The drama a DNA test brings to a family tree

Four years ago, I thought it only would be a dream to know the maiden name of my paternal grandfather’s mother. He didn’t even know her maiden name.

So I was beyond thrilled when a researcher solved the mystery by digging through census and birth records. She was successful with just having her first and middle names, birth year and general area where she was born.

I posted on genealogy forums looking for relatives of my great-grandmother. Some distant cousin must be out there researching the same family when she was one of 9 kids.

It took two years for a cousin to contact me after seeing my posts. His great-great-grandfather was brother of my great-grandmother.

The enthusiasm for finding each other has hardly died down two years later. We continue to exchange family information and write to each other on a regular basis.

A few months ago, I finally asked the DNA test question. He wanted to do a test but couldn’t afford one. With the Russian ruble crashing, spending money on a DNA test was a luxury.

Thanks to the $69 Family Finder test sale at Family Tree DNA over the summer, it was the perfect time to confirm our relationship.  I counted down every day for a month until the results were expected.

The first day the results were expected, the status changed to a delay of two to four weeks. I checked the next day whether the status had changed again. The matches were available. I was excited and nervous.

My cousin had 259 matches, compared to my 209 I’ve accumulated over 5 years. I wasn’t sure about how our relationship would be identified.  I wasn’t the closest match as I had expected.

With that shock, I didn’t have the patience to scroll through 9 pages of matches. I searched for myself by my last name and our common surname.

I was nowhere to be found. This had to be a mistake. To my annoyance, it took until the next morning to get his raw data file. I immediately uploaded his file to Gedmatch to get a second opinion on this DNA testing disaster.

Not one pinch of us matched by DNA, disappointing on so many levels. But I should have known better with doing DNA genealogy for 5 years.


Image from Family Tree DNA

Family Tree Maker designates us as 3rd cousins 2 times removed. I could have increased the chances of matching with his family by having his father take the test.

The most annoying part of this experience was the message from Family Tree DNA that the results were available. The message was sent 27 times. Apparently, this is supposed to be the haha moment.

I am not worried that my cousin isn’t my cousin. A researcher documented the family tree and my cousin has an old family tree that is backed up by family documents.

DNA doesn’t have the precision of documents. As DNA data gets passed down to each generation, there isn’t a magical formula to guarantee certain DNA from each ancestor. Documents don’t change over time, just fade.

Previous related posts:
New Russian cousins found again!
Wondering if my family tree is about to grow

When family letters about daily life are a cover for the truth

evdokiatyuinaletter10001Over the years, I have been handed letters my grandfather wrote to my father and letters my great-grandmother wrote to my grand uncle. I didn’t appreciate the importance of family letters until recently.

Two letters were overlooked from my grandmother’s house. My mother and I didn’t recognize the handwriting. I was about to throw out the letters because I could tell that there wasn’t “any useful” information for researching the family.

Once I read the names on the two letters, I knew I hit the jackpot. My two great-grandmothers from my mother’s family were writing letters to each other.

Doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it was mid-1950s. One was living in Kiev, Soviet Ukraine, and the other in Berlin, Germany. Talk about a big no-no during Soviet times.

My mother read the two letters and learned her grandmothers were writing as if they were friends. It doesn’t make sense unless you understand restrictions of Soviet times.

The only way my great-grandmother could know about her son’s new life was through the “friends letters”. Soviet postal workers would have blocked these letters if my great-grandmothers wrote as relatives, exchanging family information.

My mother’s father was the only one in his family who left the Soviet Union. He was an escaped POW of the Germans. The worst thing a Soviet soldier could do was give in to the enemy. Soon after he returned home from the POW camp, he, his wife and my mom left for the quiet countryside of Germany.

That meant my grandfather and his new family could never see, call nor write to his family in Kiev ever again. My great-grandfather died 4 years after my grandfather left and couldn’t come back for the funeral nor send condolences to his mom.

I later learned that my great-grandmother got pictures of my mother and uncle while they lived in Germany. She cried as she held the photos and wouldn’t say who were the children to the family with whom she lived.

I didn’t understand until now how it was possible that she could get the pictures because contact was “ended” after my grandfather left Ukraine.

