One detail completely changes the story of great-great-great-grandpa’s life

I thought the life of my great-great-great-grandfather Ferdinand Oswald Bleschke was completely researched. Obtaining his death record was on the side burner because I assumed it couldn’t offer anything new.

I was in for quite a surprise when I found the record on Ancestry.com’s new database,  Eastern Prussian Provinces, Germany [Poland], Selected Civil Vitals, 1874-1945.

In his 80s, my great-great-great-grandfather moved to Schwerin an der Warth, Germany (now Skwierzyna, western Poland) from Bialystok, Russian Poland (now eastern Poland). The death record didn’t make sense but it had the correct first and last name, age and birthplace.

My great-great-great-great-grandfather’s death place was partially correct. My distant cousin told me he died in Schwerin, Germany, not  Schwerin an der Warth. I assumed that he moved in with a grown child living in current-day Germany after his wife died in 1918.

That was far from the truth. I posted on genealogy groups on Facebook, asking about why would such an older man move so far away in his 80s. It turns out that I never bothered to look at the history of Bialystok at the time.

The city was in the middle of the Polish-Soviet War, a war I never heard of until now. The pain that my great-great-great-grandfather must have felt from this experience.

He recently lost his wife of 60 years in 1918. He had to leave the area and never be able to visit his wife’s grave ever again. My great-great-great-grandfather came to the area in the late 1860s with three young children to work in the growing cloth-making industry in the Bialystok area.

He had to leave behind his home, his church and his neighbors and see his large family scatter and separate from each other.

I wasn’t surprised where my great-great-great grandfather chose or was sent to live. Schwerin an der Warth was only 50 kilometers north of where he was born in 1834.

So many questions are still unanswered. Did he choose the location of Schwerin an der Warth? Did he move to Schwerin an der Warth with family from Bialystok? Did he know any family living in the town?

The research continues on these answers. Archives in Skwierzyna doesn’t have any records on my great-great-great-grandfather. The records possibly were given to German State Archives in Leipzig so I am waiting for an answer from the archives.

No matter where ancestors are being researched, this story shows every detail needs to be fully researched and documented to learn their complete stories. We all assume we know so much but surprise, surprise life is full of surprises no matter which time period is being researched.

Here are five tips to avoid my mistake and get the full story of your relatives and ancestors:

  1. Get and review all details of every possible document.
  2. When something is out-of-place or seems unusual, start asking questions. Did a fire destroy the factory where they worked? Did a drought put an end to a family farming business? Did a war force them to move? Did they move due to a backlash against their ethnicity or religion?
  3. What historical and political events were occurring where they lived and around them?
  4. Document who lived with your relatives and nearby neighbors with the same last name whenever possible.
  5.  And most importantly assume nothing. Ask who, what, when, where and why questions until they are answered.
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An incredible surprise of rediscovered old photos brings alive the family tree

I just was thinking about contacting my cousin from my great-grandfather’s brother’s family to see whether they have any more old family photos. They already shared some old photos, family letters and documents over the past seven years.

I am so grateful to find the family. They really found me on a genealogy forum. I didn’t want to bother them one more time to ask if they have any more photos. I have been so grateful for everything I have received over the years.

Then by luck my cousin from Moscow, Russia,  e-mailed me Friday that her sister found some old photos of my grandmother’s family. I hadn’t thought there could be any more photos because our families haven’t seen each other since the 1930s.

Then I saw the photos my cousin uploaded to Google Photos. I already have three of the photos, one of which I got from that cousin a few years ago. But I hit the jackpot in photos once again.

My cousin’s sister has a photo our great-great-grandfather with my great-grandmother and four of my grandmother’s brothers and another close up shot of my great-grandmother with three sons from the early 1900s. The woman or girl standing behind my great-grandmother is a mystery, along with the photo’s location.

My Russian cousins have given me more old photos of my grandmother’s family than I have found in my own family’s possessions. My grandmother had five brothers but I only have a handful of pre-World War II photos of the family.

Only one brother of my grandmother moved to the USA and had a child. Another two came to the USA but didn’t have children. The other two brothers immigrated to Germany and Argentina.

The kids in these photos were born between 1891-1899.  By the time I got my hands on the family photos from my grandmother’s apartment in 2006, I can imagine or don’t want to imagine how many old photos were thrown out.

Only one child is alive of the six children from this family. She didn’t have any old family photos. I had to send her photos of her great-grandfather and grandfather because she wasn’t lucky enough to have old photos.

Too many people fight over pieces of furniture, china sets and jewelry from their relatives when the priceless possessions are the photos. These photos bring to life  the people in family trees.

