The best surprises come when hope is almost lost

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I had given up hope that I would ever know about the death of my great-grandfather. With him living under German occupation, I assumed the records couldn’t be found after the severe damage done to his city from World War II.

Then came a message from a contact where my great-grandfather had died. By sheer luck, the contact (my half-aunt’s uncle’s great-grandson) had discovered the burial record in the southern Russian city archives.

It was even lucky that he noticed the burial record, with my great-grandfather having the very common last name of Ivanov. Thanks to my contact and I exchanging addresses where our ancestors lived, the address of my great-grandfather got  my contact’s immediate attention.

Now I have the death date of September 11, 1946 and know he died of stomach cancer. My grandfather also died of cancer so it is important to know when these fatal illnesses run in the family.

My grandfather wrote in a letter to my father that his father had died in 1946. Nothing else was written about the death when my grandfather penned this letter at 73 years old. It has been hard to confirm the information on my own.

I tried on my own to obtain the death record of my great-grandfather from the registry office, which has birth, marriage and death records for the communist era. Each time I asked for information on my great-grandfather’s death, the office staff told me the record didn’t exist.

My great-grandfather was buried in the biggest cemetery in the city. Some office had to keep record of the burials but I assumed the communist-era records were closed to the public.

This discovery brings more hope that the burial records could be found for my great-grandfather’s wife and my grandmother’s mother. Thanks to census records during the German occupation, I know one great-grandmother died before the Nov. 27, 1941 census. The other great-grandmother died between the Nov. 27, 1941 and Jan. 2, 1943 censuses.

The burial records are available for 1941 and 1943. I will be a lucky woman if either of their records could be found. Higher chances are that they died when the records aren’t available.

The search for these records are about more than death dates and causes of death. The burial records would complete their life stories. These women lived through a rough war and German occupation so did they die naturally from old age or as victims of a war?

Follow this blog with the top right button to see how this story ends and stay updated on news regarding important research resources.

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*Photo credit- http://talesofwar.tumblr.com from the war zone where my father’s family lived in southern Russia.

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Declassified records reveal details of a family secret

Anyone who has relatives from the former USSR knows family stories can be so strange and hard to believe. One family story has mystified my family for two generations.

It has been rumored that the first husband of my grandmother was sent to the Gulag, the infamous Soviet prison camps for people falsely accused of crimes, and vanished from the family. For years, I couldn’t prove that he was sent away to prison.

Knowing that my grandmother lived in southern Russia, I e-mailed the registry office for my grandmother’s hometown to obtain information from her marriage record.

The registry office quickly responded to my request and I finally had the correct full name of her husband, his address before they married and their marriage date. By luck I got my grandmother’s husband’s birth year from his brother’s great-grandson by finding him on Russian social network Odnoklassniki.

Several years ago the Federal Security Service of the region where they lived couldn’t find a persecution file on my grandmother’s first husband. At the time, I had used information from a fake Polish marriage record, where my grandmother put her actual birthdate but a unknowingly fake one for her husband.

Now that I had confidence my latest information was factual, I resubmitted a search request to the regional Federal Security Service. In three weeks, I got the answer my family had been waiting for years.

The FSS had proof that my grandmother’s husband went twice, not once, to the Gulag, for “anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation” under the 58th Soviet article. The office provided me with his dates of arrests, addresses, employment information, household members, places of internment and his sentences.

With this new information, I know the father of my half uncle and aunt was arrested at age 54 when my half aunt was 7 years old and my half uncle was 5 years old. The man was sentenced to three years near Saint Petersburg, quite a railroad ride from southern Russia.  According to Anne Applebaum’s book “Gulag: A History” he was cutting trees and preparing wood products for Saint Petersburg.

Luckily, he returned only after two years but I can’t imagine he was allowed to return to the home where my grandmother, her two children and her mother were living. Many spouses and children rejected their relatives when they returned so they wouldn’t face the same fate.

Strangely enough when he was arrested again in 1937 he was living several houses down from my grandmother. My half uncle said he had only seen his father once in town after his arrest even though they lived on the same street.

Sadly, the second arrest led to a 10-year sentence by the horrid NKVD troika. The poor guy was already 59 years old. He was among more than 330,000 sentenced by the NKVD troika from July 1937 to November 1938 and the vast majority were executed, according to Wikipedia.

