Empty-handed search but warmed by open doors of Ukrainian Secret Service

I didn’t know what to expect when I asked the Ukrainian Secret Service to check  its archives for records on my maternal grandmother’s family. Would it be a good thing if records were found? Would it be wonderful if records didn’t exist?

My luck, of course, was records were not found. It was a disappointment at first but I also felt grateful that my grandmother’s family did not suffer from political persecution during a painful time in the communist era.

My grandparents told my mother that my family escaped war-torn Kiev in winter 1943 during the night. Only what was needed made it into suitcases. Thanks to my maternal grandmother’s German ancestry from her mother in current day eastern Poland, my family got permission to immigrate to Germany.

My family lived a quiet life in southern Germany. It wasn’t easy for my grandfather to live in the land of his torturers. My grandfather was a POW of the German army in a prison near Kiev and my grandmother walked for a long time every day to bring him food.

My grandfather talked his way out of that prison and got back to my grandmother and mother. My grandmother’s family found a way to escape bombed-out Kiev, which had little food and hope for those who waited for the war to end.

My grandmother probably wondered whether her father’s family suffered when she and several family members escaped Soviet Ukraine. Proof of persecution against her family doesn’t exist. Records from the secret service’s archives would have helped me find my grandmother’s paternal relatives.

I am grateful the records are not there. I am even more grateful for the professionalism and openness of Ukrainian Secret Service.

My request was acknowledged by e-mail less than 48 hours later. Then, 13 days later, I received a letter, stating archive records do not include my family.

The letter included information on a man carrying my grandmother’s maiden name who died as a POW of the Germans and addresses for Ukrainian and Russian military archives and Kursk Regional archives. The secret service just didn’t send me a cold one-paragraph letter that nothing was found.

Anyone who is curious about whether their family suffered from communist persecution should take action now. Requests are free and simple. I posted my proof of ancestry and identity records to a private Google Picasa album and sent secret service archives a link to the album.

I will make two more requests with the secret service archives. At any time politics of Ukraine could change the openness of these records. Timing is everything, especially when closure is desired on Ukraine’s painful political past.

Related website: Secret Service of Ukraine archives

Related post: Awaiting untold stories from recently opened Ukrainian Secret Service’s archives

 

Time-killing Google search leads to massive WWI database

Everyone has heard the saying that things will come to you when you are not looking. I was searching on Google about my paternal grandmother’s Don Cossack ancestry.

I didn’t find anything too exciting until one result was a database for Russian soldiers who were injured and/or died in World War I. Sometimes these databases can be complicated to use for those who don’t know Russian.

But this database can be searched in English! This website also has the original records for 1,068,811 men who served in the war.

Most soldiers have their full name (first, patronymic and surname); place of residence by region, neighborhood and village; military rank; religion; marital status and date of injury or death. Then, that information is listed with links to the original military records.

Here’s how to use this great resource: put the last name in the line for Фамилия, first and patronymic names in the line for Имя-отчеств, (You can’t just use patronymic name for this line.) and place of residence in the line for Место жительства. If you don’t get results when you include place of residence, remove the information.

If you can’t read Russian, copy and paste the results into Goggle Translate. The only material that can’t be translated into English is the military records linked next to Источник.

So go check out this wonderful resource. A wonderful discovery may be awaiting you.

Godparents are the fairy godmothers of genealogy

It is always a joy to find a direct ancestor’s birth record. The genealogy value for those records doubles in value when godparents are taken seriously.

Back in the day, godparents were most likely relatives for the children being baptized. I’ve lost track of all the times that godparents on baptism records have solved a family mystery or surprisingly expanded my family tree.

My great-grandfather wrote a letter to his children about his life and siblings. He either didn’t know his mother’s maiden name or thought it wasn’t that important. I got more curious about these people and had a researcher look up their birth records in archives.

I noticed a certain surname being very common for godparents. Then a few years later, I discovered the maiden name of my great-grandfather on German immigration records. The name was terribly written. I could see the immigration official struggled with writing the Russian name.

The scribbled named in English was very close to how the common surname for the godparents would be written in English. I quickly was able to confirm the suspected surname was the maiden name of my great-great-grandmother  Irina Petrovna by having a researcher look up records in archives.

Discovering the maiden names of women in Russian and Ukrainian church records is pretty lucky because typically women are identified by their first name and patronymic name (name based on their father’s first name) or their last name is their married surname.

Thankfully, the Russian records of my German evangelical Lutheran relatives in eastern Poland, formerly Russia, have the maiden names for women. Records from that area have sledge hammers for breaking down some brickwalls.

My maternal grandmother lost a page of a family tree and I could only see the name Otto Bleschke without his children’s information. I wondered whether this guy really existed because Bialystok archives didn’t find his birth or marriage record. Then I found him as the godfather of my great-grandmother.

