul and deserves to remain forever in the memory of future generations. We all have dreamed about their business and accomplishments remain for centuries. But living memory is short and selective. It remains only a few great, the rest into oblivion.”

These are great words I didn’t expect to read now in Russian when the Soviet era taught citizens for generations to think only the “great few” should be respected and remembered. I am gaining more hope that the brick walls I am facing in the Russian-speaking world will crumble quicker as time passes.

The great words come from Skorbim.com, a website I had hoped would exist in the near future. This website is trying to become the Russian language version of FindaGrave.com, where anyone can see pictures of graves and biographical information of deceased people mostly in the USA.

So what is great about a website with photos of Russian language graves? Try getting information on people who died after 1917 from registry offices in the former USSR can be exhausting as Russian full-length dance performances.

Not only is getting information hard for foreigners, my distance cousin in St. Petersburg, Russia, had to prove ancestry to her great-grandmother, who died almost 40 years ago, in order to receive information on the location of her ancestor’s grave. A relative usually led the way to the grave but she wanted to visit the grave on her own.

Once Skorbim.com grows to the popularity of Findagrave.com, the bureaucrats at registry offices can’t read off federal law to state why information on someone’s dates of birth and death and places of birth and death cannot be provided on those already dead.

The website claims to have 1.1 million graves documented but I can only figure out how to view a few thousand. Whatever the true number, the website is worth checking out and following as it grows.

To give this website a try the easiest way, get your Russian surnames translated into Russian on Google Translate, then copy each surname with  site:http://skorbim.com into a search engine keyword box.

If you cannot read Russian, copy and paste the results into Google Translate to see which results are worth viewing. It would be best to keep Google Translate open in the window next to the search results to make it a smoother experience.

To search directly on Skorbim.com, go to the search page. Then click on the box marked as поиск могилы slightly down the page and the search criteria boxes will appear underneath.

Фамилия is surname; Имя is first name; Отчество is patronymic name (middle name from father); Мужской is male; Женский is female; Дата рождения is birth date; День is day; Месяц is month; Год is year; Дата смерти is date of death; Страна is country; Область is region, Город is city and Кладбище is cemetery.

Remember to click on поиск on the bottom left to get the search results.

I recommend keeping the searches simple to leave the door open to find unexpected information.

Please share this post with as many people as possible so Skorbim.com can grow into the Russian version of Findagrave.com, where I am a regular contributor. This website can help bring the former USSR into the world of unlimited information if it grows in popularity.