Nothing else is known about my grandmother’s first husband by my family nor the regional Federal Security Service. He was “rehabilitated” in 1989 and 1990 from his crimes. Sadly if he had the strength and luck to return home, his family was gone.

My grandmother escaped the USSR for Austria in August 1943 with her three children (one of which was my father from another man). All of my grandmother’s relatives from that hometown had died or escaped the Soviet Union together.

The husband (or possibly ex-husband) wouldn’t have anyone to ask where his family went. Now my grandmother’s husband’s family knows his painful story, thanks to our connection on Odnoklassniki and my nagging determination to solve this family mystery.

Ironically, it took known fake family documents to get me to fight to know the truth for both families to have closure.

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Stranger makes dream of seeing grandpa’s home come true after 8 years

In the past eight years, I have written two letters to the current owners of my grandfather’s house. Two years have passed since I sent the last letter and I had given up hope they would ever respond.

That was until I made contact with my half-aunt’s distant cousin I’ll name Valentin who lives in the same city. He offered to knock at the gate of my grandpa’s former home in southern Russia.

I couldn’t contain my excitement. Another resident of the city made the same attempt to reach the owners but didn’t have luck eight years ago.

Finally, I had another chance for someone to get on the property and take pictures of where my grandpa lived with his parents for many years and my father spent his days as a young child.

But Valentin didn’t have luck when he knocked on the gate. I kindly thanked him for his efforts and felt it just was a dream to see this home. At least, the same gate where my grandfather was photographed still stands after more than 50 years.

Four days passed without hearing from Valentin. I didn’t suggest he return to the property for one more try but he did it without telling me. He wrote to me again and sent me more than 10 photos of the property. The joy couldn’t be described in words.

My brave grandfather sent photos of the property in the 1960s in letters to my father in USA.  My grandfather’s photos mostly focused on his prized vineyard.

The newest photos give a more complete view of the property. Sadly, one half of my grandfather’s house burned in a fire two years ago and I will never see that portion. I am grateful the property hasn’t been cleared for a highrise apartment complex, a fear of my grandfather.

 the patio where my grandfather enjoyed admiring his beloved vineyard.

 a part of the original home my grandfather loved so much

 the well my grandfather used to water his prized vineyard

Two years ago, a women whose family lived in the portion that burned to the ground contacted me and provided me with the sales agreement my grandfather made before his death from cancer. The woman planned to send me photos of the property but that never came through.

Now, thanks to my half-aunt distant cousin, I have received an e-mail message from a man who was treated as if he was a grandson of my grandfather as a young child. He doesn’t have memories of my grandfather and step-grandmother but his parents do remember him.

In a few days, I am hoping to have more details about the last years of my grandfather’s life. My father escaped the USSR as an 8-year-old boy with his mother’s family, leaving behind a heart-broken much older father.

My grandfather had the courage to contact my father, his only child, in Soviet times through years of letters. That courage has not been forgotten. It gave me the unwavering determination to find the family who can complete the story of my grandfather’s life.

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Fast thinking rescues chance to find new information on long-lost family

Friday morning was one of the craziest experiences I’ve had with obtaining information from archived records.

I finally found a researcher to visit in Kyiv the main registry office, a government office that holds birth, marriage and death records before they are turned over to archives. It took a lot of effort to even get a researcher to that office.

With the help of a Facebook genealogy group member, I was able to create a limited power of attorney so my researcher could represent me at the registry office. Then, I created a family tree, showing my relationship to my great-grandfather’s brother who stayed behind in the warn-torn Ukrainian capital during WWII.

My collection of family documents also were submitted to prove my ancestry. I thought I had enough records to prove my ancestry, even though I couldn’t find my 2nd great uncle Simeon’s 1885 birth record. I provided his marriage record, instead.

My researcher started calling me at 7:15 a.m. on Facebook  while I was getting two kids ready for school. The registry office needed Simeon’s birth record that I thought didn’t exist.

Without that record, there wasn’t going to be any budging. The hope was that the staff would just take a quick look at my large collection of documents and provide details from Simeon’s death record.

I looked at my family tree and it has his complete birthdate. The information couldn’t have come from my great-grandfather because his letter only mentioned a death date of 1951.

I was in complete panic. My oldest son needed to get on the school bus. I carried my open laptop to the bus stop. My smart phone wasn’t working with Facebook instant messaging.

Then I looked at the transcribed records on my Trunov family that my researcher in Kursk, Russia, provided me. There was Simeon’s birth record transcribed word for word.