One day, those precious pieces of furniture will crumble, the china will break and the jewelry will lose its luster. Only photos can keep forever moments from long ago alive.

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Unknown immigrant database completes family story of escape from WWII

Many of my relatives can tell me the story of how one brother of my grandmother got separated from his four brothers and a sister as they boarded trains during WWII.

The families got on any train that had breathing room but Grand Uncle Dimitri was the only one to not make it to Austria. He, his wife and four sons arrived in Italy.

Grand Uncle Dimitri told my family, who later escaped to the USA, that he spared his family from being repatriated to the USSR by crawling under the fence of a monastery to be converted as a Catholic. That would be a great story to confirm with documents.

But I only can confirm how he managed to arrive in Argentina from Italy, thanks to the unknown database Buscador. None of the subscription genealogy websites were of any help, even after searching different variations of  his last name.

I learned  from Buscador that Grand Uncle Dimitri departed from Genova, Italy, on the ship Sestriere and arrived in warmer Buenos Aires, Argentina, on March 19, 1948. He described himself as a mechanic.

I know without a doubt this is my grand uncle because his age, first and last name and port of arrival are correct. The only incorrect information is that his last place of residence in Russia is listed as his birthplace. He is listed as Russian, even though he was born in Ukraine. His family had a long history in Russia.

This gem of a database has so many immigrants from throughout the world. It’s worth checking just for the curiosity on those brickwalls in the family tree. The best part is that it doesn’t require registration. Getting busy with searching is instant as clicking on buscar (search).

Here’s a sample of how results will appear:

The database from Center for Latin American Migration Studies is in Spanish. So here are English translations to make using the database smoother: apellido (last name); nombre (first name); edad (age); estado civil (marital status); nacionalidad (nationality); lugar de nacimiento (place of birth); profesión (profession); fecha de arribo (arrival date);  barco (passenger ship); puerto (port of departure), anterior (previous), siguiente (next) and nueva búsqueda (new search).

This database is worthwhile for anyone researching relatives who relocated from Europe, especially as World War II refugees. South America wasn’t damaged in World War II so it was the perfect place for refugees to find a safe and new home. So many refugees were already immigrating to the USA, Canada and Australia.

I found in my grandmother’s documents that my Ukrainian maternal grandfather unsuccessfully attempted to immigrate his family to Argentina. He waited awhile and got permission to immigrate to the USA, instead.

If relatives can’t be found in the South American database, check out these ship passenger lists from Australian archives for refugees of World War II.

Also check out, newly updated Free Databases.

Related posts:
Quiz: Can you guess how former USSR immigrants changed their names?
Best tips on uncovering U.S. documents on mysterious Soviet Union relatives
 

A shocking sign that some people in the former USSR aren’t scared anymore

I have wondered for years when will people in the former USSR stop being scared of talking openly about life under communism. I have read several books of people talking about the repression their families faced but they hide their identities or withhold their last names.

The latest development on this topic is beyond shocking and something I never imagined would ever happen in the former USSR.

Memorial, the Russian-based organization that researches the atrocities of Soviet times, is pounding in signs on houses in Russia and Ukraine that announce residents who faced death for fake crimes during the Soviet Era. This is the choice of relatives who aren’t afraid to speak up about the family secrets.

I have relatives from Russia in their 40s who were upset that I talked about a relative who was killed during the communist era over e-mail. The idea of someone nailing down plaques and announcing former residents of a particular house died from communist persecution is a bit shocking.

I can imagine elderly neighbors seeing these plaques, gasping at the sight of these plaques and muttering, “What the hell are they thinking? Keep these matters within the family, not within the community and for everyone who walks by.”

This project, started in March 2017, already has had about 40 signs put on homes. It doesn’t look like much but this is a sign of change in the former USSR. (Watch this project grow each month here. Copy and paste text into Google Translate if you don’t know Russian.)

Researchers disagree about how many people died from persecution in Soviet times but about 2.5 million persecution deaths have been documented during Stalin’s reign, according to this Wikipedia article.

These signs that show people aren’t afraid to speak openly about their family’s persecutions could lead to larger online databases on the repressed and more people posting online about their family’s secrets. Finding long-lost family could become easier soon as people talk more about their “secret” relatives.

Too many people who have relatives from the former Soviet Union know how hard it is to have their family talk about life in the former homeland. More information will be coming as the fear of talking about the past decreases in the former USSR.

Memorial has already posted an online database of people from the former USSR who were persecuted during Soviet times here. The database can be searched here.  (Use this website to translate names into Russian.)

