Getting inspired in the New Year is as simple as filling jars

These days, jars are the thing. Fill jars with pretty things and put them on display. Leave out jars with gourmet spices for decoration. But jars can be put to even better use for genealogy.

It’s so easy to fall into negativity when dealing with genealogy. This record can’t be found, a relative refuses to help, a family village can’t be found on a map. Let’s have jars give a complete picture of how the adventure of genealogy is really going.

Here’s how to do that:

  1. Get 3 clear jars: one each for goals for the year, surprises and accomplished goals. Cheap jars can be found at Goodwill stores, craft stores, Big Lots, etc.
  2.  Make realistic goals to accomplish for the year, based on your budget and available time.
  3. Place the jars in convenient, but uncluttered areas, to keep your focus.
  4. Every time a goal is reached, date and move the goal into the accomplished goals jar.
  5. Every time, an unexpected success happens write it down, date it and put it in the surprises jar. Try to write down as many surprises, no matter how small (i.e. confirming an ancestor’s birth date with a document), to watch how those successes snowball into major brickwall breakers.
  6. On those days that it feels as if progress has stalled, open the surprises and accomplished goals jars to read all the successes so far.
  7. Then every three months, repeat step 6 to think about new goals to keep the success rolling and filling those jars.

On Dec. 31, pat yourself on the back for sticking with the plan for a year.

It’s time for the big reveal. Will you accomplish more than expected? Will there be more surprises than accomplished goals?

Need more inspiration for success in the New Year? Check out:
Say good-bye to frustration in the new year in 10 steps

When family letters about daily life are a cover for the truth

evdokiatyuinaletter10001Over the years, I have been handed letters my grandfather wrote to my father and letters my great-grandmother wrote to my grand uncle. I didn’t appreciate the importance of family letters until recently.

Two letters were overlooked from my grandmother’s house. My mother and I didn’t recognize the handwriting. I was about to throw out the letters because I could tell that there wasn’t “any useful” information for researching the family.

Once I read the names on the two letters, I knew I hit the jackpot. My two great-grandmothers from my mother’s family were writing letters to each other.

Doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it was mid-1950s. One was living in Kiev, Soviet Ukraine, and the other in Berlin, Germany. Talk about a big no-no during Soviet times.

My mother read the two letters and learned her grandmothers were writing as if they were friends. It doesn’t make sense unless you understand restrictions of Soviet times.

The only way my great-grandmother could know about her son’s new life was through the “friends letters”. Soviet postal workers would have blocked these letters if my great-grandmothers wrote as relatives, exchanging family information.

My mother’s father was the only one in his family who left the Soviet Union. He was an escaped POW of the Germans. The worst thing a Soviet soldier could do was give in to the enemy. Soon after he returned home from the POW camp, he, his wife and my mom left for the quiet countryside of Germany.

That meant my grandfather and his new family could never see, call nor write to his family in Kiev ever again. My great-grandfather died 4 years after my grandfather left and couldn’t come back for the funeral nor send condolences to his mom.

I later learned that my great-grandmother got pictures of my mother and uncle while they lived in Germany. She cried as she held the photos and wouldn’t say who were the children to the family with whom she lived.

I didn’t understand until now how it was possible that she could get the pictures because contact was “ended” after my grandfather left Ukraine.

It took two crafty grandmothers to come up with a plan to fake a friendship so they could tell each other about their families.

It was quite a risk for my mother’s paternal grandmother. Her husband was born a peasant, got trained as an architect and helped construct grand buildings in Kiev. That resulted in a very comfortable lifestyle in Soviet times, even with having six kids.

My other great-grandmother came from a modest family of German cloth makers, married a tailor and was living very simple in war-torn Berlin. But she was the lucky one who could get on a train to visit the grandchildren, whom the other grandmother would never see nor hear from ever again.

The simple gesture of writing letters gave one grandmother comfort that couldn’t be bought.

Related posts on Soviet life:
When family “wild stories” are nothing but reality
Meet your friendly Soviet repatriation officer

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

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

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

When family “wild stories” are nothing but reality

The joke in Russian genealogy is figuring out which family stories are real. But the sad reality is that the craziest stories are really the truth.

Anyone who isn’t familiar with the past realities of life in the USSR will have a hard time believing the below scenarios were real.

Scenario 1: Uncle Vladimir was reading a foreign newspaper on a train. He was arrested for being an enemy of the state and beaten in prison for a confession that he was a spy.

