FAQ about trouble with finding information on family

Why can’t I find anyone with my family’s surname in online documents or on websites?

Try spelling the name in its original language -Russian or Ukrainian- by pronunciation using this cyrillic keyboard. If the surname has y’s and v’s, try changing those letters to j’s and w’s in English. Also search for people with the same surname on www.ellisisland.org. The website gives a large list of other possible spellings when no one with the same last name can be found.

Why can’t I find anything about my family’s village or town? I know I spelled it right.

The names of towns and villages change over time. During German occupation, the Nazis changed the names of towns. The city of Lodz, Prussia (now Poland) was called Litzmannstadt during Nazi occupation. I had a relative born in Ciechanowiec, Russia (now Poland). The town’s name has been spelled  Tshekhanovits, Tsekhanovets, Chechanovitz, Chekhanovits, Chekhanovitse, Rudelstadt and Tsikhanovits over the years. Search for the village or town on Wikipedia to see whether its name changed over time. It may be helpful to also search for the community in Russian or Ukrainian.

I found people with the same names as my relatives in immigration records, but their nationality is different from my family’s information.

Many immigrants from the USSR lied about their nationality to get permission to immigrate to the USA. The number of immigrants were limited by native country. With the USSR being the largest country in the world, it was harder to get into the USA as a Russian or Ukrainian immigrant. I recently found my mother’s family’s ship passenger records and relatives were listed as Polish, not Ukrainian. I’ve seen other family immigration records list relatives as Estonian and Czechoslovakian.

Also, the borders of countries have changed over time. My great-grandmother was born in Russia, but the city was in Prussia before her birth. Now the city is in Poland. She claimed her nationality as German. Here is a map of Europe from 1911 and after World War I and World War II.

I found people with the same names as my relatives online, but their biographical information is somewhat different from mine. Could they really be related?

These people could be relatives or not. During World War II, so much damage was done to church and civil records that family information could not be confirmed. Also, a lot of church records were destroyed by the communist government so people would not know information about their relatives. Family documents were recreated for the immigration process without question and sometimes immigrants were not honest about details of their birth, marriage and places of residence to make immigration easier. Some immigrants bought fake documents to make sure they did not have trouble immigrating. The younger generation of these people may not know the family has falsified documents. Also, the writing on family records given during immigration and naturalization could have been misread or had typos.

I found a family tree that almost matches mine but the tree has a different spouse and has children my family never discussed.

The spouse could be from a first marriage and children from that marriage. Your relatives could be from a second marriage. My brother discovered another son from a grandmother’s brother in archive records. The mother was a woman unknown to the family. The child was nine years older than the first-born son and 21 years older than the last born son from the second marriage. Divorce and remarriage were very easy during communist times. It just involved registering with the local government office. If you find relatives of a step-sibling, they could be helpful in your search for your birth relatives. It is amazing who knows what in families. A great-grandson of my great-grandfather’s brother had a family tree that my grandmother had a sister, but no one in my family talked about the sibling. She probably died young.

Making another breakthrough with EWZ files

I finally have figured out how my Russian grandparents were able to live in Germany during and after World War II. My grandmother applied for German citizenship for herself, her husband and her daughter by using her mother’s German ancestry.

A Polish listserv member found my grandparents’ and mother’s Einwandererzentrale (EWZ) file numbers on Odessa. Strangely enough, the database also found files for parents of my grandfather. I thought my grandfather’s family was pure Russian. At least one of my great-grandparents had to have German ancestry to apply for German citizenship as a couple. I wonder who had the mystery German ancestry.

A cousin from my grandfather’s family has suspected the family is really German, not Russian, based on the first and last names not sounding very Russian. My grandfather’s family has been in Russia for generations but Germans and other ethnic groups have lived in Russia for a long time.

This mystery will be unveiled when I get my hands on these files stored on microfilm at National Archives in College Park, Maryland. I am still trying to figure out how I will get copies of these records.