I immediately copied and pasted the transcriptions of the birth records for my great-grandfather and Simeon and the exact record number from Kursk Regional Archives to my researcher. Still, that wasn’t enough and my researcher needed a scan of Simeon’s birth record.

Time was running short. My youngest son needed to get to school and I needed to get to work. I waited so long to get the researcher to the registry office and one measly record wasn’t going to mess up my plans.

I took another look at my records and still couldn’t find it. Then I realized that my Kursk researcher e-mailed me records individually 8 years ago.

At last, I found the e-mail message with the birth record in a rar file format. Thankfully, last month I gave into buying WinZip.

I told the researcher that I found the record and not to leave the registry office. He already left and had to go back. It was a struggle to get that file opened with WinZip but I finally got it opened.

I double-checked that it was the correct record. Then I sent it over Facebook instant messaging but the researcher was afraid it would be too grainy.

The files were sent by e-mail to the researcher and I was off to my son’s school. The researcher got a death date of December 19, 1954. The database of the registry office didn’t have this man’s birthdate nor birthplace. Is it really my Simeon?

The journey continues with my researcher getting my records translated from English and Russian to Ukrainian to request the death record from a neighborhood registry office. Our hope is that office will have the actual record and confirm if we really found my Simeon.

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Old address books help fill in amazing details for journey out of poverty

The history of my grandfather’s family was briefly described in a letter and didn’t appear very interesting at first glance. Once I started some intense poking into some old address books online, the pieces of an incredible story of my grandfather who grew up dirt poor and later lived with high society started coming together.

The research into my grandfather’s life started with finding the addresses of the famous Russian doctor whom he lived with for 11 years in Saint Petersburg as a carpenter.

Thanks to online Russian address books, I found the doctor’s two main addresses from 1900-1911. Keeping up my Russian language skills from my childhood has really had its advantages for genealogy.

Then with the help of Google Translate, I was able to find the two homes of Dr. Nikolai Alexandrovich Velyaminov where my grandfather’s family lived on Russian websites from Google searches. One page even showed me several photos of one home from the inside.

 The first home where they lived.

It’s just amazing to think my grandfather walked the halls and down the stairs shown in those photos. This is just another example why searching online in the language of your ancestors opens more doors in genealogy, instead of  getting frustrated with English-based research for genealogy.

The second address was harder to research but I finally found pictures of the address. It only happens to be Anichkov Palace. Yes, Grandpa Pavel lived in a palace and didn’t mention a word of this in his letter to my father. He only referred to living with Dr. Velyaminov at his property.

I thought I had to be mistaken.  A man who grew dirt poor in a village of homes made of mud and hay somehow moved into a palace? More research into the address on a Russian encyclopedia website states Dr. Velyaminov  lived in a “government apartment on the emb. Fontanka, 33 (house of the Main Palace Administration at the Anichkov Palace)”.

How could my grandfather leave out that he lived within a palace? He wrote the letter from the USSR to my father in the USA in the late 1960s when it really wasn’t a good idea to have contact with foreigners. I assume my grandfather was too afraid to write in detail about his life in Saint Petersburg due to fear of having his letter be rejected by the postal service, which read some private letters.

While I will never know how my grandfather and his parents got the courage to leave the family village in Kostroma Oblast for a better life in Saint Petersburg, I know they also worked 6 years as carpenters for a Count Shuvalov before working for Dr. Velyaminov.

 Dr. Velyaminov

The timing for my grandfather’s arrival in 1894 to Saint Petersburg couldn’t have been more interesting. That was the year Czar Alexander III died.

The doctor who cared for the czar before his death was Dr. Velyaminov, who travelled with the new and last czar, Nicholas II, and his family from the Livadia Palace in the Crimea to Saint Petersburg.

Merging of these lives came together only with the help of two addresses. Doors of those homes opened the doors to understanding the life of my grandfather’s family.

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Rediscovery of a long-lost photo of a grandfather uncovers a mistake

I assumed I had seen everything in my late father’s box of photos, negatives and slides that has sat for years in my laundry room. So many duplicates are in the box so it didn’t seem worth my time to sift through the disorganized mess.

My curiosity peaked once again whether there could be an undiscovered treasure in the box. Several years ago, I found a negative for a professional photo of my grandmother as a teenager with her father. My family doesn’t recall ever seeing the photo.

