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

 

An inside look into U.S. National Archives’ best research gem for WWII-era immigrants

For years, I have been glowing about the importance of Alien Case Files, possessed by the U.S. National Archives. There is nothing like a nice stack of documents filled with information on individual immigrants in one simple file.

Anyone wondering about relatives or ancestors who fled war-torn Europe during and after World War II should consider looking into obtaining Alien Case Files on their family. Only a small portion of records included in these files can be found on any online genealogy website, including Ancestry.com.

So here is a sneak peek into the life of Helen, my relative by marriage. Born in Ukraine, she fell in love in Russia, had her heart broken by her husband, escaped the USSR with her two children with her ex-husband and his new wife before a major battle between the Soviet Union and Germany occurred in her new hometown.

She was eventually captured by the German army and forced to fix the railroad damaged in the war. The American Army liberated her and she traveled through western Europe before coming abroad to live the American dream.

Her Alien Case File below shows how much can be discovered on WWII-era immigrants. Not all immigrants will have the same amount of records on them but Alien Case Files are the most complete records on immigrants in U.S. National Archives. I deleted several personal details in these scans for privacy reasons.

If you would like to find Alien Case Files on your family, read this FAQ on increasing chances of success in finding these records.

 

Guide for success in obtaining Alien Case Files

Hitting the jackpot on researching WWII-era immigrants takes a few simple steps. It will cost around $130 per immigrant being researched. That’s a price well below the value of the documents filled in the U.S. Alien Case Files.

Here’s answers to general questions on obtaining these files.

What information will I need to obtain the files on my relative?

It is most important to know the person’s full name, birth date or birth year, birth country or city and immigration year. Any extra information such as profession, old addresses, names of relatives living in the same household increases the chances of finding the correct file. Various known spellings of the immigrant’s name also are a great help.

It is highly recommended to first obtain the immigrant’s naturalization record from regional archives of U.S. National Archives. That record will likely include the immigrant’s Alien Number.

What is the importance of the Alien Number?

The number will determine where the Alien Case File can be found. In order to search for an Alien Case File through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Genealogy Program, the number must be below 8 million.

Files with numbers higher than 8 million must be requested with a Freedom of Information Act request, using this form. That form needs to be sent to National Records Center (NRC), FOIA/PA Office, P.O. Box 648010, Lee’s Summit, MO 64064-8010 or uscis.foia@uscis.dhs.gov. Do not mentioned genealogy as the reason for requesting file. Your request will be rejected and you will be referred to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Genealogy Program if you mention genealogy on the form.

Is there an online database for the Alien Case Files?

An index of available files for immigrants born no later than 1910 can be found on Ancestry.com here. If you don’t have an Ancestry.com paid account, visit FamilySearch.org, free and without a registration requirement, to search the index here.

If I find files of relatives in the index, where can I get the files?

Send an e-mail message to U.S. National Archives in Kansas City at Afiles.KansasCity@nara.gov. View this page for more information on the files at Kansas City.

If my relatives are not found in the index, where I can send my search request?

Visit this page for the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services Genealogy Program to see whether your relatives’ files would be eligible to be included in the genealogy program. If your relative’s file fall within the criteria, go here to make an index search request for $65. Results of the search will be sent by postal mail in a few weeks and then the located files must be ordered for $65 each.

My relatives were born after 1910 and are not eligible to be included in the genealogy program. How do I get their files?

Fill out this form and send it to National Records Center (NRC), FOIA/PA Office
P.O. Box 648010, Lee’s Summit, MO 64064-8010 or uscis.foia@uscis.dhs.gov . Don’t put down genealogy under Part 3 for 1. Purpose (Optional).

It is highly recommended to have the immigrant’s Alien Number, if possible.

You will receive a letter, stating your request number. That number can be used to check the status update page daily to see the placement of your requests. That website’s address will be listed in the letter.

The form is free to file. It could cost up to $25 for each file, which is sent on a CD in a PDF format. I have not paid once for Alien Case Files through the FOIA/PA office.

How long does it take to get the files?

It should take less than a month to get the files from Kansas City. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services Genealogy Program tries to send files within 90 days. Results of search requests using the Freedom of Information Act form take several weeks or months.

Do I have to prove ancestry to the immigrant whose file I am requesting?

No. The only requirements for requesting these files are the person whose file is being requested must be deceased and their death must be proven if they were born after 1916. Proof of death can be shown with copies or scans of obituaries, Social Security Death Index listings and death records.