National Archives does not rent the microfilms for the EWZ files. Each microfilm is sold for $85, way too pricey for me. I cannot travel to College Park right now. I am looking for a professional researcher or hoping National Archives will make copies for me. I have the exact film and frame numbers where my family’s records can be found. I’ve heard that the files listed on Odessa are not available on microfilm at the Mormon church’s family history centers.

While I figure out how to get the files, I am searching for other relatives’ records in the war records database on Odessa. I believe I have found records for relatives of a great-great-grandfather’s sister. A distant German cousin has information I want on these relatives but she refuses to help me. Germans are very touchy about privacy.

The search capabilities of the databases on Odessa are incredible. I have searched for relatives by town, last name, first name and country (Russland, Polen).  It is important to know German immigration officials changed how villages and towns were spelled like Kiew for Kiev, Suprosal for Suprasl and Choroschtsch for Choroszcz. 

EWZ files are goldmines of information on birthdates, birthplaces, children, spouses, education and employment and some have family trees. Learn more about these files by reading my last blog on these files.

Top 10 signs of a questionable genealogy researcher

A scam artist posing as a genealogy researcher can be very charming and confident and appear to be the right person to find family documents. Seeing through facades can avoid emotional and financial heartbreak and help find a genuine researcher. Here are the worst warning signs I believe mark someone as a questionable researcher:

1. Attitude that everything can be found. A positive attitude is great but the reality is communists destroyed so many records and so did the fighting during the two world wars.

2. Lack of knowledge of the records available for a village, town or city. A true professional easily should know what information is available or be able to quickly get the information.

3. Inability to provide documentation of records. At a bare minimum, a researcher should give file numbers of family records if documents cannot be scanned or photographed. Individual archives have different procedures but taking photos of archives dated before the Russian Revolution is allowed in some archives.

4. Guarantee to get records after the Russian Revolution. Records after 1919 are considered closed and hard to get. Proof of ancestry and charm are needed to get these records. A personal visit to archives by relatives increases the chances of getting post-revolution era records.

5. Request for too much money as a deposit. A researcher should ask for no more than half the entire bill as a deposit.

6. Requirement that Russian or American money be sent in the mail. The money can be easily stolen by a postal employee. One archive employee told me foreign mail that has money is considered questionable mail and destroyed. She never told me what is done with the money. Use your imagination. The researcher could get the letter with the money by luck and say it never arrived. I prefer sending money by Western Union, which sends e-mail messages when money is picked up. It’s hard to deny money was never received when using Western Union. Bank transfers are considered safe too but the questionable researcher could complain the money never got into his or her account.

7. Inability to give an estimated bill or the time needed to complete the research in advance. This is a major warning sign for a bad researcher or a fake one.

8. Constant advertising for business. A good, experienced researcher does not need to beg for work. His or her reputation attracts work independently.

9.  Scant presence on the Internet. The researcher should be found online somewhere besides his or her website, which can easily vanish overnight with the e-mail address. If someone is a credible researcher, he or she should be found posting on forums, mentioned on other websites related to genealogy or seen on social networking sites such as FacebookTwitterLinkedinVKontakteOdnoklassniki.

10. Offer of an e-mail address as the only contact information. You should know the researcher’s business address and phone number. The business address and phone number should be found on a few websites or online phone directories. A phantom phone number or business address easily can be given.

Taking a chance on a professional researcher

I never expected to pay a professional genealogy researcher to study my Russian ancestry. My biggest fear was being scammed or paying a researcher after nothing was found on my family.

A family friend has told me Russia is filled with scam artists posing as genealogists who charge too much and give fake information and documents. I know those people exist and I have been lucky to not hire a scam artist.

So far, I have paid only one professional genealogist. I pretty much stumbled upon him. I posted on my favorite Russian genealogy forum for information on a great-grandfather’s village. An active poster sent me a few paragraphs on my ancestors back to the 1700s. Apparently, my ancestors were famous in the family village. This poster gave me an e-mail address of a researcher for the region.

