Countdown begins for AncestryDNA to solve a 71-year-old mystery from WWII

I didn’t think I would ever get this close to finally solving a family mystery from WWII. My great-grandparents died in the 1970s, wondering whatever happened to their free-spirited daughter and unborn grandchild.

Five years ago, American Red Cross with the help of International Tracing Service found my missing grand aunt alive after vanishing for 66 years. The incredible news came days before my birthday, a great gift.

Now, I am waiting for Ancestry DNA to come through for my entire family and especially for the daughter of my grand aunt. She, her children and grandchildren don’t know anything about her father.

In the past year her matches on Family Tree DNA haven’t been close enough to answer the question on the mystery father from war-torn Berlin, Germany. Tired of waiting for the golden match, I finally gave into paying for a DNA test through Ancestry DNA.

It’s been an 11-month ordeal. The first Ancestry DNA kit was returned to my cousin. It’s illegal to send spit-filled test tubes through the Russian postal service abroad.

Thankfully, Ancestry DNA agreed to send me a second kit at no charge. I created a new plan to get around Russian laws. I found a contact to get the DNA kit out of Russia while they travelled abroad.

I told my cousin of the plan and the importance of immediately getting her mother to do the test so everything would line up properly. I started to sweat two weeks before my contact would travel.

My cousin didn’t answer my message about whether she mailed the DNA test until 6 days before my contact would travel. She told me she mailed the package that day. I got even more nervous.

The distance the package had to travel was close to the distance between Toronto, Canada, and New York City. How could the Russian postal service deliver the package in time?

I was devastated when I learned that the package arrived in my contact’s city a day after the traveling contact left Russia. Then, it took another 4 days to get through the city and into the local post office.

The next time the contact would travel abroad was scheduled months away. I was one step away from getting my hands on the package and done with waiting.

Thanks to a distant cousin from Russia on Ancestry DNA, I got advice for getting the package out of Russia. My contact followed my directions and I had the package in my hands 6 days later.

I couldn’t be happier to finally touch this package. I saw that U.S. customs cut open the package inside to inspect the contents. They didn’t care the customs form didn’t declare the actual object inside because DNA kits aren’t illegal in U.S. postal mail.

I immediately put the DNA test in the return shipping box at the post office. It took a week for Ancestry to list the kit as arrived.

Now, the waiting game begins. Will the matches again be too distant to find the father’s family? Will close matches refuse to answer my messages?

Let’s hope for a holiday miracle and finally say mystery solved.

Read the previous posts on this journey:

A shocking twist gets thrown into finding the mystery birth father from WWII
A DNA test and small paper trail face off to complete a WWII love story

Trio of siblings reunite after overcoming the challenges of finding family in the Ukrainian countryside

Last week, I was so thrilled to start a search for the birth family of a Ukrainian adoptee named Sarah.

I thought this would be an easy case. Sarah gave me her mother’s full name and the village where her mother lived 18 years ago. Finding that village on Google Maps was easy with having the village’s region and neighborhood.

My challenge of bringing Sarah emotionally home to her family appeared when I only found one woman registered for the village on popular social network Odnoklassniki. That woman only accepts messages from friends so I messaged a woman in the next village for help.

It took 3 days to get a response. I explained the situation with Sarah and I was immediately given a phone number to a relative named Valentine. All she knew about this adoption was that there was a girl born 15-20 years ago.

My friend in Moscow, Katya, reached Valentine 3 days later on his cell phone. It was a quick call, due to the expense of international calling. Valentine confirmed that Sarah had 2 siblings and she had been left at the maternity hospital.

Even with Katya’s knowledge of Russian and Ukrainian, she could hardly understand Valentine. She asked him to message me on Odnoklassniki. We waited 48 hours and he never contacted me. Then I recruited my cousin, Tatyana, in Kiev to reach out to him.

Valentine didn’t answer his cell phone when Tatyana called three days later. She messaged him my profile page on Odnoklassniki. Sarah was feeling rejected again by her family but this was a language and lack of access to Internet problem. I was screaming in my head “Get on the freakin Internet and message me!”

With all this waiting, I was joking in my head whether I needed to contact a Moldovan on the other side of Ukraine. It has taken an American, a Russian and a Ukrainian to get this far.

Thankfully, it only took two more days to finally talk to Valentine on Odnoklassniki. He confirmed my suspicions from the database of all Ukrainians on nomer.org that the grandfather had lived in the village (but he died recently) and told me the family has lived 86 years in the village.

Valentine provided me with the names of Sarah’s four aunts and one uncle, but he doesn’t know anything about her father nor the whereabouts of her brother and sister. Much of what Valentine wrote I couldn’t understand even with using Google Translate.

Thanks to crafty searching , I found an aunt on  Vkontakte. I put the name of the family village in Russian and then site: http://www.vk.com in the Google search box and the aunt appeared as a result.

I had already tried to find anyone from the village on  Vkontakte, but “no one” existed. The aunt appeared through my crafty searching because she put the family village as her hometown, but not as her current location.

I messaged her immediately upon finding her and the waiting game restarted. It took 4 days to get a very excited message from the aunt. She provided me with the names of Sarah’s brother, Vladimir and sister, Svetlana, who is attending college.

Sarah jumped on finding her siblings on social networks after I didn’t have luck. She sent me a link to a girl, whose page I viewed before as a possible cousin. Once I went through her photos and saw she had a brother Vladimir and was friends with the aunt, I had some hope they were siblings.

Having problems sleeping at 5 a.m., I finally messaged the girl whether she had the same mother. She responded immediately and I informed her that she has an older sister. Svetlana is shocked, but overjoyed.

Yesterday, Sarah was wondering whether she would ever find her siblings. Today, she added a sister as a friend on  Vkontakte and saw a picture of her mother with the same nose and chin. She has some closure and a new beginning with her family.

* All names were changed for privacy. Search was done for free.

Related posts:
An early birthday present for a Russian adoptee- a sister
Love and Faith reconnect Russian adoptee with birth family after 16 years

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.

changes-of-finding-a-match

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 Ancestry.com. 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