Weeding through the trash for the hidden gems

I have kept an open mind on where I get information on my family because I do not have much of a choice. Everyone who could answer my questions on my family is dead. The relatives who are still alive repeat the same stories I already have heard.

So when I found a large stash of cassette tapes of my now deceased father interviewing his mother, I was confident so many of my questions would be answered. I was so excited when I got each batch of tapes reproduced on CDs because I knew there had to be new information on the tapes. My mother and I listened to the tapes in Russian each time I visited her. I did not realize how much pointless and nasty gossip we would have to listen to before finding any useful information.

My grandmother had an obsessive with going on about a niece she claimed was not really her brother’s child. Then, she would tell elaborate stories that a brother’s wife was a prostitute and liked to dance on a table naked in her house for various men. Listening to this garbage was heart-breaking for my mother because it just reminded her how nasty her mother-in-law was to her.

When we finally heard information that appeared to be useful, we were so delighted. My grandmother gave some interesting details on my great-grandparents, my grandfather, her mother, her brothers and their life in Russia. Then we wondered if my grandmother was being dishonest again. I wrote down any information that seemed useful or interesting.

The most useful information I got from the tapes was that my great-grandfather had a brother Nikolai, who was a decorated Don Cossack. No one in my family knows about my great-grandfather’s siblings. I posted my family’s information on a surname list at forum.vgd.ru, hoping someone related to my great-grandfather’s siblings would see my post.

A few months later, a great-grandson of Nikolai e-mailed me. He first sent me a photo of my great-grandfather, who did not look like my grandmother nor her five brothers. Then he sent his family tree back to the 1700s, with accurate information on the families of my grandmother and her five brothers. I was floored and called the daughter of my grandmother’s brother at 6 a.m. on a Sunday.

Since then, my newly found cousins have e-mailed me three letters my great-parents wrote to Nikolai, a photo of my great-grandfather in his Don Cossack uniform and a photo of my great-grandfather with his father and five of his six children from the early 1900s and they have translated several family documents for me.

The tapes may help me find more information and relatives of my great-grandfather’s wife. My grandmother rattled off some names of her mother’s siblings and information about the family’s life in Kharkov, Ukraine.

I have been told several times to “consider the source” before I start believing something. It is really best to hear everyone’s stories so you don’t miss any gems of information.

DNA genealogy testing becomes an interesting option

Lately, more companies are claiming they can fill in gaps on family trees with DNA testing. Out of curiosity, I spent $289 on FamilyTreeDNA to take the Family Finder test earlier this year.

So after almost a year, I have not found distant relatives to add onto my family tree. I have been matched to 14 people. Only three matches are identified as 3rd and 4th cousins. The rest are listed as 5th cousins.

There may be one person who I could prove as a distant relative. We could have a great-great-great-grandparent in common on my mother’s side. The match needs to have research done in Poland archives to see whether our family connection can be proven.

Several months ago, I took the MTDNA test to find matches on my maternal line. So far, I have 335 matches that are very distant. The matches could go back as far as the 1600s, making it impossible to find common ancestors. I am waiting for full genomic sequence matches so I can find close cousins.

It will take time to find some connections with DNA genealogy. There are several options on FamilyTreeDNA to find relatives on each family line. You just have to find the right relatives to take the tests and have enough research done on the family tree to make connections. A mother’s brother can take a test to find matches from the maternal father’s line. A paternal grandmother can take a test to study her mother’s family.

The family finder test provides matches for the mother and father’s sides of the family so it is hard to connect the matches without extensive family tree research. FamilyTreeDNA keeps DNA samples for 20 years and provides free matches over that time. I am hoping more Russians and Ukrainians will take the tests from FamilyTreeDNA so I can find better matches.

My dream is that a large Russian genealogy DNA company will allow me to transfer my results to its website. Russian companies have started genealogy DNA testing but I have not seen options for foreigners to transfer their results.

For now, I am waiting for results from Ancestry.com’s genealogy DNA website. I was selected to take a test for free, plus $9.95 shipping, to determine the percentage breakdown of my ancestry. The results are expected in early 2012. I wonder how much of my ancestry will be Russian and Ukrainian. This test is not offered on dna.ancestry.com yet to the public.

Ancestry.com offers three genealogy DNA test but the tests are not as strong as FamilyTreeDNA. The stronger tests provide matches for closer relatives. Genealogy DNA testing is a great option, but it takes patience to find solid connections. Anyone who chooses to spend money on these tests has to understand that many matches will be hard to figure out.

Say goodbye to Оплата получена

The cyrillic language is still a challenge to web browsers on some webpages. The žÐ¿Ð»Ð°Ñ‚а получена on Russian and Ukrainian websites will go away with a few clicks. Even if you are browsing cyrillic websites with an online translator, the websites will not translate to another language without the below changes.

Internet Explorer- Click on the tool symbol right of the star for bookmarks, select Internet Options, click on Languages on the bottom, add Russian and Ukrainian languages below English and press OK.

Google Chrome- Click on the wrench symbol on the top right, then pick Options, select Under the Hood, click on Customize Fonts under web content, go down to Encoding at the bottom of the fonts & encoding page, select KO18-R (for Russian) or select KO18-U (for Ukrainian) and press OK.

Safari- Reconfiguration is not required.