Can living people get their own Alien Case Files?

Yes. They must prove their identity with their birth record, driver’s license or passport.

If you have more questions, post them in the comments section below or e-mail me at bepa.miller at mail.ru.

Two years of frustration may end soon

I received my maternal grandparents’ petitions for naturalization in the mail yesterday, with hope that I would find new information on my grandparents.

I learned the witnesses of my grandparents’ naturalization were longtime friends and a co-worker. I didn’t see other new information until I looked closer.

My grandparents’ alien numbers were on the petitions. I thought their alien numbers were listed on their certificates of naturalization. So, I compared the numbers and they were different.

That made me realize I finally have the correct alien numbers for my grandparents. For the past two years, I have been frustrated that the National Records Center for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) could not find their Alien Files.

Now, I have renewed hope that I could get their Alien Files, which are gold mines of information on immigrants. I have submitted new Freedom of Information Act requests to USCIS, hoping that the correct alien numbers could help with finding their files.

My mother gave me lots of records from her parents but their marriage record is very faded and her father’s birth record is missing. Could these records be in the Alien Files? I could know in two months.

I am crossing my fingers that I can get these files, which could tell my mother how her parents traveled with her through Ukraine, Poland and Germany before they immigrated to the USA. My mother knows some information but documents in her parents’ Alien Files will confirm those stories.

We’ll see if the U.S. government will deliver me a Christmas present from my grandparents.

*****

More info on Alien Files:

Documents that open doors to information

Finally, a useful database on ancestry.com

60 years later, a family story starts to come together

I finally received the Alien Case File of my mother’s family’s immigration sponsor, Vasil, but the immigration file makes me even more curious. The former Soviet repatriation officer apparently was very interesting to the federal government in the 1950s.

His file is an unusual 222 pages. I only received about 40 pages of documents because other federal agencies have to decide whether I will see the missing pages. The file has a few head shots of Vasil, giving me a face to this mystery man.

I am a bit surprised that Vasil was able to sponsor my family when he arrived in the USA two years before my family and he wasn’t a U.S. citizen yet.

Now that I know when he lived in Bavaria, where my family lived, I learned my grandfather had three years to befriend this man for immigration sponsorship. Vasil also worked for the U.S. Army in Bavaria so that explains where he and my grandfather met.

I also learned one of Vasil’s witnesses for naturalization was wife of another Soviet repatriation officer, Valentin, whom my grandfather befriended, and that Vasil had two sons in New York City.

Thanks to this information, I was able to find information on Valentin and his wife on ancestry.com. I found Valentin on a family tree and the user maintaining that tree got me in contact with Valentin’s son.

Now, I have pictures of Valentin and his wife, who stayed in contact with Vasil and  another repatriation officer, Evgeniy, who was a Russian friend of my grandfather from Bavaria. Soon, I hopefully will have photos of Evgeniy, who my mother remembers as a child.

I await more information from Valentin’s son to learn about this trio of repatriation officers, who stayed together in the USA. The son says he hardly knows anything but maybe he really knows more than he thinks. The story of my family’s immigration to the USA could get really interesting soon.

___

This post is a followup to Meet your friendly Soviet repatriation officer.

For more information on Alien Case Files, see Documents that open doors to information.

Finally, a useful database on ancestry.com

Ancestry.com finally has added a database that is a gem for those researching Russian and Ukrainian relatives who immigrated to the USA.

The website has indexed alien case files for immigrants born between the 1840s and 1909. These files come from National Archives in Kansas City. Ancestry.com details the information available in alien case files and how these files can be ordered from National Archives here.

Users can search by surnames on National Archives’ website but the search abilities on ancestry.com increase the chances in finding relatives’ files.

Russian and Ukrainian surnames and village names easily get butchered. So the search abilities on ancestry.com help to get around that problem. Ancestry.com allows searching the new database by immigrants’ birth dates, arrival dates, other event dates, family members, origin locations, naturalization dates and locations, in addition to names and keywords.

The database has more than 17,000 files for Russians, 2,600 files for Lithuanians, 1,700 files for Latvians, 1,000 files for Ukrainians, 599 files for Estonians and 160 files for Belarusians. Hopefully, this database will be updated  as National Archives organizes the files and makes them available to the public.

Related posts on alien case files:

Documents that open doors to information

Seven months worth waiting