One man’s 13-year journey to stand on American soil after an escape during WWII

Escaping the Soviet Union during WWII wasn’t an easy task. A friend’s great-grandfather Peter somehow managed to escape for a new life in the USA. For years, the questions of how it was possible were left unanswered.

That was until yesterday. The man’s Alien Case File (the golden gem of researching mid-20th century immigrants) arrived on a CD, filled with pages of records to answer the questions.

It was quite a shock to learn about Peter’s journey to arrive in the USA. He left a village near Yaroslav, USSR, in 1944 and got on a plane “via Romania, Hungary, Austria” to Erfurt, East Germany. He stayed in communist East Germany for a year and then moved to free West Germany for three years.

Peter then moved to Cambridge and Oxford, England, for five years and returned to West Germany. It took him 13 years to finally arrive in the USA.

It sounds like an immigration journey that wouldn’t end. But how did Peter find a way to escape the USSR by plane? Why was communist East Germany his destination and why was he one of the lucky ones to get out after a year?

It is not surprising that it took 13 years for him to find his final home in the USA. With coming from the USSR, living in communist East Germany and later free West Germany, I can imagine U.S. immigration officials wondering about Peter’s activities before, during and after the war.

When he finally arrived in the USA, he got a room at the Bridgeport, Conn., YMCA and found a full-time job for $1.25 an hour at an aluminum foundry.

Not much else is known about his life from his file because the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is claiming that releasing another 10 pages of information would constituent invasion of personal and law enforcement privacy.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security will hear from me about what I think about using exemptions for my Freedom of Information Act request. I have successfully appealed their denial of information from an Alien Case file at least once.

It took five years to get this far and I am not stopping until I get all possible information to complete this man’s story of escaping the USSR. U.S. national security will not be threatened by releasing information on a Soviet immigrant who would have been 111 years old this year.

Peter’s great-grandson voluntarily sweated for days in a Kiev cemetery to find my great-grandparents’ graves last summer. I owe him my full determination to complete the story of his great-grandfather, who is buried a few rows from my grandfather (whose father’s grave was found by Peter’s great-grandson).

Our relatives escaped the Soviet Union for a better life, said their final goodbyes to their family and chose to be buried in the same cemetery. My grandfather and Peter’s great-grandfather never met but their relatives came together in a freer world they never imagined.

Previous posts on this journey:
Grandmother creates brickwall with weak mortar, thanks to one detail

Old electrical tower leads the way to family graves

Related posts:

Documents that open doors to information

Guide for success in obtaining Alien Case Files

 

A Russian genealogy gold mine awaiting to be cleared of its treasures

russianstatelibraryThe gold mines of Russian genealogy aren’t advertised. It takes a lot of sifting through boring technical databases to find the true gold mines of Russian genealogy.

After years of wondering where the Russian government has been unloading its electronic treasure trove, I think I have found a gem for genealogy. Thankfully, the database comes with the tools that help avoid sweating to find the treasures.

The Russian State Library is claiming to have the second largest online database. That’s hard to believe but the amount of records here are unreal.

Users can immediately begin searching with the help of Google Translate.

Here’s how to take full advantage of this user-friendly database even without knowing Russian.

  1. Copy and paste your keywords (surnames, villages, events, etc.) translated by Google Translate in the search box and click искать (find in English) on the right.
  2. When results come in, click on еще (more in English) at the end of each description.
  3. Copy and paste the results into Google Translate.
  4. Once you’ve selected which results are most interesting, right click on or copy and paste the link for прочитать документ (read document in English).
  5. Select Онлайн-просмотр (online viewing in English) on the top of the next page and then click открыть документ (open document in English).
  6. Then the document will open. Click on поиск (search in English) on the left.
  7. Copy and paste your keywords in Russian in the search box and click on найти (find in English).
  8. The exact pages where your keywords appear in the document will be listed under Найдено: (found in English).
  9. If you can’t find your information or read the text, right click to save the document. There are Facebook groups to help with translations. See Facebook Genealogy for links to those groups.

Once this is all done, the journey has only begun. Take the journey one step further by picking out keywords from the documents and using a Russian keyboard to retype important keywords.

