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

My second cousin was only told of her father’s name and military title during WWII. The mother is mum about the mystery father who served in the Soviet Army for the Battle of Berlin.

The daughter of my cousin asked me if I knew anything about her grandfather. Relatives of my grandmother’s generation repeated the same story about this war love story.

The grandmother of my younger cousin got pregnant by a Russian soldier. She disappeared soon afterwards. A Russian soldier came to my great-grandparents’ apartment, begging them to come to communist-controlled East Berlin to pick up their daughter. The soldier told them their daughter was not returned to the USSR by sheer luck.

Too fearful of being forced back to the USSR and killed in the gulags for escaping war-torn Kiev, my great-grandparents stayed home and died not knowing what happened to their daughter and unborn grandchild. Was that visiting soldier the father of my second cousin?

Not only is the grandfather a mystery, but I was quite the surprise for my cousin’s family. I appeared out of nowhere four years ago with the help of the Russian Red Cross. My older cousin didn’t know her mother had a brother and sister.

After getting to know my “new cousins” for a few years, I finally popped the question to my second cousin’s daughter: “Will your mother take a DNA test?” A few weeks later, my cousin said yes with enthusiasm.

The time involved to get the Family Tree DNA test back to the lab in Texas was quite long. The package took two months to arrive in western Russia. Apparently, the horses delivering the mail also were busy with a circus tour.

My cousin got busy with her family life and waited several weeks to mail back the test. Thankfully, it took only less than 3 weeks for the test to arrive at the lab. Family Tree DNA quickly processed the test in a mere 16 days.

I was so hopeful to get close matches for my cousin. Family Tree DNA is the only large company that sends DNA genealogy tests to Russia and Ukraine, making it the best choice for finding relatives living in the former USSR.

My cousin has 27 pages of matches, giving her almost 300 matches. Her closest matches are 18 2nd to 4th cousins and 39 4th to remote cousins. I immediately uploaded her DNA data to Gedmatch to find other matches from Ancestry DNA and 23andme for free.

None of the matches on Family Tree DNA nor Gedmatch are close enough to ask the awkward question: “Do you have a grandfather who served in WWII in Berlin in spring 1945?”

This mystery is going to take more than a DNA test to be solved.

Thanks to the crafty and knowledgeable forum members on All Russia Family Tree, I learned about the only man who could have been the mystery Russian soldier. More than two dozen men with the same name served in the war but only one served in the Battle of Berlin.

The main Russian military archives released a boatload of information on the soldier at no charge- the soldier’s birth year, birth place, place of residence in 1987,  wife’s name and her birth year and their daughters’ names and birth years.

So here starts my personal challenge to see whether the DNA test or the small paper trail will help find the birth father’s family 70 years later.

Related post:

Guide for making the best choices in DNA testing

A Russian-American’s insider view of the Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder Test

Updated July 28, 2017

My curiosity of DNA genealogy testing started about seven years ago. I took the Family Finder test from Family Tree DNA, with hope that I could make some major breakthroughs.

So far, I haven’t made any major breakthroughs but it will take some more time. I have more hope that Family Tree DNA will get me at least one major breakthrough because it is the only company out of the three major testing companies that sends its DNA tests to Russia and Ukraine,  in addition to all areas of the former USSR.

What type of information is provided on matches?

Customers get the following information on their matches: name, e-mail address (a few choose not to post their e-mail addresses), family tree (some don’t post their trees), match date, relationship range, shared centimorgans (specks of DNA shared between matches), longest block of centimorgans, and ancestral surnames (those in bold are shared or sound similar between matches).

You can see how this looks at the bottom of this page.

How does Family Tree DNA predict chances of being related?

Matches are listed as parent/child; uncle/aunt/nephew/niece; grandparent/grandchild; 1st to 2nd cousin, 2nd to 4th cousin; 3rd to 5th cousin; 4th cousin- remote cousin; and 5th cousin- remote cousin.

How often do you get matches?

Lately, I get at least 10 matches throughout each month.  I have 337 matches from the past six and a half years. Both of my parents’ families came from Russia and Ukraine in the early 1950s to the USA. My mother’s Russian cousin, who has a father with British ancestry, has 685 matches from the past two years.  My father’s Russian cousin, who has a mother with Jewish ancestry, has 1,321  matches from the past 5 and a half years.

How many of your matches have ancestors from Russia or Ukraine?

A high portion of my matches have ancestors from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and Finland. A noticeable portion of my matches live in Russia. The same goes for my mother, aunt, uncle and four Russian cousins.

How close are your matches?

I have 3 matches for 2nd to 4th cousins, 9 matches for 3rd to 5th cousins, 29 4th cousins- remote cousins and the rest are 5th cousins- remote cousins. For my mother, she has 3 matches for 2nd to 4th cousins, 6 matches for 3rd to 5th cousins, 30 matches for 4th cousins- remote cousins and the rest are 5th cousins- remote cousins.

Do you have surnames in common with your matches?

I have a handful of matches with shared surnames of Germanic ancestry but I can’t connect our family trees. I have one match with a shared Russian surname from a great-grandfather but the match isn’t close enough to confirm the relationship.  My father’s cousin has a shared Russian surname from her maternal grandmother with a 4th cousin but my cousin doesn’t have enough information to connect the family trees.

How friendly are matches in giving information?

Everyone but a random few have responded to my e-mail messages about exchanging information.

What tools does Family Tree DNA offer in searching, sorting, filtering and noting matches?

Customers can check whether they have shared matches with each person listed as a match. Also, matches can be sorted by various relationship ranges, X-chromosome matches (from a maternal line), common surnames, known relationship, longest DNA block, DNA shared and date matched. Matches can be searched by name and ancestral surnames. Notes also can be placed on each match.

If parents tested their DNA, their children can have their matches filtered as maternal or paternal matches and matches share by both parents.

Family Tree DNA has two other tools: chromosome browser and matrix. Chromosome browser shows where up to 5 matches have shared DNA on the 22 and X chromosomes. This helps determine the ancestor in common. Matrix allows  up to 10 matches to be compared for their Family Finder relationships in a grid.

Does Family Tree DNA give an ethnicity breakdown?

Yes. It breaks down ancestry from its 24 reference populations and puts it on a global map. Matches with similar ethnicity are listed on the bottom left of the map. A filter is provided to compare other matches, based on their closeness in relationship.

What other information does Family Tree DNA provide?

It gives the three most common ancestral surnames that come from the matches and the number of matches who have those names.

Family Tree DNA also gives percentages of ancient European origins (hunter-gatherers, early farmers, and Metal Age invaders) and a map of the origins.

Does Family Tree DNA have forums to help figure out the DNA test and its results?

Yes. These forums are open to the public and are very helpful in understanding the various tests Family Tree DNA offers and figuring out how to find connections with matches.

Related posts:

A Russian-American’s inside view of the new AncestryDNA test

A Russian-American’s insider view of the MyHeritage DNA test

A Russian-American’s insider view of the 23andme Autosomal Test

Guide for making the best choices in DNA testing

FAQ- DNA testing for Russians and Ukrainians