Search for grandma’s childhood home reveals family secrets

The curiosity of where my grandmother lived as a child was supposed to be just that. Records for her village were supposed to be destroyed during bombings in WWII.

Luck finally came my way in the form of a man who loves studying the history of his hometown, my grandmother’s former village. The acquaintance from a forum, Oleg, finally found the street where my grandmother lived as a baby.

Oleg hinted at that there was more than an address coming my way. I stopped my imagination from going too wild about what else I would learn about my grandmother’s childhood.

As soon I read the records Oleg found in archives outside of Kiev, Ukraine, I was shocked but not surprised. Great-grandpa was hosting an Evangelical Baptist church in his house in 1921, a time when the government killed people for practicing religion. (See Wikipedia’s page on persecution)

My great-grandfather was known for being very religious. He left behind two journals of biblical passages. His longest letter to his children about his family’s history, included a plea to his son to become a preacher. That plea fell on deaf ears.

Great-grandpa was even tenacious enough to send his sister in the USSR packages of clothing with hidden biblical passages when he lived in Berlin, Germany. No one was going to stop him from sharing his faith.

He was smart enough to keep the church quietly in a resort town, where people on the street where my great-grandparents lived and kept the church probably assumed a large family was gathering on a regular basis.

Then, my great-grandfather took his faith to a more noticeable position. Almost a year after he brought the church into his home, a document from archives shows he acknowledged the church as an official member of the Evangelical Baptist Union of Kiev. My great-grandfather signed the document as chairman of the board for the Evangelical Baptist Union of Kiev.

Nothing else is known about how long great-grandpa was hosting a church in his house nor serving as chairman of the board.

But today, a newer Evangelical Baptist church exists in my grandmother’s village, now a 35,000-resident suburb with high-rise apartments. The church (pictured below) has been open to the public for 50 years.

evangelicalbaptistboyarka

 

My great-grandfather’s name of Tikhon, meaning quiet, served him quite well. He hid a marriage and a child from his second wife and a church in his house and kept quiet about his work with the Evangelical Baptist Union of Kiev.

Finding the address where my grandmother crawled as a baby has shown one piece of information can lead to so much more.

Previous related posts:
Unimaginable breakthrough comes after years of hoping

Thanks for skimping on your taxes, great-grandpa

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

 

Unimaginable breakthrough comes after years of hoping

Somethings I have refused to put on a wish list or as a goal because I know reality won’t bring fantasy to life no matter how much heart I put into it.

Recently, I got a message from a man I know from a forum for my grandmother’s hometown. Sometimes, his messages don’t provide much help. This time, it was a message with an unbelievable surprise that it felt as if it were Christmas again.

My immediate reaction was to call my mother with the shocking news that this man found the street where her mother lived as a baby in the early 1920s. It doesn’t sound as if it’s a big deal until I mention that my grandmother lived in Soviet Ukraine.

Getting records from Ukrainian archives past 1917 is quite a miracle. Ukraine won’t release its records online in the same way as the USA nor Canada does in my lifetime. Plus, the damage to Ukraine from WWII has resulted in many losses in archive records.

So, the countdown to mid-February begins. That is when my friend expects to get his hands on the records again. Two weeks ago, he told me that last week he would send me scans of the records he found. He wasn’t able to visit archives and he learned this week that archives will give him the records in mid-February.

I’m not going to complain about the wait. My friend has found where my grandmother lived as a baby and other things he hasn’t detailed. I’m not going to pester him with “so what is it?” Let a Christmas surprise come again in February.

This surprise will top his last from July, when he sent me a scan of the 1922 census of my grandmother’s birthplace that shows my great-grandfather was a tailor who skimped on paying his taxes and a scan from the local Russian Baptist church that shows he was a member and served in leadership. That is likely where my great-grandparents met.

The luck of having this guy help me for free is what I earned for getting out of my comfort zone and posting messages 6 years ago in a forum for my grandmother’s hometown near Kiev, Ukraine.