I thought I couldn’t possibly have missed another gem when I found the last photo. With so many negatives in the box, it gets annoying to find the right angle to view them while sitting on the floor.

So I took out my scanner to double-check that nothing was missed. From the glance while sitting on my living room floor, I thought this would be a waste of my time. At least, I would learn how to set the scanner to make the negatives into 21st century jpegs.

But I was curious about why my father mixed in two photos of my mother’s grandfather among rows of photos of his own family for these negatives. My father photographed his favorite family photos for negatives.

Then this photo appeared:

My mother nor I have ever seen this photo. I searched through the few pages of photos of my grandfather in my album. This photo is nowhere to be seen.

Every photo of my grandfather is a gem. My father is the only child of his father. My grandfather was the only child of my great-grandparents to live past childhood. A random cousin can’t appear in the future with photos of him.

Then the next photo in the negative strip didn’t make sense. I have identified it as a photo of my mother’s paternal grandfather from 1917 for years.

Once, I asked myself why would he have a professional photo taken of him in Saint Petersburg, Russia, at the same time he was living in Kiev, Ukraine, I knew I made a big mistake with the photo identification.

My grandfather only was 4 years younger than my mother’s grandfather, thanks to an unplanned fatherhood at 50 years old. Both men had lived in Saint Petersburg but my paternal grandfather is the only logical choice for the 1917 photo.

It took the discovery of one photo to learn that I really do have a photo of my grandfather as a young man. When 21st century technology mixes with the 20th century, the results can be amazing.

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Surprising journey starts after visiting grandparents’ cemetery

Three years ago, I finally returned to my grandparents’ cemetery for the first time since my grandmother died in 2012. It’s a 7-hour drive to visit my grandparents’ cemetery so the trip takes some planning.

The visit was one of the few times I wasn’t coming for a funeral. Just coming to visit my grandparents’ grave didn’t seem like enough this time.

The New York City area has many Find A Grave volunteers but it’s a rare chance that many of these volunteers could read the Russian gravestones and crosses at Novo Diveevo Russian Orthodox Cemetery.

My Russian is probably  at the higher elementary level but this cemetery could give me the practice I needed to improve my language skills. I started with photographing about 600 gravestones and wooden crosses.

Thanks to this free online Russian keyboard, it was easy to retype the words I didn’t recall. Then copying and pasting the text into Google Translate revealed the unfamiliar Russian words.

I was hooked to coming back the next summer in 2016 to photograph more when a Russian-American Find A Grave volunteer thanked me for my efforts. He posted many memorial pages for Novo Diveevo before I started my journey and has been a great help to explain anything I couldn’t understand.

I pushed myself to photograph more gravestones and crosses for my visit in summer 2016. I was done with the clicking on my digital camera after 1,300 photos but I had no idea about how much work was ahead of me for the next visit.

After two visits, I was hoping to be done in summer 2017. When I returned again, I went into panic about how much wasn’t done and worried about the upcoming rainy weather.

Thankfully, I came armed with two memory cards and two camera batteries. When I got too hot and sweaty, I went into my car for some bottled water and air conditioning while I recharged my camera. Of course, my second battery discharged when I was an hour away from being done.

So off I went to the nearby Subway to take a lunch break, when I hid that I was charging my camera under the table. I killed time by poking around on my smart phone. I was determined to finish the cemetery on the third visit.

In the end, I pressed the shoot button about 2,700 times. At times, I was hiding under an umbrella. My abundant eagerness allowed me to ignore the time that passed after sunset.

So it wasn’t a surprise when I found some photos were too grainy to post or even read. My stubborn soul knew a fourth “quick” visit was needed for this summer.

I thought I had to only retake pictures of a small section and the newer gravestones and crosses since my last visit. Another surprise came my way when I checked on my smartphone whether my grandparents’ section was done. I hardly touched that section.

Once I was getting closer to finishing the section, two cemetery workers passed me by on their vehicle, with one saying in Russian “Why is she taking pictures?” I turned around and acted as if I was talking on my phone. I moved to the back of the cemetery for the newer graves and returned to that section when they were gone.

It felt so good to finish the cemetery after the 4th visit. I sweated, bled from prickly bushes, climbed under low tree branches and pushed aside many bushes and tree branches to take photos.

Three years ago, this cemetery had less than 200 memorial pages. Now the cemetery has more than 7,100 people in the database. Many of these people had the courage to escape the USSR for a better life and all the sweat and effort to include them on Find A Grave was well worth it.

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