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.

6th-great-grandma’s family reveals a massive load of information to explode the family tree

I’ve been waiting for my family tree to explode past 2,000 people. Ancestry.com has so many  family trees with thousands of people and I wondered when I could ring in my 2,000th person on my family tree.

While on vacation, I got quite the surprise from a professional researcher I hired a few months ago. The amount of information he found by researching my 6th-great-grandma’s family was unreal.

It took several days to plug in all the direct ancestors and distant cousins into my family tree. It grew to 2,664 people from the original 1,962 people, all thanks to detailed census records from central Russia.

I was hoping this family line would be the jackpot. Two of my great-grandpa’s sisters married men with my 6th-great-grandma’s maiden name. His godfather also carried the same last name.

So it seemed as if this would be the name to research. Not only did my family tree blossom as if it were a tree shot with Miracle Grow, I learned about two female lines of my great-grandfather. That is hardly a simple task in Russian genealogy.

It takes a lot of work to discover maiden names of women. In many Russian records, women are identified by their given name (first name) and patronymic name (middle name from the father’s first name such as Ivanovna or Vasilievna).

So it’s hard to understand the thrill of my researcher finding the full name of another 6th great-grandmother, especially one from a different village when the village name and her maiden name match. Sounds as if another interesting story will come my way when I research that line.

The other discovered maiden name of another female direct ancestor brought the family tree closer in time. The research of my 6th-great-grandma uncovered the full name of a 3rd-great-grandmother, leaving only one grandparent of my great-grandpa as a mystery.

In the end, research of my 6th-great-grandma exploded my family tree and pushed my family tree back to the early 17th and late 16th centuries for three family lines. I also learned my 10th-great-grandfather served in the great sovereign policeman service in central Russia during the 17th century.

Now, I am waiting to discover cousins online who could make the names in my family tree more complete with stories. It took four years to reach this point. My cautious way of researching won’t ever make me wonder whether growing my family tree came at the price of being filled with mistakes.

Related posts:
Don’t let this easy mistake implode your family tree
Piecing together puzzles for one name

DNA testing finally proves its value in finding 16th century documents

It’s been almost 4 years since I decided to try DNA testing for genealogy. Lately, it has been a bust of distant cousins who rarely share one common surname.

So out of boredom, I started e-mailing my supposed distant cousins who have common ethnicity. I totally forgot I already e-mailed one match my standard message asking whether he has ancestors from the same places by chance. That was the best mistake I could have made.

My fourth cousin reminded me that I sent the same message twice but offered me something I never got from my other thousands of DNA distant cousins. He acquired records from Russian State Archives of Ancient Documents on our common ancestors from the 1590s-1600s.

I forgot that we had a common surname from the same Russian region. My cousin researched his ancestry as far back as possible and determined existing records can only connect us back to the 1600s while I had given up hope on connecting our families.

A great researcher in Kursk, central Russia, Evgeniy Karpuk, researched my Trunov family back to Peter the Great time, leaving the door open a few years later for this cousin to unload records on me as far back as 1594.

Just 5 years ago, I discovered my great-grandfather’s birth village of the late 19th century written on a German immigration record. I found a great Russian genealogy forum to figure out where this village exists on a map. On that forum, a not-so-friendly man from Belarus who cursed me out for America’s involvement in the Bosnian War gave me Karpuk’s contact information.

All my genealogy ducks lined up and today I have seen records dated from 1594-1646 from a cousin living in Siberia. It did come at the price of $150 US dollars  for 22 scans but that is much less than Russian State Archives of Ancient Documents would have charged me.

Thanks to these scans, I know the names of my 11th- and 12-great-grandfathers and the village where they lived in the 1600s.

So, DNA testing is worth the cheap price of tests today. I paid $289 for my Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder test, which is now $99. Just one e-mail message to a cousin who seemed too distantly related helped me discover more ancestors because I made the effort to reach out.

Here is a sample of these old Russian records:

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SSSHHH!!! Detailed civilian records of Soviet persecution camps declassified………

There is nothing like another night of boredom and being determined to find an exciting Russian archives database. I knew I found something hot when the website’s address was unsecret.rusarchives.ru.

First, I thought it was just a boring list of declassified records of communist-era bureaucratic boards. Who really cares about that stuff unless your family served on those boards? Then, I found the search engine and the real “unsecrets” were sitting there in detail.

I copied and pasted four pages of declassified records’ details into Google Translate when I hit the phrase “Учреждения по делам военнопленных и интернированных”. This translates into institution for prisoners of war and interned.

I cautiously thought this must be just POW records of the USSR during World War II. Nope, it’s not possible. This possibly covers the POWs of WWII but why are the records dated from the 1940s to the early 1960s?

Then I realized the Russian government quietly declassified records of people who were persecuted for talking to foreigners, receiving letters from foreigners or “committing” crimes that never happened and sent to the infamous camps called gulags.

Here’s a sampling of what I found by searching Учреждения по делам военнопленных и интернированных УМВД on unsecret.rusarchives.ru/search.

Burial of prisoners of war in the camps number 190 and number 16; death certificates of prisoners of war; and lists of prisoners of war repatriated to their homeland.

There are already two great websites that list many of the persecuted people of the USSR on Жертвы политического террора в СССР and National database of repressed of Ukraine but the declassified records will answer questions about relatives’ experiences during their persecution.

The list of declassified records can be found on one page here. For the list translated into English, click here. (These two links are having problems right now. Sorry for the inconvenience.)

Unsecret.rusarchives.ru has many more records listed than the linked page above. For non-native Russian speakers, have your relatives’ regions translated into Russian by Google Translate, then copy and paste the translation and the phrase “Учреждения по делам военнопленных и интернированных” into the search box on unsecret.rusarchives.ru/search and click on поиск (search in Russian) for the results.

Have  Google Translate open in the next window so results can be copied and pasted for translation to see what records are available at Russian State Military Archives.

Anyone ready to learn about their relatives’ persecutions in files at Russian State Military Archives in Moscow, click here for the guide to make requests.