Then copy and paste on Google the keywords from the documents to see what else can be found and who else is researching the same information.

Push yourself and you’ll go farther. Get annoyed that taking on Russian is challenging, you’ll be watching others take down their genealogy brick walls this year.

An inside look into U.S. National Archives’ best research gem for WWII-era immigrants

For years, I have been glowing about the importance of Alien Case Files, possessed by the U.S. National Archives. There is nothing like a nice stack of documents filled with information on individual immigrants in one simple file.

Anyone wondering about relatives or ancestors who fled war-torn Europe during and after World War II should consider looking into obtaining Alien Case Files on their family. Only a small portion of records included in these files can be found on any online genealogy website, including Ancestry.com.

So here is a sneak peek into the life of Helen, my relative by marriage. Born in Ukraine, she fell in love in Russia, had her heart broken by her husband, escaped the USSR with her two children with her ex-husband and his new wife before a major battle between the Soviet Union and Germany occurred in her new hometown.

She was eventually captured by the German army and forced to fix the railroad damaged in the war. The American Army liberated her and she traveled through western Europe before coming abroad to live the American dream.

Her Alien Case File below shows how much can be discovered on WWII-era immigrants. Not all immigrants will have the same amount of records on them but Alien Case Files are the most complete records on immigrants in U.S. National Archives. I deleted several personal details in these scans for privacy reasons.

If you would like to find Alien Case Files on your family, read this FAQ on increasing chances of success in finding these records.

 

Guide for success in obtaining Alien Case Files

Hitting the jackpot on researching WWII-era immigrants takes a few simple steps. It will cost around $130 per immigrant being researched. That’s a price well below the value of the documents filled in the U.S. Alien Case Files.

Here’s answers to general questions on obtaining these files.

What information will I need to obtain the files on my relative?

It is most important to know the person’s full name, birth date or birth year, birth country or city and immigration year. Any extra information such as profession, old addresses, names of relatives living in the same household increases the chances of finding the correct file. Various known spellings of the immigrant’s name also are a great help.

It is highly recommended to first obtain the immigrant’s naturalization record from regional archives of U.S. National Archives. That record will likely include the immigrant’s Alien Number.

What is the importance of the Alien Number?

The number will determine where the Alien Case File can be found. In order to search for an Alien Case File through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Genealogy Program, the number must be below 8 million.

Files with numbers higher than 8 million must be requested with a Freedom of Information Act request, using this form. That form needs to be sent to National Records Center (NRC), FOIA/PA Office, P.O. Box 648010, Lee’s Summit, MO 64064-8010 or uscis.foia@uscis.dhs.gov. Do not mentioned genealogy as the reason for requesting file. Your request will be rejected and you will be referred to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Genealogy Program if you mention genealogy on the form.

Is there an online database for the Alien Case Files?

An index of available files for immigrants born no later than 1910 can be found on Ancestry.com here. If you don’t have an Ancestry.com paid account, visit FamilySearch.org, free and without a registration requirement, to search the index here.

If I find files of relatives in the index, where can I get the files?

Send an e-mail message to U.S. National Archives in Kansas City at Afiles.KansasCity@nara.gov. View this page for more information on the files at Kansas City.

If my relatives are not found in the index, where I can send my search request?

Visit this page for the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services Genealogy Program to see whether your relatives’ files would be eligible to be included in the genealogy program. If your relative’s file fall within the criteria, go here to make an index search request for $65. Results of the search will be sent by postal mail in a few weeks and then the located files must be ordered for $65 each.

My relatives were born after 1910 and are not eligible to be included in the genealogy program. How do I get their files?

Fill out this form and send it to National Records Center (NRC), FOIA/PA Office
P.O. Box 648010, Lee’s Summit, MO 64064-8010 or uscis.foia@uscis.dhs.gov . Don’t put down genealogy under Part 3 for 1. Purpose (Optional).

It is highly recommended to have the immigrant’s Alien Number, if possible.

You will receive a letter, stating your request number. That number can be used to check the status update page daily to see the placement of your requests. That website’s address will be listed in the letter.