It took two crafty grandmothers to come up with a plan to fake a friendship so they could tell each other about their families.

It was quite a risk for my mother’s paternal grandmother. Her husband was born a peasant, got trained as an architect and helped construct grand buildings in Kiev. That resulted in a very comfortable lifestyle in Soviet times, even with having six kids.

My other great-grandmother came from a modest family of German cloth makers, married a tailor and was living very simple in war-torn Berlin. But she was the lucky one who could get on a train to visit the grandchildren, whom the other grandmother would never see nor hear from ever again.

The simple gesture of writing letters gave one grandmother comfort that couldn’t be bought.

Related posts on Soviet life:
When family “wild stories” are nothing but reality
Meet your friendly Soviet repatriation officer

Grandmother creates brickwall with weak mortar, thanks to one detail

For five years, I have been trying to find any information on a friend’s great-grandfather on The name is very simple and my friend believed he had accurate information from his family.

I searched every possible version of his first and last name with his birth and death dates on Ancestry. The man didn’t exist or something was wrong.

It turned out almost everything my friend knew about his great-grandfather was wrong, except for his name. His grandmother wasn’t thrilled that he was researching her father, an enemy of the Soviet Union for being a Kuban Cossack who escaped during WWII.

My suspicions are probably true that she gave him incorrect information to make the search impossible. But thankfully, her father was buried in the same Russian Orthodox cemetery as was my maternal grandparents, just a few rows away from each other.

My Ukrainian-born mother called the cemetery office, which still doesn’t have staff who speak English. She learned that we had the birth and death dates incorrect by several years.

As soon as I had the correct information, I immediately found the man in the Social Security Death Index on Ancestry but nothing else. Then, I knew I had to apply for a copy of his Social Security application here.

The application confirmed his birth date known by the cemetery office and his father’s first name. My friend already knew his great-great-grandfather’s first name from the patronymic name of the great-grandfather.

Three great pieces of information came from this one-page document, the first and maiden name of the great-great-grandmother, the birth village and an address from 1957. My friend didn’t know the name of his great-great-grandmother and had another village as the birthplace, which is in the same Ukrainian region where my paternal grandmother’s brothers were born.

The address where the great-grandfather lived when he applied for a Social Security card opened another door for information. He was living near New York City at the Tolstoy Foundation, an organization that helped many Soviet Union escapees.

I called the Tolstoy Foundation and was thrilled the staff spoke English. The file at Tolstoy Foundation gave me the man’s arrival flight information, several old addresses, a place where he worked and the retirement home where he died. One address was within the same city where my paternal grandmother lived.

The great-grandson assumed that his great-grandfather came to America before WWII ended. However, he immigrated to the U.S.A. in 1957. That 12-year gap between the ending of WWII and his arrival brings up more questions about his life.

The new details from Tolstoy Foundation helped find his passenger record on Ancestry but nothing else. Somehow, the man avoided having his life documented on Ancestry.

With all this information, I had enough personal details to submit a Freedom of Information Act request for the great-grandfather’s Alien File, the golden gem of researching mid-20th century immigrants to America.

Getting that file will take about three months and land in my mailbox just in time for my friend’s birthday. That is the best gift I can give him after he sweated through an overgrown cemetery in Kiev to find the graves of my great-grandparents near my birthday.

Related posts:
Old electrical tower leads the way to family graves
Documents that open doors to information
Guide for success in obtaining Alien Case Files

A shocking twist gets thrown into finding the mystery birth father from WWII

ancestrydnaAt Christmastime, I was daydreaming that my cousin would have great matches to finally find her father’s family on Ancestry DNA.

But nine months after sending her the DNA kit, I don’t even have my cousin’s completed DNA test in my hands yet. I am still fuming on the why.

Thanks to the strict regulations of the Russian postal service, the completed kit was sent back to my cousin’s daughter, who attempted to mail the kit to me. She told me that she sent the kit in April and I was counting down the days to when it arrived in my mailbox at my front door.

I only learned a week ago about the Russian Postal Service rejecting my cousin’s package to get through customs. She felt so horrible that she didn’t have the heart to tell me until recently.

Meanwhile, I am getting more matches on Ancestry DNA from Russians living in RUSSIA. What is so special about their packages that they don’t have our problem?

