Missing opportunities with tunnel vision

I spent years focusing on one thing- finding my grandmother’s sister. It became so frustrating waiting and waiting and waiting for something to happen. When she was finally found this summer by the American Red Cross, I was relieved that I had been working on other projects.

Tunnel vision is never good in any situation. Opportunities will easily escape you. I learned this the hard way two years ago. I was so focused on finding my grand aunt that when I found the posts my maternal grandfather’s nephew put on a Russian genealogy forum, he already died two years before. I had been visiting the same genealogy forum for years but never bothered to look up my grandfather’s surname on the message board.

The guy was so determined to find my family. If I had made time to look at the message board for my grandfather’s surname years before, I could have met him and my several dozens of cousins in Kiev. I could have seen the buildings that my great-grandfather constructed as an architect. I could have also met my cousin’s daughter in the USA while she studied abroad in the states. By the time I found the messages, he had died, I already had an infant I could not leave for a week-long trip to Ukraine and I did not have money for the trip. I have to wait another two years to take the trip because my kids need to be older when I leave for the family reunion.

Now, I am researching all my family lines, even a line whose family does not bring up many good childhood memories. I have met some wonderful cousins online in Moscow, Kiev and Hamburg because I opened myself up to researching all my family lines and searching for relatives from each family line. I have letters my great-grandfather wrote to his brother during the early 20th century that I never imagined seeing. I have a family tree for the mother and father’s sides of a great-great-grandmother, going back to the early 1700s in Prussia. A grandson of my great-great-grandmother’s brother gave me the family tree his uncle made a decade before I was born.

I updated that family tree for the first time in 40 years for each family line I could find. A few months after I completed the year-long project, my mother and I met a daughter of the man who created the family tree for a weekend in New York City. It was a weekend I will never forget.

If I stayed focused just on finding my grandmother’s sister until the end, I don’t think I would have been excited when the Red Cross called about my grand aunt. I would have been frustrated that the search took so long.

I have learned so much about finding relatives and information on my entire family by working on other projects while I waited for the call from the Red Cross. I have much more confidence and information needed to fill other holes in my Russian family tree, in addition to having a much larger family than I had as a child. My life would never have been enriched by so many “new relatives” if I remained focused on one missing relative.

40 thoughts on “Missing opportunities with tunnel vision

  1. A missing relative that you can not account for is a bit like toothache, a constant need for resolve. My Great Great Aunt was unaccounted for her in England. All I had was three photos from my Grandmother, who had been given her Aunts name as a middle forename. I also had a handful of stories. After 20 long years I found the marriage and names for the children who had appeared in the photos. I found the First World War record for her husband and then the birth certificate of a third child whose birth appeared in that war record. It gave me a name of a baby that I could then identify from the photo who sadly died as a young infant. Sadly, I think this line dies out. The Aunt in question died at aged 40 years. I am now tracking the marriages of the two children, but at first glance, & from some research it does look as though the line dies out. The aunt was a Edith Matthews, who married a Charles Jelley. The line drove me mad for over 20 years and I feel great fondness, for a Great Great Aunt that I never met.


  2. Piet Gesner

    I had a similar blog in mind some years ago – but the ‘no-time’ factor and other things crowded it out.

    I have been searching for details re my maternal grandmother Anna for a little over a decade now – chipping away at it when opportunity presents. This has taken me around the world to archival repositories as far flung as Shanghai, Nantes (France) Geneva and Washington DC. I live in Australia.

    Anna arrived in Shanghai c.1922 with my mother (then an infant, a babe in arms – who’d been born en route to Shanghai, apparently on a Japanese ship via Hong Kong, so the family grape-vine had it)

    Anna was 19 when she gave birth – she may have travelled (‘out of Russia’) with “an aunt” – but no close relatives’ names have been forthcoming. Nor their port of departure, which I always assumed was somewhere in the E Mediterranean, but then it could have been from Vladivostok as well (my brother has a hunch she might have been one of the civilians who got out at the last minute before the fall of Vladivostok in one of the ships belonging to the ‘Admiral Stark fleet’) My maternal g/father died in the struggle against the Red Army – again, so the family grapevine would have it!

    At first I knew nothing but gradually pieced together with documentary evidence that Anna was born in Moscow in 1903,that she remarried in Shanghai in 1925 to a US expat, that she had some association with a Russian ballet school in Shanghai run by Tatiana Petrovna Svetlanova – Anna performed in “exotic dance” revues at the Lyceum Theater with other young Russian women.

    Anna lived in the French concession with her US husband and my Mum – who grew up speaking a mix of Russian, French and English – going to a French elementary school! – they must have been happy years and Anna was well-respected in the Russian community (some 4000-5500 strong before the ‘second refugee wave’ -“Harbinski” – in the early 1930s that came to the open city Shanghai)

    Anna had several good Russian friends – also Lithuanians and people from Russian Poland.

    Anna fell ill (TB) ca. August 1933 and was admitted to the Clinic Lambert, where she stayed until her death on 5 Jan 1934 (2 days short of her 31st b/day!) She was buried (“with Orthodox rites”) in the HuangJo cemetery) The ‘Shankhaiskaya Zaria’ carries the many condolences my Mum -then just 12- and her stepfather received from Anna’s friends. My Mum had just started at the Shanghai Public Girls School then and later went off to a British boarding school in Tsing Tao (when her stepfather remarried in 1936 – to another Russian girl, this time to a ‘Harbinski’!)

    They later moved to the US (San Francisco) where their children could be born with full entitlements to a US passport – this was a few years before WW2. At the outbreak of war in the Far East after Pearl Hbr. the Japanese occupied all of Shanghai and eventually interned all foreigners (who were “enemy nationals”) My Mum who had staid in Shanghai with her stepfather’s folk was eventually interned in Chapei Civilian PoW camp as a US national! That’s where she met my father! A Dutch national!

    Anna was using the name Voskresenskaya in 1925 before she remarried US ex-pat Isaac Cohen (a so-called “Shanghai-lander”) who became my Mum’s stepfather. Among Anna’s Shanghai friends, the names Tsygalnitskis, Bitker, Gai and Toeg (Hartmann) are prominent.

    There is still much I do not know – e.g. whether any of Anna’s relatives in Moscow or Russia survived the revolution, civil war Stalin etc.

    Are there descendants? – I have been told that the name Voskresenski which she used when she came to Shanghai is often used by the Russian clergy as it mean ‘of the Resurrection’

    I am keen to find out what Chinese archives are extant as I am aware the (Chinese) Kiang Su Provincial Govt’ regulated the influx of (White) Russian refugees in the 1920s – there was also a Bureau of Foreign Affairs! Anna & Isaac applied to the Chinese foreign affairs commissioner for permission to marry!

    So I keep chipping away in the hope this will turn up more factual evidence to throw light on Anna’s past and diaspora – she was one of the 100sthousands of so-called ‘small people’ whose lives were so thoroughly disrupted by what has been called ‘A Peoples’ tragedy’ (Russian Revolution and ensuing Civil War, 1917-22)

    best wishes and happy trails


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