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

My second cousin was only told of her father’s name and military title during WWII. The mother is mum about the mystery father who served in the Soviet Army for the Battle of Berlin.

The daughter of my cousin asked me if I knew anything about her grandfather. Relatives of my grandmother’s generation repeated the same story about this war love story.

The grandmother of my younger cousin got pregnant by a Russian soldier. She disappeared soon afterwards. A Russian soldier came to my great-grandparents’ apartment, begging them to come to communist-controlled East Berlin to pick up their daughter. The soldier told them their daughter was not returned to the USSR by sheer luck.

Too fearful of being forced back to the USSR and killed in the gulags for escaping war-torn Kiev, my great-grandparents stayed home and died not knowing what happened to their daughter and unborn grandchild. Was that visiting soldier the father of my second cousin?

Not only is the grandfather a mystery, but I was quite the surprise for my cousin’s family. I appeared out of nowhere four years ago with the help of the Russian Red Cross. My older cousin didn’t know her mother had a brother and sister.

After getting to know my “new cousins” for a few years, I finally popped the question to my second cousin’s daughter: “Will your mother take a DNA test?” A few weeks later, my cousin said yes with enthusiasm.

The time involved to get the Family Tree DNA test back to the lab in Texas was quite long. The package took two months to arrive in western Russia. Apparently, the horses delivering the mail also were busy with a circus tour.

My cousin got busy with her family life and waited several weeks to mail back the test. Thankfully, it took only less than 3 weeks for the test to arrive at the lab. Family Tree DNA quickly processed the test in a mere 16 days.

I was so hopeful to get close matches for my cousin. Family Tree DNA is the only large company that sends DNA genealogy tests to Russia and Ukraine, making it the best choice for finding relatives living in the former USSR.

My cousin has 27 pages of matches, giving her almost 300 matches. Her closest matches are 18 2nd to 4th cousins and 39 4th to remote cousins. I immediately uploaded her DNA data to Gedmatch to find other matches from Ancestry DNA and 23andme for free.

None of the matches on Family Tree DNA nor Gedmatch are close enough to ask the awkward question: “Do you have a grandfather who served in WWII in Berlin in spring 1945?”

This mystery is going to take more than a DNA test to be solved.

Thanks to the crafty and knowledgeable forum members on All Russia Family Tree, I learned about the only man who could have been the mystery Russian soldier. More than two dozen men with the same name served in the war but only one served in the Battle of Berlin.

The main Russian military archives released a boatload of information on the soldier at no charge- the soldier’s birth year, birth place, place of residence in 1987,  wife’s name and her birth year and their daughters’ names and birth years.

So here starts my personal challenge to see whether the DNA test or the small paper trail will help find the birth father’s family 70 years later.

Related post:

Guide for making the best choices in DNA testing

An inside look into U.S. National Archives’ best research gem for WWII-era immigrants

For years, I have been glowing about the importance of Alien Case Files, possessed by the U.S. National Archives. There is nothing like a nice stack of documents filled with information on individual immigrants in one simple file.

Anyone wondering about relatives or ancestors who fled war-torn Europe during and after World War II should consider looking into obtaining Alien Case Files on their family. Only a small portion of records included in these files can be found on any online genealogy website, including Ancestry.com.

So here is a sneak peek into the life of Helen, my relative by marriage. Born in Ukraine, she fell in love in Russia, had her heart broken by her husband, escaped the USSR with her two children with her ex-husband and his new wife before a major battle between the Soviet Union and Germany occurred in her new hometown.

She was eventually captured by the German army and forced to fix the railroad damaged in the war. The American Army liberated her and she traveled through western Europe before coming abroad to live the American dream.

Her Alien Case File below shows how much can be discovered on WWII-era immigrants. Not all immigrants will have the same amount of records on them but Alien Case Files are the most complete records on immigrants in U.S. National Archives. I deleted several personal details in these scans for privacy reasons.

If you would like to find Alien Case Files on your family, read this FAQ on increasing chances of success in finding these records.


Guide for success in obtaining Alien Case Files

Hitting the jackpot on researching WWII-era immigrants takes a few simple steps. It will cost around $20-$55 per immigrant being researched. That’s a price well below the value of the documents filled in the U.S. Alien Case Files.

Here’s answers to general questions on obtaining these files.

What information will I need to obtain the files on my relative?

It is most important to know the person’s full name, birth date or birth year, birth country or city and immigration year. Any extra information such as profession, old addresses, names of relatives living in the same household increases the chances of finding the correct file. Various known spellings of the immigrant’s name also are a great help.

It is highly recommended to first obtain the immigrant’s naturalization record from regional archives of U.S. National Archives. That record will likely include the immigrant’s Alien Number.

What is the importance of the Alien Number?

The number will determine where the Alien Case File can be found. In order to search for an Alien Case File through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Genealogy Program, the number must be below 8 million.

Files with numbers higher than 8 million must be requested with a Freedom of Information Act request, using this form. That form needs to be sent to National Records Center (NRC), FOIA/PA Office, P.O. Box 648010, Lee’s Summit, MO 64064-8010 or uscis.foia@uscis.dhs.gov. Do not mentioned genealogy as the reason for requesting file. Your request will be rejected and you will be referred to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Genealogy Program if you mention genealogy on the form.

Is there an online database for the Alien Case Files?

An index of available files for immigrants born no later than 1910 can be found on Ancestry.com here. If you don’t have an Ancestry.com paid account, visit FamilySearch.org, free and without a registration requirement, to search the index here.

If I find files of relatives in the index, where can I get the files?

Send an e-mail message to U.S. National Archives in Kansas City at Afiles.KansasCity@nara.gov. View this page for more information on the files at Kansas City.

If my relatives are not found in the index, where I can send my search request?

Visit this page for the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services Genealogy Program to see whether your relatives’ files would be eligible to be included in the genealogy program. If your relative’s file fall within the criteria, go here to make an index search request for $20. Results of the search will be sent by postal mail in a few weeks and then the located files must be ordered for $20-$35 each.

My relatives were born after 1910 and are not eligible to be included in the genealogy program. How do I get their files?

Fill out this form and send it to National Records Center (NRC), FOIA/PA Office
P.O. Box 648010, Lee’s Summit, MO 64064-8010 or uscis.foia@uscis.dhs.gov . Don’t put down genealogy under Part 3 for 1. Purpose (Optional).

It is highly recommended to have the immigrant’s Alien Number, if possible.

You will receive a letter, stating your request number. That number can be used to check the status update page daily to see the placement of your requests. That website’s address will be listed in the letter.

The form is free to file. It could cost up to $25 for each file, which is sent on a CD in a PDF format. I have not paid once for Alien Case Files through the FOIA/PA office.

How long does it take to get the files?

It should take less than a month to get the files from Kansas City. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services Genealogy Program tries to send files within 90 days. Results of search requests using the Freedom of Information Act form take several weeks.

Do I have to prove ancestry to the immigrant whose file I am requesting?

No. The only requirements for requesting these files are the person whose file is being requested must be deceased and their death must be proven if they were born after 1915. Proof of death can be shown with copies or scans of obituaries, Social Security Death Index listings and death records.

Can living people get their own Alien Case Files?

Yes. They must prove their identity with their birth record, driver’s license or passport.

If you have more questions, post them in the comments section below or e-mail me at bepa.miller at mail.ru.

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.

otradachurch 010

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.