I contacted a distant cousin match living in Russia about how he managed to get his package out of Russia. Apparently, the trick is marking the package as a test sample or plastic tube and using an expensive express service of the Russian postal service to get the tube of spit through customs.

This match lives in Moscow so I am wondering whether a big city advantage exists. My cousin lives near the border of Belarus in a medium-sized city.

No matter what the advantage is, I am praying and hoping others will pray that the second kit makes it out of Russia and into the lab of Ancestry DNA in perfect condition.

My cousin got her Family Tree DNA kit to me last year and none of the matches are close enough to determine who is the mystery father. Hope started dying down when Ancestry DNA changed its DNA file format for transfers to Family Tree DNA and now those transfers are on hold.

All my kits at Family Tree DNA were getting many matches every week, probably thanks to the Ancestry DNA customers paying $39 to find more matches at Family Tree DNA.

I am convinced someone who tested through Ancestry DNA is the key to solving this 71-year-old mystery. With more than 2 million DNA kits processed, I am hoping my cousin can finally find the mystery WWII soldier who helped bring her into the world.

My cousin shouldn’t even be alive. Her mother returned with her to Soviet Ukraine in 1946 after they escaped to Germany. They were the perfect candidates to be killed at a Siberian gulag but somehow the crafty mother and her daughter lived a quiet Soviet life.

They escaped being sent to the gulag but a darn DNA test can’t get out of post-Soviet Russia in 2016. Apparently, divine intervention is needed for my cousin one more time.

Related post:
A DNA test and small paper trail face off to complete a WWII love story

Get a new view into your Russian and Ukrainian genealogy

086It’s hard to understand why genealogy is so challenging in the former USSR for many people. Anyone can piece together a few reasons by using Google but that won’t give the full picture.

I thought I knew enough just from the stories from my relatives who were born in Russia and Ukraine. Those stories made me wonder how common these experiences were and how much exaggeration was added into the family stories.

Then, I discovered that these stories weren’t exaggerations nor uncommon by moving away from technology and onto books.

So what is really worth the time and knowledge? Here’s the books I’ve refused to donate nor sell. (And yes, many of these books are available on Kindle.)

Soviet-era Life:

russiansThe Russians by Hendrick Smith

brokenRussia- Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams: A Provocative Look at the Russian People by David K. Shipler

whispThe Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia by Orlando Figes

World War II (or the Great Patriotic War):

moscowMoscow 1941: A City and Its People at War by Rodric Braithwaite

Soviet Persecution:

gulagGulag: A History by Anne Applebaum

Russia Today:

jorneyRussia: A Journey to the Heart of a Land and its People by Jonathan Dimbleby

lostLost and Found in Russia: Lives in a Post-Soviet Landscape by Susan Richards

reelingReeling in Russia by Fen Montaigne

vodkaVodka, Tears, and Lenin’s Angel: A Young Journalist Discovers the Former Soviet Union by Jennifer Gould

Perception of Americans:

pizzaPizza in Pushkin Square: What Russians Think About Americans and the American Way of Life by Victor Ripp

Collapse of the Soviet Union:

leninLenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire by David Reminick

Comprehensive History:

russiaRussia: A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East by Martin Sixsmith

So what’s the point of reading these books? It will give a new understanding why it takes lots of charm to get information from archives, why former USSR-born relatives don’t like talking about the past nor know much about their relatives in the homeland, and why anyone with records saved from the former USSR should feel lucky.

Also, the best part of reading these books is learning how not to put foot in mouth when interacting with potential relatives from the former Soviet Union.

Related posts:

When family “wild stories” are nothing but reality

Top 10 things to never say to potential relatives in the former USSR

Thanks for skimping on your taxes, great-grandpa

borkaIt’s been a challenge to document the life of my great-grandfather until recently. An acquaintance from a forum messaged me out of nowhere with a 1922 census record.

I had to laugh when I realized what I was looking at. My grandmother and mother told me stories of great-grandpa’s stinginess. He went even so far to hide his German marks under his mattress so the “bank couldn’t take his money.”

Luckily for me, he tried to pay as little as possible for his taxes as a tailor in a village outside of Kiev, Ukraine, in 1922.