Another relative claimed Otto, a great-great-grand uncle, had a sister named Agnes. Only relatives from one line in the family heard of this woman. So I looked at the translations for the family birth records. There I found Agnes as godmother of my great-grandmother’s oldest sister and later I found her birth record to officially confirm her as my great-great-grand aunt.

Godparents on baptism records came to the rescue another memorable time. My paternal grandmother had a horrible habit of telling stories hard to believe so I started to even question the names she gave my father on taped interviews.

I tried to use Google to connect a particular surname to my mystery paternal great-grandmother’s family. Nothing that came up was useful to confirm my grandmother’s information.

Then I finally got my grandmother’s brothers’ birth records. The godfather of my Grand Uncle Alex had the surname my grandmother mentioned as the family their maternal aunt married into. The godfather was the creator of the official symbol of Lugansk, Ukraine. I used this information to my advantage to knock down the price for the birth record of Alex’s oldest brother.

Other times I have noticed common surnames as godparents have appeared as direct ancestors a few generations before the birth of those children. I have made lists of godparents’ surnames and discovered the most common surnames were those I added as direct ancestors.

So if you are stuck with your research,  make the same list of godparents’ surnames. Are some of the most common surnames already on your family tree? Then, get to work and see if you can add the other surnames.

 

A simple archive search uncovers an unplanned thank you present

I was excited a year ago when a southern Russia archives office discovered a grand uncle’s high school records. Then curiosity got to me and made me wonder whether the same records were available on my grandmother and her other four brothers.

My luck was that only high school records of one other grand uncle was found. It was disappointing to read the letter from archives until I realized the archives had found high school records of my great-grandfather’s brother.

This is an incredible find. I have been so lucky that the great-grandchildren of my great-grand uncle found me four years ago. They have helped me find records in Russia national archives, submit my requests to Russia national archives, translate records for me and share photos of my great-great-grandfather,  my great-grandfather and my grandmother and her brothers.

Now, I can show my appreciation for all their help by sending them their great-grandfather’s high school records. I never thought these records would exist for my great-grandfather’s generation.

This wonderful discovery opens a new door for me again. I can check whether the same records can found for my great-grandfather.

It’s been quite a struggle to find personal records of my great-grandfather. His birth and death records are missing. His marriage record is almost impossible to obtain from difficult eastern Ukraine. Also, I have yet to discover one document on his Don Cossack service.

So having his high school records would be wonderful. It may not be found but maybe archives will stumble across another family record.

My luck with this archive to make an extra effort to find records for me can be credited to my gratitude. Any time they find records for me or my requested records are not found, I express my appreciation for their efforts.

So my thankfulness is finally being returned to me as a gift. It’s going to be such a thrill when my cousins in Moscow discover their great-grandfather’s high school records in their mailbox.

Connect and click with long lost family in Russia and Ukraine

Several years ago, I didn’t have contact with any cousins in Ukraine or Russia. Now, I need all my fingers and toes to count all my “new” cousins.

It takes an art to connect with family you never grew up with and possibly will never meet. Your connection will not magically happen by announcing “Here I am! Our great-grandmothers were sisters.”

So here are my Top 10 tips for connecting with people who you have confirmed as  long-lost family or could be related to your family.

1. Create a photo album of your relatives on Picasa. Make sure to post descriptions in Russian using Yandex Translate. It’s not enough to send distant relatives an e-mail message that you are related through a certain ancestor. Offer that person something they can connect with and appreciate. If you are concerned about privacy, you can change the access to anyone with a link to the album on the far right.

2. Open an account on Oдноклассник, a popular Russian-language social network. Use Google Translate for registration if you are not comfortable with Russian. Post friendly and non-political pictures. Put in the green-bordered box on the top middle “looking for relatives of ______________ “in Russian for your status.

3. Put your genealogy research into nicely organized Word documents. Your research can be translated into Russian and Ukrainian best on Yandex Translate. Offer to share your research with your relative if they are interested.

4. Learn about as many relatives as possible from your newly found relative. It is best to find relatives with whom you have similar interests,  professions, and life stage, such as travel, technology, new motherhood or grandparenthood, etc. I am closest with cousins who have young children because I am in the same life stage. It’s not enough to be related to someone who lived decades ago.

5. Open an account with mail.ru, which is connected with Oдноклассник. You’ll see how many notifications you have from Oдноклассник when you are logged into mail.ru. I have stopped using my American-based e-mail accounts for interacting with Russian-language cousins because my account put the messages in my spam box or their messages turned into random letters and symbols due to Cyrillic confusing the e-mail program’s platform.

6. Upload a family tree onto My Heritage. There is no point in inviting relatives from Russia and Ukraine to a family tree on Ancestry.com because they need to have paid memberships to view the trees. My Heritage trees can be reviewed by anyone.

7. Collect postal addresses of a few relatives so you can send them birthday and Christmas cards. The simple effort to send cards gives a personal touch to the relationship.