Reality: Possession of anything foreign caused a great stir. Anyone who had foreign items was considered suspicious.

Scenario 2: Aunt Katya got in a fight with her cousin Svetlana. Katya sent a foreigner looking for a place to stay to Svetlana’s apartment. Katya and Svetlana never talked to each other again and Svetlana’s neighbors never trusted her again.

Reality: Talking to a foreigner was a big no-no during the Soviet era.

Scenario 3: Grand Uncle Vasil stole food from a store. He was arrested, sent to Siberia and tried to return to his family after he served his time. His wife Yulia never responded to his letters from prison. When he came home, none of his family nor friends would say they knew him.

Reality: When someone was sent to Siberia, people usually tried to forget about that person. Continuing contact with that person would cause trouble and unwanted attention when people tried to live a quiet life in the USSR.

Scenario 4: Aunt Anna was poor and her brother Simon took pity on her. While Simon was living in Germany, he sent Anna packages of clothing. She was arrested and questioned by police about whether she was a foreign spy.

Reality: Getting foreign mail raised a red flag. Contact with foreigners (by phone, mail or in person) was forbidden. In some rare situations, getting letters from foreigners was overlooked and didn’t bring trouble.

Scenario 5: Uncle Dimitri and his family immigrated to Germany during World War II. He never wrote or called his parents ever again. His father died a few years after World War II. He wanted to attend his funeral but Uncle Dimitri was afraid to be arrested and sent to Siberia.

Reality: Once you left the USSR, you never returned nor had contact with your family until the Iron Curtain fell.

Scenario 6: Uncle Alex was feeling quite relaxed at a party after a few drinks. He told a joke, making fun of the Soviet government. Alex was arrested and never heard from again.

Reality: Tell a bad joke and you’re a walking dead man.

Scenario 7: Grandma Ludmilla confesses at Christmas dinner that her name is really Yelena Smirnova. She and grandpa lost their identification during the war. They passed an overturned truck with a dead couple. They went in their pockets and took their identity cards. From then on, they took on dead couple’s identity.

Reality: Not every identity card had photos so it was easy to assume new identities. Civil records were lost in bombings. Confirming identities were hard for those using real and fake names.

My reality: 6 of these situations occurred in my family or to those my family knew. Truth is really stranger than fiction, a warning to remember before eliminating a relative who tells “wild stories” as a source.

Unique website reveals military and repression era information from Russia

Finding a website that is easy to use and filled with information for Russian genealogy takes a lot of patience and time to uncover.

Погибшие is an incredible website with information spanning from War of 1812 to the first Chechen War. That makes it a unique website for Russian genealogy.

Usually, it would take a lot of time to cover this material on numerous websites that is just alone on Погибшие. This website provides information on some of those who served in the Patriotic War of 1812, Russian-Japanese War of 1904-1905, World War I, World War II, Afghanistan War and the first Chechen War.

Not only are patriotic Russians covered on this website, information can be found on some rebels and repressed people of the Russian Revolution and USSR.

This website is only in Russian and can be translated by using Google Translate. Here is the website translated into English.

Here are tips on how to use this website even with little knowledge of Russian.

  1. Have your surnames translated into Russian on Google Translate.
  2. Then copy and paste your translated surnames into the left box on Google Translate to see whether any of the names translate into words such as surname Kapusta (translated from Cyrillic to English will be Cabbage). When using Google Translate, someone looking for people named Kapusta will have to look for people named Cabbage.
  3. If using Google Translate makes this website too hard to understand, here is another way to search the entire website. Do step 1 and then paste one surname at a time next to site:http://xn--90adhkb6ag0f.xn--p1ai/ into Google.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Then copy and paste the search results into Google Translate to see which results are worth viewing.
  4. If this website doesn’t intimidate you in Russian, paste one surname at a time into the search box on the right above Введите фамилию солдата to find only soldiers.
  5. If you use Google Translate with this website, paste one surname at a time into the search box on the right above Enter the name of a soldier.
  6. Step 3 will be needed to search the entire website. It’s as simple as Иванов site:http://xn--90adhkb6ag0f.xn--p1ai/ into Google.
  7. Once you find information that could be useful, it’s time move onto serious searching on the Internet, based on the information you found.

Take that next step by reading Secrets of searching the Internet in Russian and Ukrainian like a native speaker.