Break open the “I don’t know anything” relatives for some genealogy gems

Everyone has someone in their family who says “I don’t know anything,” “I told you everything I know” or “No one talked to me about the family”.

It’s amazing the information relatives young and old have given me after I broke through the defensive attitude. It does help that I worked several years as a newspaper reporter with lots of experience in investigative reporting. My job was to get the “I don’t know anything” types to talk to me.

So here’s my top 10 tips for getting shiny gems of information from relatives who seem to have super glued their lips.

1. If a relative says “I don’t know anything about that,” ask them what they know about the family. Maybe they would prefer to talk about something else and would feel appreciated if they could talk about their favorites stories. Let them talk, warm them up and see if any of their stories connect back to the information you are seeking.

2.  If a relative says, “Why do you need this information?”,  move the conversation away from you by talking about the importance of future generations learning about the family. Some relatives need to be reminded that they could help pass on important information.

3.  If a relative says, “Who told you that nonsense?”,  don’t act defensive. Give that relative a chance to provide their perspective for that story even if it sounds inaccurate. One of their small tidbits may be enough to put together information to break through a brick wall.

4. Don’t try to trick a relative to talk about a controversial or debated event in the family. Your plan may backfire and that could be the end of the conversation. Wait until the end to talk about controversial topics when your relative is more comfortable.

5. Some relatives may be more visual people when communicating. Ask those relatives to pull out family photos, letters and Christmas cards to talk about the relatives you are researching.

6.  If you are trying to nail down a family village with an older relative who can’t recall the place,  bring maps of the area or your computer to look at online maps.  Ask your relative if they remember certain churches, buildings or monuments being in the community or certain villages, counties or country borders being nearby or particular industries being strong in the community.

7.  Bring photos and letters your relative has not seen and show research you have done. You can try to warm them up by showing that you are willing to share with them and are not there just to extract information from them.

8. Don’t pop out digital voice recorders or video cameras without any warning. That could make your closed-off relative more nervous and hesitant. It is best to write down notes on the first visit and then ask for permission to record follow-up interviews.

9.  Know when to stop asking questions. Don’t make the conversation too long. If possible, try to have a follow-up conversation to clear up some points after you have a chance to review your notes.

10. Make sure to thank your relative several times before leaving their home and call them a few days later to thank them again.

Find my family village. Hold your genealogy horses!

One of the biggest mistakes in genealogy is rushing to the next step without doing all your research. Too many times, I hear people rushing into finding their family’s village well before their research is done.

Rush into this major step, you could feel like a horse led into an empty barn at feeding time.

Too many people assume when they have family stories and a few documents, that will be enough to start research in the family village.

In genealogy, you can’t research too much, especially with the factors involved when dealing with immigrants. Not many immigrants understood immigration officials when they arrived in their new homeland. Maybe some immigrants understood the language of their new country but officials could have misunderstood them or been confused by the stress of processing immigrants.

Then, immigrants had to document their lives in their new homeland on documents in a new language. Sometimes it wasn’t easy or cheap to find help in properly filling out the forms.

I have different birthplaces and birth dates for some relatives. Luckily, I’ve done my research to confirm those details. In some cases, I spent money and time in researching records in the wrong place.

There is nothing like being annoyed at yourself that you should have known better or some know-it-all relative saying with a big grin,  “Boy, you really screwed up. Hope it didn’t cost you too much money.”

So here’s how you can earn some bragging rights for uncovering the mysterious family village. Follow these suggestions and you can restart or start your search with more confidence and success.

1. Interview the oldest relatives in your family. If relatives say, “I don’t know much.” Then say, “Please tell me what you remember.” Even if relatives can’t remember very specific details, try getting details such as closeness to another country’s border, big city or another region. Someone else could help you knock down the not-so-specific details to more concise information.

2. Learn about the family’s religion, class and profession. Not all Russians and Ukrainians are Orthodox or Jewish. The other religions are Old Believers, Russian Baptist, Catholic and Lutherans (mainly Germans living in the Russian Empire).

2. Get all possible immigration documents. Here are the records you should consider obtaining if your relatives came to the USA: petition for naturalization, application for immigration visa and alien registration, ship passenger record, declaration of intention for naturalization and Alien Case File.

3. If your family came to the USA in the early 1900s to 1950, I highly suggest paying $20 for an index search request at to see which immigration records are available on your family.

4. If your family was held in German concentration camps or labor camps during World War II, make a free search request with International Tracing Service.

5. If your family escaped the Soviet Union during World War II by using German ancestry to relocate to Germany, search for your family here under data category “war records”. This database will tell you whether there are Einwanderungszentralstelle files (goldmine for genealogy research) on your relatives that you can obtain at U.S. national archives in College Park, Maryland.

6. If your relatives married, served in the military or died outside of the Russian Empire or USSR, I would recommend obtaining their marriage, military and death records. Those records could have the family village.