I e-mailed the researcher out of curiosity to see how much money he would want to study my Trunov family. He asked for $300 to search 39 years of records and $100 as a deposit. That did not seem too much and I wanted to take a chance on the researcher.

He e-mailed me a few days after each e-mail message I sent him to check on how everything was going. He found a mistake that Kursk regional archives made on the middle name of my great-great-grandfather. The middle name is a big deal for Russians because the middle name reflects the father’s first name. A week into the research, he e-mailed me information he had found in archives and that information matched what I already knew.

So, I was confident he was an honest genealogy researcher. The researcher also studied another maternal line and found 61 birth relatives and several of their spouses. I was so thrilled after little information could be found on my Trunov relatives from 1880-1919.

A good portion of the village records for my Trunov family is missing but the researcher found information on several siblings who were unfamiliar to my family. I hope to use this information to find the family left behind in Kiev during World War II. Finding my grandmother’s cousins has been my biggest challenge. I have yet to find a sentence of information in Kiev archives on one of these cousins.

Now, my researcher is studying my Trunov family back to the 1700s. It will cost the pretty penny of $1,000 but he has my trust. The deposit was only $300. I am anxiously counting down to late January and early February when he will be done with his research.

I know this researcher will not disappoint me. He shows all the signs of a professional and knowledgeable researcher.

Next blog:  Top 10 signs of a questionable genealogy researcher

Approaching regional archives for success

The right approach to Russian and Ukrainian regional archives will decide how much information you will get on your relatives and ancestors.

After two years of interacting with Russian and Ukrainian regional archives, I think I almost have figured out the archives.

It is most important to know what you hope to gain from contacting archives and keep an open mind. I know a lot about my father’s mother’s family but I still have contacted regional archives to confirm family information.

You may already know when your grandfather was born or when he was married. But do you know who were his godparents or the four guarantors (the people who stand by the bride and groom) for his wedding? These people could be cousins, aunts or uncles you never knew about and their families could help you contact your missing relatives.

It is best to make a list of all the information you are seeking on your relatives and ancestors and decide what is most important. The first letter to archives should not be too demanding.  Obviously, the letter needs to be written in Russian for Russian archives and Ukrainian for Ukrainian archives. I recommend Google Translate for Ukrainian and Promt for Russian.

Make sure to put your postal address and e-mail address in letters and your postal address in e-mail messages. You can find contact information for Ukrainian archives here and Russian archives here.

I really do not recommend using e-mail for archives in Russia and Ukraine, unless you are writing to large cities like Kiev, Moscow, St. Petersburg or Lviv. It will take about two to three weeks for a letter to arrive in Russia and Ukraine outside of Europe.

I question whether some of my e-mail messages got read by the archives in Kostroma region. A few times when the archive office responded, the subject line for the message was RE: Spam. This also happened one time when I e-mailed an office in St. Petersburg.

So many times, e-mail messages written in Polish, Russia and Ukrainian land in my spam mailbox. Many e-mail programs assume if the e-mail message is not written in English, that it could be very likely spam. I am starting to get scam e-mail messages written in Polish and Russian. If the archive office does not look regularly at their spam inbox, your English-written message could be there and never be seen.

Here is a great webpage that explains how to write letters to Ukrainian archives. The text written in Ukrainian can be easily used for Russian archives. Just copy the Ukrainian text into Google Translate and have the Ukrainian translated into Russian.

The response time from Russian and Ukrainian archives can vary. Sometimes, it takes up to three months to get a response by postal mail. Some of my letters from archives have been sent through the Russian consulate in New York City. I usually receive a response to my e-mailed requests within one to two months.

I recommend waiting four months for letter requests and two months for e-mail requests before you contact the archives about the status of your request. Russian and Ukrainian archives are very busy now that genealogy has become so popular.

It takes a lot of patience to wait for responses from archives. Every day, I wait for the postal mail and check my e-mail too many times to see whether I have a response. It’s like Christmas when I finally get a response with the information I requested.