Firefox- Click on Firefox in the top left corner, select Options in the second column, click on Options, choose Content from the top tabs, click on Advanced under fonts & color, pick Cyrillic/Russian or Cyrillic/Ukrainian on the bottom from default character encoding and press OK.

Opera- Click on the File tab, select Preferences, click on Language,  add Russian and Ukrainian and press OK.

Don’t trip over the skeltons coming from the closet

Looking into the past of relatives living in Europe during World War II can become unnerving. No one really knows what will be uncovered once they start poking around and asking questions.

I am starting to piece together my family’s escape from the Soviet Union and immigration through Europe. I haven’t found Nazi collaboration but I have so many questions that will never be answered. I had several relatives who lived in Litzmannstadt, Prussia, in 1943.

You need to know about the history of Prussia during the war to understand the significance of this. The Nazis renamed Lodz, Prussia (now Poland) to Litzmannstadt. The Nazis murdered 420,000 residents of Lodz- 300,000 Polish Jews and 120,000 Poles. The town gained residents who were Germans living abroad called Volksdeutsch and looking to relocate to Germany, according to Wikipedia’s article on Lodz.

I only learned my mother’s family lived in Lodz from a professional photo taken of an aunt. The photo was stamped by a Litzmannstadt photographer. I had problems finding information on Litzmannstadt so I called an 84-year-old cousin born in Prussia. She said the city was called Lodz before the Germans renamed the city. I put the pieces together when my cousin said her family escaped the Russians in Bialystok (once Russia and now Poland), then applied for German citizenship and was transported to Litzmannstadt.

I really couldn’t press her for more information or ask abrasive questions. She was dying of cancer. She was 16 years old when she moved to Litzmannstadt.  On top of it all, her brother died in Russia while serving in the German army even before he turned 21. Her big brother was her only sibling. I wish I could have asked her “Did you know what was going on around you?;” “Did anyone try to stop the city’s extermination?”

My mother was one years old when she lived in Litzmannstadt. I wonder what my grandfather, a former POW of the Germans, thought about the situation he managed to get into by escaping the Soviet Union. My grandmother was probably living in a fog. She had hardly anything to eat as a child, walked to school as bodies laid in the street and probably wondered if life would ever be enjoyable. My grandfather saved my grandmother a few times from the Nazis occupying Kiev before they could take her to a camp.

My family’s connection to Litzmannstadt became more personal when I watched “Sarah’s Key” with my mother last weekend. The movie is based on a novel about an American journalist who writes an article about the Paris round up of Jews in 1942. The journalist’s parents bought a Paris apartment that was occupied by a Jewish family taken by the Nazis to a concentration camp.

The movie makes me wonder about the families who lived in the apartments where my family stayed before they moved to Germany. I hope one day to learn about what happened to those families. It creeps me out that my family lived in apartments probably owned by Jewish families who were killed in concentration camps.

It is easy to say “my family is not Jewish or German” to avoid thinking about the atrocities of the war. I did not know about my German ancestry until I was in college. I never imagined my family would have a connection to such a terrible part of the war. Anyone researching their family during the war and searching for family who went missing during the war has to be open to finding uncomfortable facts about the family.

The frustration of Moscow federal archives

Right now, the Moscow federal archive office makes me want to scream. My experience with the staff has been pure frustration.

At first, I was so excited that the archives found two documents on my great-grandfather. Two documents do not sound like much, but I have yet to find one document on him in archives for the region where he was born and had lived.

My excitement turned to annoyance when I learned how much Государственный архив Российской Федерации (ГА РФ) wanted for scans of four pieces of paper. The archive office wants $99 American dollars. This equals to about 3,000 rubles. It sounds completely insane.

My bank charges $45 for foreign bank transfers. I find it unreasonable to pay $144 for four scans. The archive office will not accept payment by Western Union due to concerns about money being in the hands of employees.

Archive staff claimed the office has an American account with Bank of New York. It would only cost $25 for a domestic bank transfer. I gave my bank the account number from archives and customer service was confident the number was not for an American bank. Now, I learned the archive office has Russian accounts for deposits of rubles and another for other currencies. Apparently, the archive staff did not understand what I meant by American bank account number. The archive office did not give me the account number for the Bank of New York.

Then, I asked my brother for help. He has friends in Moscow so he sent a friend to the archives to pay the bill. The staff was offended I sent someone else to pay the bill. I sent an e-mail message two weeks in advance that another person would pay the bill in person. I never got a response to my e-mail message before my brother’s friend arrived or afterwards.

So, now I am hoping a guy in Moscow who responded to my plea for help on forum.vgd.ru will find a way to help me. He immediately responded to my e-mail message last night. This man will try to find the same documents from the 1880s in January.

The Moscow federal archives has a website but it is hard to figure out where certain documents could be found. The federal archives in St. Petersburg has a wonderful website that makes finding files with their location very easy.

I hope this drama with ГА РФ will end soon, with me having the documents in my e-mail account. Hopefully, it will not cost $144 to get these scans. I have been warned Russian federal archives charge expensive fees. I never expected that four scans would cost $99.

A lot of people use private researchers to review documents at ГА РФ because it is cheaper. It has been very affordable to have archive staff research my family in regional archives. I never imagined Russian federal archives would demand so much money for documents.