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

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 Ok.ru 18 months ago after seeing that he was an active member on VGD.ru, 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

The aftermath of a house fire brings surprising joy

Just four months ago, I was upset to hear that my grandfather’s house burned down to the ground. There went any hope in contacting the current owner to find previous owners who could have known my grandfather, who died 5 years before I was born.

I can’t just jump on a plane and appear in the local property records office to look at records on my grandfather’s property. Grasping onto some hope, I posted a photo of his house on a Facebook page dedicated to his city asking anyone with memories of my grandfather’s house to contact me.

I got a bunch of likes to my post. I wanted to scream, “Stop liking my post. Someone please contact me!”

Three months later, I got more than I wished. A woman living in my grandfather’s city in southern Russia messaged me that her friend’s grandmother bought the house from my grandfather. That came to a complete shock.

He lived in the house until he died. It has been a mystery of what immediately happened to my grandfather’s house after his death. My father, his only child, was living in the USA and would have been arrested for just trying to visit his father. I don’t even want to think about what happened to all of my grandfather’s possessions after his death.

Now, it’s a shock that my grandfather sold his house to two different families in 1960 and stayed in the house as a tenant. Or maybe it shouldn’t be. He was single and 75 years old and most likely overwhelmed by taking care of the house himself.

The woman whose grandmother who was part owner of my grandfather’s house sent me scans of the property sales agreement. This was the last thing I thought I would ever see. Attempting to acquire this document from archives would give chuckles to office staff. Getting communist-era records from Russia is as easy as winning the lottery.

Then, the part owner’s granddaughter told me the truth about the condition of the house my grandfather had so much pride in. The house was so big that it was split into two properties. Only one half of the property burned to the ground.

A half of a house still standing sounds strange but that house has yet to be knocked down for some ugly, modern-looking apartment complex on the city’s main street, a fear of my grandfather.

I still don’t have one photo of this house from the inside. I’ll get my wish to see the inside in 10 days. The granddaughter will send me pictures her mother has been keeping in her home in Ukraine.

She also knows the other half owner of the property who bought it from my grandfather. The man still lives there 56 years later. My grandfather’s house must be quite the home.

With just searching his last name on a Russian online address book, I have found the other owner’s full name and birth date. He is almost 80 years old and will need to receive a charming letter to be inspired to pen me a letter.

This man is the only person alive who could tell me about my grandfather in detail. With the right letter, he could bring more life to my grandfather. Why give up now when I got surprised by just hoping?

 

An early birthday present for a Russian adoptee- a sister

The best surprises in life come near birthdays. My grandmother’s sister was found alive 66 years after disappearing from her family a few days before my birthday. Photos of my grandfather’s grave in southern Russia arrived by e-mail on my birthday.

Now, I am the giver of a great early birthday present that I wasn’t sure could arrive in time. Two days ago, a woman born in Russia and adopted in the USA asked for my help. I was nervous because her 18th birthday would be in 3 weeks.

Hearing the stories of adoptees on Facebook, I know the 18th birthday is the big day for many adoptees who know of their adoptions to begin searching for their birth families. The adoptee I’ll call Anna said she only knew about her birth family from her adoption papers.

Thankfully, I kept up with my Russian from my childhood so I could absorb everything in her original and translated documents. Sometimes the tiniest details on legal documents are the most important.

Anna was born in a village and that village name repeats throughout Russia. I couldn’t find the region where her birth village exists. That was a major problem for the search until I read the official stamp to certify the documents.

I learned the exact location of her village from the stamp, giving me more hope the birth family could be found. I searched women with Anna’s birth surname who were living in the family village on popular social network Ok.ru.

Only three women had active accounts that allowed messages from strangers. I sent a simple message of looking for Anna’s birth mother who had a daughter in 1998 without saying this was an adoption search. I did the same on more popular social network vk.com.

A 20-year-old woman very quickly responded to my message. I almost didn’t contact her because I thought she would be too young to know anything.

But lo and behold, the woman I’ll call Svetlana was her full-blood sister and only sibling of Anna. Sadly, the mother is very ill and the father died three years ago.

The best advantage of this sisterly reunion is that Svetlana knows English. A common language and Skype will bring Anna and Svetlana back together as siblings.

Now, the countdown begins for Anna’s entrance into adulthood when she turns 18 years old in less than 3 weeks. She has been blessed with a wonderful American family and now she will be blessed with knowing her Russian family.

Two days ago, Anna wondered whether it would be possible to find her family. Now, she gets to look forward to her 18th birthday, knowing the best gifts this birthday will be her sister and the chance to acquaint herself with an armload of relatives.

Svetlana has lived most of her life as an only child. She probably doesn’t remember celebrating a birthday with Anna. Now Svetlana has her sister back and she will have many birthdays to share with her little sister.

Related posts:

On a journey to connect Russian adoptees with their homeland family
Love and Faith reconnect Russian adoptee with birth family after 16 years
Build the best mousetrap to find long-lost family this holiday season