Once you have attempted to collect this information, it is time to research the family village. It is important to remember that just like many  other countries, too many names of towns and villages duplicate in Russia and Ukraine and some names for towns and villages change over time.

If you are not familiar with Russian or Ukrainian, use Google Translate to translate keywords for search engines. Information in Russian or Ukrainian are likely to be more bountiful than English.

This all seems a bit much for one piece of information, but the cost for researching family in Russia and Ukraine can run pricey. Investing hope and money on the right village will have great returns.

Don’t let this easy mistake implode your family tree

Anyone researching their Russian and Ukrainian roots can make a major mistake when putting together their family tree.

So let me test you. This name- Svetlana Vladimirovna Krasnikova- is written on a document. What is Svetlana’s maiden name?

If you guessed Vladimirovna, you are wrong.

This is the easiest mistake that could make your family tree a pile of shallow branches that will collapse onto themselves. Vladimirovna is Svetlana’s patronymic name.

What is a patronymic name? This is something I had to learn when I was a teenager and had to give my full name to work for the first time. Thanks to being born to former USSR citizens, I have a patronymic name after my first name.

So, now you have guessed this is a “middle name”. It is special middle name that isn’t picked from a book nor given in honor of a favorite relative or friend. My middle name- Nikolaevna- tells people that I am daughter of Nikolai.

I still get too excited at times that I have found maiden names to add to my family tree. It takes time to understand the difference between patronymic names and surnames.

Just a few years ago, I had to call my mother to ask her whether my great-grandmother’s middle name on the back of a professional photo was her patronymic or maiden name.

It’s hard to contain the excitement that you’ve found a maiden name in Russian or Ukrainian records. Too many times on church records women are only identified by given and patronymic names. So finding maiden names is quite the thrill.

Here are the main rules for identifying patronymic names. For women, the name ends with evna, yevna,  ovna or ichna. For men, the name finishes off with ovich, yevich or yich, according to Wikipedia’s page on patronymic names.

The difference between surnames and patronymic names also can be seen in these examples: Ivanovna (female patronymic) and Ivanova (female surname), Matveyevna (female patronymic) and Matveyeva (female surname), and Nikolayevich (male patronymic) and Nikolayev (male surname).

I have learned over the years about the perks of having patronymic names even when surnames are missing. A crafty Russian researcher found my great-grandmother’s maiden just on her given and patronymic names. That resulted in a Moscow man finding me on Russian forums and confirming us as relatives through a great-great-grandfather.

A patronymic name is not as great as a surname on the family tree but the gift of this unique name is knowing the father’s name just from a “middle name”.

Top 13 tips for making Facebook the best genealogy networking tool

Facebook is more than people posting food, vacation and kids photos lately. It is pretty amazing by the amount of friendly people on Facebook who are willing to help strangers on their genealogy and family searches. I am starting to think that Facebook is the best tool for genealogy networking on the Internet.

Here are my  top 13 tips for getting the best results from Facebook:

1. Search all possible keywords to find the best Facebook groups available. My list of best Facebook groups can be found here.

2. Respect the language of the groups you join. Use Google Translate if the common language isn’t English.

3. Before you post, search the group’s posts in the top right box that says “Search this group.” Maybe you will find someone researching the same family or looking for the same information.

4. Make sure your post fits the theme of the group or you’ll get a taste of Facebook’s instant flow of sarcasm.

5. Include all known information to attract the attention of the group’s members. Providing all the information you’ve collected shows you are serious about your search.

6. Don’t post an excessive amount of requests for help or information in one group nor post the same request in several groups. If you need help with several searches, spread your posts in various groups. Posting the same requests everywhere will get you ignored.

7. Try to be active in the groups you join. It is appreciated when people who post for help also help or show support to other members.

8. Keep track of responses to your posts so you don’t miss any great opportunities for help or new information.

9.  Don’t ignore general genealogy groups. They can be just as helpful as Russian or Ukrainian specific genealogy groups. The general groups have many more members, which increases the number of people who could help you.

10. Don’t turn down information that doesn’t sound accurate at a quick glance. Surnames change, siblings are born in different villages, families change religions so anything is possible when researching the family. Families have been always complicated and confusing.

11. Be polite and always say thank you. It is easy to misunderstand intent and emotion on Facebook. You don’t want to turn off the eager helpers in these groups.

12. Be patient about getting the responses you were expecting from your posts. Sometimes posts don’t get good responses until they are noticed later.

13. Make sure your profile photo or image looks friendly. It sounds vain but a friendly or happy profile photo or image can be an advantage.

This blog has an active Facebook group page here.

Spell that Russian name in a click

Trying to figure out how to spell a family name or village in Russian can be quite the challenge.

Stephen Morse has eliminated that mystery on his website here. I’ve tested some of my Russian family and village names and this website gave several good translations per name.

The English to Russian translation programs I use online have struggled with translating some names for me. Stephen Morse’s website is good at translating Russian, German and Jewish names written in English.

So, go check out those interesting names in Russian with the frustration left behind.