8. If you are writing letters to people in Ukraine or Russia who are much older, provide your e-mail address on mail.ru and address on Oдноклассник. Sometimes older people are not open to answering letters from strangers. Open the door to be in contact with younger relatives by offering your online information.

9. Don’t push too hard to receive family photos or information for the family tree from your newly found relative. It is hard enough to find relatives in the former USSR while it’s also so easy to scare them away.

10. Don’t talk about touchy topics, especially family disputes no matter how long ago they happened and communist-era persecutions. I have cousins who are upset about what their aunts, uncles and cousins did 50 years ago. Some Russians and Ukrainians still avoid discussing relatives who were imprisoned in communist labor camps or killed during the communist era. Leave those topics alone unless your relative brings them up.

Return to closed and damaged church records leads to unreal success

Almost a year ago, I thought finding my maternal grandfather’s birth record, along with his siblings’, was only a fantasy from too much daydreaming. I didn’t know the exact address where my family lived nor the church they attended in the massive city of Kiev.

When my researcher, Nikita Kovalchuk,  gave me names of three churches that were near the long street where my family lived, I hoped I had picked the right church. I crossed my fingers Nikita would find my grandfather’s birth record.

My luck was that the church records for that year were damaged and closed to public viewing for at least six months.

Then, I asked Nikita to find the birth record of my grandfather’s youngest sister, a big mistake. My nervous eagerness to find the family church made me forget that she was born in a village west of Kiev.

The absence of my grand aunt’s birth record at that church was enough to convince me I picked the wrong church. I refused to give up on finding the family church.

I asked a granddaughter of the youngest grand aunt if she recalls her father mentioning any addresses where the family lived before WWII. She remembered another street where the family lived.

So I went back to Nikita and he suggested the same church that was researched eight months before. I didn’t realize he would research the same church until I looked at pictures of the church online.

Luckily, I didn’t see those photos again until my grandfather’s record was found. There was so much excitement over finding his birth record in the newly reopened church book but I wondered when my luck would run out.

Surprisingly, my luck stuck around every time Nikita looked up a birth record. He found records of three sisters.

Due to my persistence in contacting the families of my grandfather’s siblings, I had the birth dates of most siblings. I didn’t have the birth date of one sister. Three letters to her relative in Kiev never resulted in getting her birth date.

But my great-grandmother had a pattern to giving birth to her children. It seemed every two years she was having another child. Thanks to that pattern, I guessed the correct year of birth for her second daughter.

Once, I saw Nikita’s message- “Your luck is still great, so here is Nadezhda’s birth record.”, I had the biggest smile for accomplishing a goal I thought was unrealistic.

I keep a to-do list and never put this wish on the list because it seemed laughable that it could be accomplished. Now, I wish I had put it down on my to-do list. It would have been great to highlight and press delete on that goal.

With accurate research and persistence, even the wildest wish in genealogy research can come true. Negativity blocks the creativity of genealogy adventures.

Awaiting untold stories from recently opened Ukrainian Secret Service’s archives

I was taken aback when a woman posted on a Ukrainian genealogy Facebook page that the Secret Service of Ukraine has opened its communist-era archives.

The files are open on Ukrainians who were investigated for “crimes” or other “suspicious activities”. Back in the Soviet era, talking to a foreigner in the street was suspicious.

So I used Yandex Translate to read SSU’s website that announces most of its 1.5 million files are open to the public. It was shocking to read this:

“We are always happy to answer and queries to provide comprehensive information and useful advice on finding information about people who are trapped in the crucible of the Soviet repressive system security. After all, the basic principle of the archive is to share their treasures with the previous approval of the historical truth for the sake of a better future.”

I know it is 2015, almost 24 years since the Iron Curtain fell, but I thought Ukraine would need more time to open these records.

So I immediately scanned family documents on my Trunov family from Kiev to prove my ancestry.

Those documents included my grandmother’s official birth record, an EWZ record (German citizenship records for those who lived abroad and wanted to live in Germany during WWII) that shows my great-grandparents’ and their children’s names and birth dates, my great-grandmother’s German identification papers and my U.S. passport.

To make sending these documents secure online, I posted the images to an album on Picasa and e-mailed an invitation from Picasa to view the records to the SSU.

Then my e-mail message translated into Russian included my gratitude for the records being open and thankfulness for any information that could be provided. I included everything I knew about my Trunov family in Kiev and my postal address to show my request was not casual and lacked thoroughness.

My decision to move quickly on contacting SSU is based on my fear that restrictions could come any day such as complete proof of ancestry, limits on searches only of direct ancestors or requirement of using professional researchers to complete the searches. A future change in administration at SSU could easily make this process more complicated.

When I pressed the send button from my Russian e-mail account, I wondered how long would it take to receive a response. To my surprise, I got a response in 48 hours that my request was accepted and would be answered in the legally required time period.

I nervously await the response from SSU. The secret service archives could have records to answer so many questions for my family. Nothing also could be found but I cannot turn down or take an invitation to search these secret files casually.