I used Google Translate to figure out how to register for the forum and posted messages looking for archive documents on my grandmother’s family and cousins from her father’s family. I never found family through the forum but the things that have landed on my lap were never on my radar.

That forum was deleted recently. It’s scary to think if I never got out of my comfort zone and never posted on the forum, I would have missed out on so much.

Previous related post:
Thanks for skimping on your taxes, great-grandpa

Get out of your comfort zone:
Secrets of searching the Internet in Russian and Ukrainian like a native speaker

Marching toward solving a WWII family mystery with Ancestry DNA

I never have been so anxious for DNA results until my mother’s cousin agreed to DNA testing. Finding the mystery WWII soldier who fathered my mother’s cousin and left behind so many questions for three generations is resting on one Ancestry DNA test.

The results came in much quicker than expected, one week after the DNA kit arrived at the lab. I was imagining weeks of staring and yelling at my computer screen, “Just come in! I can’t wait another minute!”

I was expecting two scenarios: all 5th-8th cousin matches who would be completely useless or closer matches who would not answer my messages. I never expected the scenario I am in today.

In the past month since the results have arrived and continue to come in regularly, the closest matches have the tiniest family trees and won’t logged into their Ancestry accounts, in addition to not answering my messages. Now, I am screaming in my head,”Just log into your account and answer my messages!”

zeesmatches

My cousin has one 3rd cousin match,  20 4th-6th cousin matches (one of these is listed as a very high match) and a massive list of 5th-8th cousins that ends on page 54.

Meanwhile, I have 36 pages of matches for the 4 years since I have tested with Ancestry and not one in common with my mother’s cousin. I have 6 in-common matches with her on Family Tree DNA.

Every day, I check for new matches more often than I want to admit and hoping to get more 2nd and 3rd cousin matches to go around matches who don’t have detailed family trees nor an interest in answering my messages.

Right now, I am putting my hope into the people who bought DNA kits for themselves and as gifts this holiday season. The chatter on Facebook sounds as if Ancestry did very well for selling its DNA this holiday.

The golden match will be on Ancestry DNA and that person hopefully will test soon. It is obvious that the mystery father was most likely an American or Canadian soldier. One look at this ethnicity breakdown definitely doesn’t point to a German nor Russian soldier as the father, when the mother is half Russian and East Prussian.

zeesbreakdown

My biggest fear is that an older man living in a nursing home, who is thinking that he never had children, will die not knowing about his daughter. He has two grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and a great-great-grandson.

My great-grandparents died, wondering what happened to their pregnant daughter. She left war-torn Berlin for Soviet Ukraine, hoping for more food and better living in her home country. Five years ago, the American Red Cross and International Tracing Service teamed up successfully to answer that question by finding her.

Now, all hope is on Ancestry DNA to help name the man who fathered my cousin to put in the final piece of this puzzle. It just takes the right person to take the DNA test and make time to answer my messages to make one woman’s dream of finding her father’s family to come true.

Remember to click on the follow button for this blog  on the top right to keep posted on this journey.

Previous posts on this story:
Countdown begins for AncestryDNA to solve a 71-year-old mystery from WWII

A shocking twist gets thrown into finding the mystery birth father from WWII

A DNA test and small paper trail face off to complete a WWII love story

The drama a DNA test brings to a family tree

Four years ago, I thought it only would be a dream to know the maiden name of my paternal grandfather’s mother. He didn’t even know her maiden name.

So I was beyond thrilled when a researcher solved the mystery by digging through census and birth records. She was successful with just having her first and middle names, birth year and general area where she was born.

I posted on genealogy forums looking for relatives of my great-grandmother. Some distant cousin must be out there researching the same family when she was one of 9 kids.

It took two years for a cousin to contact me after seeing my posts. His great-great-grandfather was brother of my great-grandmother.

The enthusiasm for finding each other has hardly died down two years later. We continue to exchange family information and write to each other on a regular basis.

A few months ago, I finally asked the DNA test question. He wanted to do a test but couldn’t afford one. With the Russian ruble crashing, spending money on a DNA test was a luxury.