The form is free to file. It could cost up to $25 for each file, which is sent on a CD in a PDF format. I have not paid once for Alien Case Files through the FOIA/PA office.

How long does it take to get the files?

It should take less than a month to get the files from Kansas City. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services Genealogy Program tries to send files within 90 days. Results of search requests using the Freedom of Information Act form take several weeks or months.

Do I have to prove ancestry to the immigrant whose file I am requesting?

No. The only requirements for requesting these files are the person whose file is being requested must be deceased and their death must be proven if they were born after 1916. Proof of death can be shown with copies or scans of obituaries, Social Security Death Index listings and death records.

Can living people get their own Alien Case Files?

Yes. They must prove their identity with their birth record, driver’s license or passport.

If you have more questions, post them in the comments section below or e-mail me at bepa.miller at mail.ru.

SSSHHH!!! Detailed civilian records of Soviet persecution camps declassified………

There is nothing like another night of boredom and being determined to find an exciting Russian archives database. I knew I found something hot when the website’s address was unsecret.rusarchives.ru.

First, I thought it was just a boring list of declassified records of communist-era bureaucratic boards. Who really cares about that stuff unless your family served on those boards? Then, I found the search engine and the real “unsecrets” were sitting there in detail.

I copied and pasted four pages of declassified records’ details into Google Translate when I hit the phrase “Учреждения по делам военнопленных и интернированных”. This translates into institution for prisoners of war and interned.

I cautiously thought this must be just POW records of the USSR during World War II. Nope, it’s not possible. This possibly covers the POWs of WWII but why are the records dated from the 1940s to the early 1960s?

Then I realized the Russian government quietly declassified records of people who were persecuted for talking to foreigners, receiving letters from foreigners or “committing” crimes that never happened and sent to the infamous camps called gulags.

Here’s a sampling of what I found by searching Учреждения по делам военнопленных и интернированных УМВД on unsecret.rusarchives.ru/search.

Burial of prisoners of war in the camps number 190 and number 16; death certificates of prisoners of war; and lists of prisoners of war repatriated to their homeland.

There are already two great websites that list many of the persecuted people of the USSR on Жертвы политического террора в СССР and National database of repressed of Ukraine but the declassified records will answer questions about relatives’ experiences during their persecution.

The list of declassified records can be found on one page here. For the list translated into English, click here. (These two links are having problems right now. Sorry for the inconvenience.)

Unsecret.rusarchives.ru has many more records listed than the linked page above. For non-native Russian speakers, have your relatives’ regions translated into Russian by Google Translate, then copy and paste the translation and the phrase “Учреждения по делам военнопленных и интернированных” into the search box on unsecret.rusarchives.ru/search and click on поиск (search in Russian) for the results.

Have  Google Translate open in the next window so results can be copied and pasted for translation to see what records are available at Russian State Military Archives.

Anyone ready to learn about their relatives’ persecutions in files at Russian State Military Archives in Moscow, click here for the guide to make requests.

 

Guide to requesting declassified records of the former USSR gulags

It’s a major step to search for records of relatives who were persecuted in the USSR. Being properly prepared is the most important part of the process.

Here’s how to increase the chances of success:

1. Collect all possible personal information on your relatives: full names, birth dates, birthplaces, parents’ names, marriage dates, names of spouses, old addresses, dates of arrests, professions or work titles, etc. If you don’t have exact dates, make sure to narrow down the time frames.

2. When writing your request, make sure to use non-aggressive wording such as “I would be grateful if your archive office could search for records on ___________________,” instead of “I am requesting a search of records on ______________.”.

3. Include the file names and numbers where you expect your relatives to be found in the archives. Once you know the Russian or Ukrainian regions or Soviet republics where they lived, you will see the files listed in example as “Institution for prisoners of war and interned Voroshilovgrad Region…F. 14P, depository unit 116, 1943 – 1953”.

Use the Russian version of the information by placing your cursor over the translated text and then copy the Russian text. A box will appear “Original Russian text:” in a mini-pop-up box.