That census record, showing great-grandpa not paying enough taxes, finally documented that my family really lived in the village where my grandmother was born. It wasn’t just that my great-grandmother was visiting the village when my grandmother was born.

In the last year, the acquaintance looked in the village’s cemetery and couldn’t find any relatives buried there, making me wonder if the family lived there for an extended time. Now that question is answered with the 1922 census record my great-grandpa never thought his great-granddaughter would see 94 years later.

Then the acquaintance poked around in archives and hit the jackpot. He found a document that details my great-grandfather as a leadership member of a Russian Baptist church in the village in 1922. Apparently, it didn’t matter to the Baptist church that great-grandpa wasn’t a loyal taxpayer.

My great-grandparents met in a Baptist church, according to a niece and other relatives. Now I am confident the document finally reveals the name of the church, which still exists in the village that has grown to a town.

By luck, a grand-niece of my grandfather (son-in-law of great-grandpa) lives near this church. I’m awaiting a photo of this church that brought my great-grandparents together.

Getting to this point wasn’t quick and easy. I first met the acquaintance on a forum for the family village, which is now bigger than the town where I live, five years ago. Now that forum is corrupt with malware, according to my computer firewall that blocks me from that forum.

I added the acquaintance as a friend on Russian social network 18 months ago after seeing that he was an active member on, the largest Russian language genealogy forum, and lives in my grandmother’s birthplace.

Then, I asked him to look at the cemeteries in his town for my relatives. Nothing was found but a month ago he sent me a scan of the 1922 census that mentioned my great-grandfather.

The art of success in genealogy is similar to making wine. Rush research in genealogy and the results will be as tasty as overripe grapes shoved in a bottle and poured too quickly.

Old electrical tower leads the way to family graves

blogphotoI was ready to give up hope in finding my great-grandparents’ grave. A friend unsuccessfully attempted three times to find it.

Luckily, a cousin gave me a photo of relatives visiting the grave of my great-grandfather soon after his death. My grandfather couldn’t even attend the funeral after escaping Soviet Ukraine in 1943.

Once my friend I’ll call Valentine analyzed the location of an electrical tower in the photo, he knew he was looking for the grave in the wrong location.

The office that maintains the cemetery in Kiev, Ukraine, was completely useless. With Valentine being an illegal immigrant of Ukraine thanks to him fleeing Russia for political reasons, office staff refused to help him.

Just recently Valentine told me that he temporarily relocated to Kiev. I asked him if he could try to find my great-grandparents’ grave in Baykova Cemetery. I knew their birth and death dates but not their grave’s location in the massive cemetery.

I wasn’t really expecting for Valentine to find the family grave. So many years have passed that I wasn’t sure whether my family maintained the grave.

Valentine realized how challenging the search would be on his first two visits. Then, the third visit brought concern that another family took over the grave site due to the years that have passed. An identical looking grave site with metal fencing and a tall metal cross was found near power lines.

Thanks to analyzing the old and new grave photos on Photoshop, Valentine determined that the discovered grave site was near new power lines but not near the electrical tower standing by my great-grandfather’s grave in the old photo.

That brought a drop of hope that the grave of my great-grandparents could be found under a pile of weeds. Valentine determined that the only possible location was an area of high grass, weeds and bushes. I worried what would be really found.

Just last summer, a granddaughter of my great-grandparents was buried in the cemetery. I assumed the family got another location for the newer family graves and I was making Valentine trek through an overgrown cemetery for a false hope.

With hesitation, I opened my Facebook account in the morning of the fourth visit. I saw Valentine messaged me. I was thinking, here we go again with nothing being found. But then I saw “Вера!!!!!!!!”!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Вера я нашёл!!!!!!!!!” (Vera…Vera I found)

I was so excited. Valentine could hardly speak about his emotions on the video he made of the discovery. Not only were the graves of my great-grandparents found, five other relatives were buried at the family grave site, including my great-grandparents’ granddaughter who died last year.

My grandfather was deprived of the right to attend his parents’ funerals but at least I never gave up on finding their resting place. It took some old Soviet-era electrical tower that still stands today to lead me there.

Similar posts:
Message left in a family painting solves a family mystery
An unreal surprise on my birthday