Thanks to the $69 Family Finder test sale at Family Tree DNA over the summer, it was the perfect time to confirm our relationship.  I counted down every day for a month until the results were expected.

The first day the results were expected, the status changed to a delay of two to four weeks. I checked the next day whether the status had changed again. The matches were available. I was excited and nervous.

My cousin had 259 matches, compared to my 209 I’ve accumulated over 5 years. I wasn’t sure about how our relationship would be identified.  I wasn’t the closest match as I had expected.

With that shock, I didn’t have the patience to scroll through 9 pages of matches. I searched for myself by my last name and our common surname.

I was nowhere to be found. This had to be a mistake. To my annoyance, it took until the next morning to get his raw data file. I immediately uploaded his file to Gedmatch to get a second opinion on this DNA testing disaster.

Not one pinch of us matched by DNA, disappointing on so many levels. But I should have known better with doing DNA genealogy for 5 years.

changes-of-finding-a-match

Image from Family Tree DNA

Family Tree Maker designates us as 3rd cousins 2 times removed. I could have increased the chances of matching with his family by having his father take the test.

The most annoying part of this experience was the message from Family Tree DNA that the results were available. The message was sent 27 times. Apparently, this is supposed to be the haha moment.

I am not worried that my cousin isn’t my cousin. A researcher documented the family tree and my cousin has an old family tree that is backed up by family documents.

DNA doesn’t have the precision of documents. As DNA data gets passed down to each generation, there isn’t a magical formula to guarantee certain DNA from each ancestor. Documents don’t change over time, just fade.

Previous related posts:
New Russian cousins found again!
Wondering if my family tree is about to grow

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

A shocking twist gets thrown into finding the mystery birth father from WWII

ancestrydnaAt Christmastime, I was daydreaming that my cousin would have great matches to finally find her father’s family on Ancestry DNA.

But nine months after sending her the DNA kit, I don’t even have my cousin’s completed DNA test in my hands yet. I am still fuming on the why.

Thanks to the strict regulations of the Russian postal service, the completed kit was sent back to my cousin’s daughter, who attempted to mail the kit to me. She told me that she sent the kit in April and I was counting down the days to when it arrived in my mailbox at my front door.

I only learned a week ago about the Russian Postal Service rejecting my cousin’s package to get through customs. She felt so horrible that she didn’t have the heart to tell me until recently.

Meanwhile, I am getting more matches on Ancestry DNA from Russians living in RUSSIA. What is so special about their packages that they don’t have our problem?

I contacted a distant cousin match living in Russia about how he managed to get his package out of Russia. Apparently, the trick is marking the package as a test sample or plastic tube and using an expensive express service of the Russian postal service to get the tube of spit through customs.

This match lives in Moscow so I am wondering whether a big city advantage exists. My cousin lives near the border of Belarus in a medium-sized city.

No matter what the advantage is, I am praying and hoping others will pray that the second kit makes it out of Russia and into the lab of Ancestry DNA in perfect condition.

My cousin got her Family Tree DNA kit to me last year and none of the matches are close enough to determine who is the mystery father. Hope started dying down when Ancestry DNA changed its DNA file format for transfers to Family Tree DNA and now those transfers are on hold.

All my kits at Family Tree DNA were getting many matches every week, probably thanks to the Ancestry DNA customers paying $39 to find more matches at Family Tree DNA.

I am convinced someone who tested through Ancestry DNA is the key to solving this 71-year-old mystery. With more than 2 million DNA kits processed, I am hoping my cousin can finally find the mystery WWII soldier who helped bring her into the world.

My cousin shouldn’t even be alive. Her mother returned with her to Soviet Ukraine in 1946 after they escaped to Germany. They were the perfect candidates to be killed at a Siberian gulag but somehow the crafty mother and her daughter lived a quiet Soviet life.

They escaped being sent to the gulag but a darn DNA test can’t get out of post-Soviet Russia in 2016. Apparently, divine intervention is needed for my cousin one more time.

Related post:
A DNA test and small paper trail face off to complete a WWII love story