4. Include in your letter that you found the files listed on  http://guides.rusarchives.ru/browse/guidebook.html?bid=123&sid=173787 or http://unsecret.rusarchives.ru/so the employee handling your request doesn’t mistaken the information as still classified.

5. Offer to provide proof of ancestry in a follow-up letter to finalize your inquiry. It shows you are making a serious effort to make the request.

6. Show a lot of appreciation for your request being accepted. Use sentences such as “I will be grateful for any information that can be found.” “Your efforts will be greatly appreciated.” “Thank you for considering my inquiry. I hope I have provided enough information to make the search successful.”

7. With the archives being in Moscow, requests can be sent in English. I highly recommend using very simple sentences. Google Translate can be used to have the letter written in Russian but Google Translate doesn’t do the greatest job. If you use Google Translate to send a letter in Russian, I recommend sending a copy in English.

8. Send your request to Russian State Military Archives, ul. Admirala Makarova, 29, Moscow, Russia, 125212. If you live in the USA, put the postal code to the left of Moscow on the envelope. The postal machines could try to send the letter in the USA by accident.

9. Requests can be sent by e-mail to rgvarchiv@mailfrom.ru. You must provide your postal address to have your request considered. You may quickly receive an e-mail message requesting that you send a statement in Russian that you will be financially responsible for the cost of the search.

10. Next is waiting for a response without pestering the archives about the status of your request. It could take weeks to months. Sometimes, Russian archives send their responses by postal mail through the Russian Embassy so don’t just wait for responses directly from archives.

Good luck! Post your questions below. It would be great to hear the results, positive or negative, in the comment area below.

 

Top 10 tips for charming the guardians of communist-era records

I didn’t know birth, marriage and death records were open records in Russia and Ukraine for the communist-era until a few years ago. It takes more than saying “Please, give me information on grandpa.” to get a peek at these records.

Some registry offices that possess these records have friendly  and helpful staff while other offices have staff who find every excuse to block your efforts to get information.

So here’s how to charm the keepers of these records:

1. Make sure you have complete and accurate information on your relatives. Don’t ruin your chances with getting information by providing “I’m kind of sure” information on your relatives.

2. Do research the place of birth, marriage and death of your relatives. You can search for the places on Google and see what details webpages give on the area. This is highly recommended to make sure you send your request to the correct registry office. Simply use Google to search загс (Russian and Ukrainian for registry office) and the town or city of your relatives in Russian or Ukrainian.

2. Get your records proving ancestry to your relative together, scan them and post them to Google + Photo Albums, with the album set as share privately. Make sure to write small descriptions of each record and  include a scan of your passport or driver’s license to prove identity in the album. Provide a link to the album in your written request.

3. Never, ever mention the word genealogy or any word related to genealogy when you e-mail or mail your request. The office could reject your request.

4. Don’t ask for official copies of records. You will be sent to the Consulate General of Ukraine or Russia. If you need official reprints of records, make a request for information at the registry office to confirm the record exists first.

5. Make sure your e-mail account can handle Cyrillic. I had to open an account on mail.ru because my American e-mail account turned Russian into random letters and symbols. Copy and paste any random Russian or Ukrainian page of information into an e-mail message to yourself and see how it comes back to you.

6. Avoid using words such as want and need. It is best to use sentences that show gratitude such as “I would be so grateful if you could search for_________________. ” “Your efforts are greatly appreciated.” “Any information you could provide would be appreciated.”

7. Do not advertise you are a foreigner with an e-mail subject line such as “Request from USA” in English nor Russian. It is best to state you are unable to visit the office personally to avoid invitations to make your request in person.

8. It is highly recommended to send your e-mail message or letter in Russian or Ukrainian. Many offices still do not work in English. Ask for help on a Facebook genealogy page, visit a Russian or Ukrainian Orthodox Church or high school or college that teaches the languages to find help with translation.

9. Do not give the registry office a time limit to respond to your request even if it sounds innocent such as “I look forward to hearing from you in the next few weeks.”

10. Show gratitude no matter what were the results of the search. Send a thank note by postal mail or e-mail after the results are sent. You never know when you will have to deal with that office again.

Good luck!