The organization is working on a database of USSR citizens who were forced labors of Germany during WWII. I can’t imagine the closure so many people will have when this information is revealed, giving them a new understanding as to why some relatives want to keep the past secret. (Follow this blog with the top black right button to learn when the database is available.)

Related posts:

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Database reveals names of secret agents for the Soviet Great Terror

Best tips on uncovering U.S. documents on mysterious Soviet Union relatives

An inside look into a FBI investigation of a Soviet immigrant

Many people who have relatives who escaped the USSR know the feeling of having closed-off relatives. Making them talk about their lives in the USSR and how they managed to escape the USSR is a conversation that goes nowhere.

After getting my hands on a FBI file on a Soviet immigrant who came to the USA after WWII, I have a better understanding of why some Soviet immigrants are so reclusive.

A friend of mine, who left Russia for Ukraine, asked me to find information on his Ukrainian great-grandfather. I obtained his great-grandfather’s Alien File (see below for more information) from the U.S. Department of Citizen and Immigration Services. For some reason, several pages were blank and stamped with CONFIDENTIAL.

That got my curiosity peaked. I appealed the USCIS’ decision to deny me access to the pages by sending an appeal in the form of a Freedom of Information Act request to the FBI. (My personal file at the FBI must be growing from my curiosity.)

A few weeks later, an envelope from the FBI came in the mail. The “secrets” of a man I’ll call Vladimir Ivanov were revealed.

He got the attention of the FBI for visiting the Soviet Mission to the United Nations in New York City. In simple terms, Vladimir visited the office representing the Soviet Union for the United Nations.

Like in the movies, they detailed in the FBI file Vladimir’s appearance from his hair to clothes. Obviously, a FBI agent was watching who was visiting this office. The report goes on “Upon departing the SMUN this unknown male boarded an IRT subway train and repeatedly asked directions of other individuals in the car. He was observed to speak in a heavy accent and on one occasion was overheard to advise another subway passenger that he was from Lithuania.”

I can imagine a FBI agent in a trench coat, sitting in the subway train with his newspaper covering his face. Then the agent followed Vladimir onto a bus to Patterson, N.J., where Vladimir visited Manpower to look for temp jobs. The agent gets a Manpower employee to reveal his identity and activities as an employee.

The FBI agent contacts the Immigration and Naturalization Service to learn more about Vladimir’s immigration process and life in the USA and then a bank for his credit records, which didn’t exist. The final stop was the Patterson Police Department to check for any criminal activity. Vladimir only had paid a $100 fine for drunkenness.

Even though there isn’t any evidence that he could be a Soviet spy, the investigation runs from February to June 1966, all because he visited that office.

All of this makes me wonder about how many Soviet immigrants were investigated and documented by the FBI. The fear of Soviet immigrants must have spread from FBI agents doing these investigations.

Soviet immigrants came to this country for freedom and a better life, but who was being watched as if they were still in the Soviet Union? Only the FBI knows.

Related posts:
Guide for success in obtaining Alien Case Files

Meet your friendly Soviet repatriation officer

60 years later, a family story starts to come together

Guide to finding family in Ukraine like a native expert

It’s taken years to figure out how to use the best-known database for searching out Ukrainian family. Then, the improved search abilities at the two most popular social networks in Ukraine have made it incredibly easy to find relatives.

With following these guidelines, finding family will be easier than could be imagined. These tips even have been useful in finding birth families of adoptees, who usually know so little about their families.

Here’s how to find long-lost family in Ukraine. A laptop or desktop computer is highly recommended.

1. Create profiles on vk.com and ok.ru, the most popular social networks in Ukraine. They are available in English.

2. Have relatives’ names and hometowns translated on Google Translate. If Google Translate doesn’t work well, try this website for Russian translations. Then translate on Google Translate from Russian to Ukrainian.

3. Visit Google Maps and search for your relatives’ hometowns, make a list of surrounding villages, towns and cities and then have them translated into Russian and Ukrainian. (Of course, keep all the translated names and places in a Word document or a similar program.)

4. Then, go to this database of Ukrainian residents. Don’t worry if you don’t know a word of Russian. Here are the translations of each search box from left to right: фамилия (last name); имя (first name);  отчество (patronymic name, i.e. Nikolaevna, Sergeevich); нас. пункт (location/city/town/village); ул. (street); дом (house number/street number); and кв (apartment number). Here is a sample of how the results will appear.

The sample above shows the full name, birthdate, hometown and street address are given on each person, with some people having phone numbers.

5.  Start the search with only the last name in Russian, unless common last names are being searched. This will give  you a good idea of how common the name is in Ukraine. (Remember that sometimes surnames end differently for men and women. Make sure to search both version of surnames.)

