Unsealed records unveil the bigger story behind a family’s persecution

For years, relatives have repeated the story that my grandmother’s five brothers were sent to prison during the communist era for possessing a foreign technical journal on a train.

But that is so far from the possible truth. My grandmother’s brothers were really accused of making an invention that was possibly sold to the Germans, according to files removed from an archive’s volt.

A cell companion of my oldest grand-uncle said he repeatedly heard from other prisoners that my relative said the People’s Commissar of the Navy requested him to make the invention. The signed statement of the cell companion doesn’t say who sold the invention to the Germans.

An accusation that my grand-uncle made an invention worth selling isn’t far-fetched. My researcher carefully looked at the records that were fading and crumbling. The information is a bit shocking.

My researcher found drawings and documentation of nine inventions made by my three grand-uncles. All the writing was in German. These inventions could have helped the military in wartime.

The shocking part isn’t that my grand-uncles had the knowledge and ability to make these inventions. Their father had several inventions for explosives, which were used in mining.

It is hard to understand why they chose to write everything in German. Maybe that was the order from the People’s Commissar of the Navy. I wonder if my grand-uncles even had a choice when this order came to them.

But what is the real truth?  Did their invention really get into the hands of the Germans? Their 57-year-old widowed mother wasn’t afraid to stand up for her sons to Andrei Vyshinsky, the prosecutor of the USSR.

“I beg you to treat fairly the business of my sons. Do not allow certain careerists and overcautious persons to cast a black shadow on the great and awesome name of People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs which is not needing at all those actions which are applied to my sons, the gone too far careerists and actually the Trotskyists who addressed in great People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs for data of the personal scores and for commission of the dirty Trotskyist work,” she wrote to Vyshinsky in 1938.

She was inspired to write Vyshinsky because her oldest son sneaked out a letter written on toilet paper to her. My grand-uncle hid his letter in a saucepan to tell his mother that he and his brother haven’t eaten edible food in six months, were punished by being held in a hot cell for a month and have been beaten terribly for not signing confessions.

Soon after my great-grandmother sent this letter, her other three sons were charged with unknown crimes. This only left a daughter as her only child who was not in prison. Not until my researcher dove into these records, I didn’t understand why the grand-uncles were arrested at different times.

The five brothers were thrown into a stream after being severally beaten and aging much more than the three years that were taken away from them. They saved their lives by not signing any confessions. They returned to their families and made a successful plan to escape the USSR three years later.

The details of this story ends here because the archive is hesitating to release any more records on this case. But the fight to fully tell this story will continue at the archives of a regional Federal Security Service office, where my researcher will open more files on this case.

Follow this blog to see this story continue by clicking on the top right button.

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Determination to get one record leads to a pile of records on family mysteries

Once I learned that a burial record of my great-grandfather existed at archives, I was determined to see the record. But it wasn’t as simple as making a request to archives.

My great-grandfather died in 1946 in the former USSR. Getting Soviet-era records is a complicated process. A contact in the city was too shy to ask whether he could get a scan of the record.

Then I decided to have my researcher visit the city archives after checking for real estate records at another archive in the same city. Soon after my researcher arrived at the city archive to get a scan of the burial record, she had the luck of finding three files on three brothers of my grandmother from the communist-era. I am curious about how this all happened but I am more thrilled for one more miracle.

My father’s half-sister bragged that her favorite uncle was just like his father- an inventor with patents. Over 10 years, I hadn’t been able to figure out where records could exist to prove that story true. My aunt had a habit of telling grand stories. She inherited her uncle’s possessions but only documents of my great-grandfather’s inventions and patents were found in my aunt’s apartment.

The documents showing inventions of my grand uncle do exist as my researcher just found them at archives. A file with his technical drawings and correspondence with the agencies in Moscow and Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) about his inventions are sitting at city archives.

Then a burning question has been in my head for the 10 years that I have researched my paternal grandmother’s family, “Why was my grandmother’s family targeted for Soviet persecution?” My family tried to have quiet lives even though they were more financially comfortable than other families during the communist era.

Once my researcher discovered that the oldest brother of my grandmother made an appeal to the court for the return of his apartment taken by the communists, I realized that would be enough to get the communist government’s interest to track my family.

The file on my three grand uncles is dated 1918-1943, showing that my family was tracked by the communist government for 25 years. The tracking ended in 1943, when the three brothers and the rest of my grandmother’s family escaped the USSR.

I am so grateful that these files are finally being opened. The pages total to more than 350 pages on my family, making it the largest discovery of records in my 10-year genealogy journey into Russia.

It took the curiosity into one burial record to discover these files. This shows the importance of documenting research and staying determined on the genealogy journey.

Now, the researcher needs to open these files to review them page by page. What will be found? I don’t know what will be coming my way but it has been worth the wait.

Follow this blog to see this journey unfold by clicking on the top right button.

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When one detail proves a search is worthwhile

I had given up on finding the details for the marriage of my great-grandparents. Years of research uncovered so many records on them but not a clue about when was their special day.

Then I moved onto obtaining their death records from Germany. For years, I’ve worked on finding as much information as possible on their lives but I didn’t even have their death records nor any of my great-grandparents.

Starting with obtaining my maternal grandmother’s parents’ death records would be the easiest start. They are my only great-grandparents who died outside of Russia.

The process for getting records is so much easier in Germany. I have all the details of their deaths from family letters. So I started with my quiet great-grandfather Tikhon, who died in Berlin and was born in Russia.

Once I found the envelope in my mailbox from Berlin archives, I was so happy. Finally, I could say my collection of family records has a great-grandparent’s death record.

To my amazement, I got more than I bargained for when I started the process to get his death record. There on his sterbefallanzeige (death report from the hospital) were his marriage date of January 6, 1920, and place of marriage in Kyiv.

Only one other German immigration record (Einwanderungszentralstelle EWZ file) had the marriage year of 1920 but I just wanted to know the exact date. Obviously, it was my great-grandmother who provided the information because my great-grandparents didn’t have any relatives in Berlin to give that information.

Even though my Poland-born great-grandmother was 83 years when she provided the information, I think I can trust her memory due to the date. My great-grandparents were very  religious.

January 6 is Russian Christmas Eve. It makes me wonder whether their marriage date is a secret way of remembering Christmas. The communists shut down the churches but my great-grandparents weren’t going to be stopped in making that day special to them.

Now that I have the full marriage date, I am hoping that Ukrainian archives will get more organized so I can one day find the marriage record. Maybe the record was destroyed by the German bombing of Kyiv.

Whatever will happen in this journey to find that marriage record, the wedding date appeared in the last place that I expected. My great-grandmother’s sterbefallanzeige from Furth archives in Bavaria didn’t even have a line for the same information.

That date gives another detail to my great-grandparents’ story. This journey proves the importance of documenting the stories of our ancestors.

I assumed everything was already known on the death records and then the documents provided an awesome surprise, thanks to each community having their own ideas about what life facts are important.

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The best surprises come when hope is almost lost


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.

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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