6. This website limits viewing of result pages to 50 pages per day. If the results cover more than 50 pages, then refine the search by hometown.

7. If results no longer appear after searching by surname and hometown in Russian, try the Ukrainian versions. Also search for the surnames in the surrounding cities, towns and villages in Russian and Ukrainian.

8. Families may have moved to another place. Copy and paste the place of residence from Вся Украина – жители into Google to see where it is located. If the full name is uncommon and the birthdate seems possible for that person, it could be the correct person even if their place of residence is far from their last known address. The chances are higher of having a good match if the place of residence is in the same region as their last known residence.

8. To be completely thorough in researching good matches for relatives, search for other people who lived at the same address. Copy their hometown, street and house number into a Word document and paste those keywords into the proper search boxes to get the names of other residents for that address.

Find their profiles on  vk.com and ok.ru. The people may have moved since the database was created so find them online.

1. Search for the relatives on vk.com and ok.ru using your new accounts. Copy and paste the relative’s name in the top search box.

2. If too many matches appear, scroll down to the filter for extra options on the bottom right on vk.com. Then enter his or her birthdate. The birthdate filter on ok.ru is under age on the right.

3. If the all the results disappear, search only by first name and  birthdate. Then when too many results appear, reduce the results by adding their place of residence and nearby cities, towns and villages. The regions and neighborhoods of each place will need to be known on vk.com.

4. When good matches appears, view all the details of their profile. Then look at their friends. Look for friends who have the same last name as your relatives.

5. Some people on vk.com only allow friends to send them messages. To go around that, message friends who live in the same town or nearby. Then search for their profile on ok.ru to see if his/her profile is open there.

When relatives still can’t be found, it’s time to find some neighbors who could help on vk.com.

7. The last option is searching for neighbors of the address found on Вся Украина – жители. You’ll need to make temporary changes to your profile. Click on your name on the top right corner, click on edit under my profile, click on contact info under basic info. Change country, city, district and street to where your relative lived.

Then press save, click on my profile in the left column, click on show full information under birthdate and marital status, click on the house number or street name shown for the hometown address to find everyone who has listed as living at the same address or nearby.

8. Send polite messages to people found in the results, asking if they know of your relatives, and remember to say thank you for responding.

9. Step 7 can be avoided when searching in small towns and villages. Message friendly-looking people who are at least 30 years old to see whether they know any information.

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Quiz: Can you guess how former USSR immigrants changed their names?

The biggest struggle in researching relatives and ancestors from the former USSR is figuring out spellings of their various names. For so many reasons, their names changed after immigrating and trying to trace their lives is like a complicated maze.

So here is the challenge of the day. See how many of these questions below you can answer correctly. These name changes are based on people who listed their real surnames and Americanized names on their gravestones in a Russian Orthodox cemetery in New York state.

Get your pen and paper ready to write down your answers and check them against the correct answers below.

1. A woman was named Kureshova. She changed her name to:

a. Kuresh

b. Kourre

c. Korr

2.  A man named Okunev. He changed his name to:

a. Hay

b. Okin

c. Okner

3. A man was named Pukh. He changed his name to:

a. Puner

b. Pouch

c. Punerov

4.  A woman was named Kurekova. She changed her name to:

a. Koreka

b. Kurek

c. Kurenko

5. A man was named Minitsky. He changed his name to:

a. Minn

b. Minit

c. Munit

6. A man was named Kusakov. He changed his name to:

a. Kusak

b. Kusar

c. Kent

7. A man was named Lopuhovych. He changed his name to:

a. Loch

b. Lopuk

c. Lopov

8. A man was named Mikhalov. He changed his name to:

a. Michaels

b. Mikhalow

c. Mitchell

9. A man was named Masianoff. He changed his name to:

a. Mason

b. Martell

c. Massy

10. A woman was named Dukhovetskaya. She changed her name to:

a. Dukhovetsky

b. Doukhowetzky

c. Doherty

See all the correct answers below.

If you got all the answers right, you know name changes can be simple or random. If you got a few wrong, you know it’s hard to predict how names are changed. If you got all the answers wrong,  look at your answers versus the correct answers. I would hardly get any of the answers correct if I never saw the gravestones.

  1. b  2. a 3. b 4. c 5. a 6. c 7. a 8. c 9. b 10. b

If you are stuck on researching your relatives and ancestors from the former USSR, check out these posts:

Best tips on uncovering U.S. documents on mysterious Soviet Union relatives

Don’t let this easy mistake implode your family tree

Break open the “I don’t know anything” relatives for some genealogy gems (perfect for the upcoming holiday season when visiting older relatives)