Friday, April 26, 2019

Were Frida Kahlo’s Ancestors From Hungary?

For decades it had been widely accepted that Frida’s paternal ancestors were Jews from Hungary, based on her own words. She wrote in her diary the following: “My paternal grandparents, who were Hungarians, were born in Arad, Hungary, and moved to Germany, when they were already married. It was here, in Baden Baden, that their children, including my father Guillermo Kahlo, were born.” Arad is a town in Romania, that used to be part of the Kingdom of Hungary. It came as a complete surprise, when in 2005 German researchers Gaby Franger and Rainer Huhle published a book, in which they demonstrated that Frida’s father Guillermo Kahlo’s ancestors were Lutherans from Germany at least since the 18th century. 

My Grandparents My Parents and Me, 1936 by Frida Kahlo. Source:

A quick last name analysis of the surname Kahlo also suggests its German origin. This surname distribution map shows Kahlo as a valid, but relatively rare surname, with 83 representatives currently living in Germany. There is a similar last name, Kahl, which is much more common in modern Germany. The two could have the same root. Also, records from the FamilySearch database show people named Kahlo mostly being from Germany.

Although Franger and Huhle’s research seems to give a definitive answer, there are still many questions in this story. Naturally, in Hungary there is a vivid interest to this aspect of the painter’s biography. One of the focal points of Frida Kahlo exhibition in the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest, Hungary, held in July-November 2018, was her connection to Hungary. Even though the curator of the exhibition Adriana Lantos acknowledged the lack of evidence for Kahlo's Hungarian roots, the respective exhibit seems to leave the question open: “We can only trust that new, earlier unknown documents will become available in the future that will reveal the truth of the matter”.

Picture taken at the Frida Kahlo exhibition in Budapest, 2018

So, why did Frida maintain that her father was of Jewish Hungarian origin?

There are a couple of speculations. Some researchers think that she did not want to associate herself with Germany because of WWII, and for the same reason she may have liked the idea of being Jewish. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that Frida did not mention her Jewish origin until 1936, when antisemitic legislation was adopted in Germany.

As to the Hungarian identity she claimed, many think it is connected with Nickolas Muray, a famous photographer of Hungarian Jewish origin, with whom she had a decade-long relationship. Muray's photography was published in Harper’s Bazar, Vogue and The New York Times. He also competed at the 1928 and 1932 Summer Olympics in the fencing events.

Now, if with the Jewish and Hungarian identities there are some plausible speculations, it is harder to come up with an explanation of how Arad came into the picture. A publicist from Transylvania Péter Puskel mentions his futile efforts to investigate Frida’s possible connection to Arad.

My own quick online research on Muray’s ancestry did not reveal any apparent connection with Arad, either. He was born as Miklós Mandl in Szeged, Hungary, in 1892. Although Szeged is only 100 km (about 62 miles) away from Arad, it is not enough to assume a connection here. Miklós' birth record lists his father as Samu Mandl, a grocer from Albert Irsa and his mother as Klára Lóvit from Nagy Abony. Albertirsa was located in Pest county, while Nagy Abony, now called Veľké Blahovo, is in Slovakia. 

At Miklós' birth record there is a note, that he changed his surname to “Murai”. So, his emigration to the U.S. was already under this last name. As per Nick Muray’s naturalization files, he immigrated in 1913. I found a 1914 ship manifest of his brother Stefan Murai, whose contacts were father Samu in Budapest and brother Nicholas Muray in Brooklyn, NY. Stefan’s place of birth is rather difficult to read, but it looks like “Kispest, Delegyhaza”, which may be Délegyháza in Pest county. So, again, Arad is nowhere is sight…

Another Frida’s known Hungarian connection was Martin Munkácsi (born Márton Mermelstein), also an American photographer of Jewish Hungarian descent. He was the author of a number of famous photos of Frida and her husband Diego Riviera. Martin Munkácsi was born in born in Kolozsvár, then Hungary, now Cluj-Napoca in Romania. Even though both Cluj and Arad are part of Transylvania region, it is still not providing enough explanation of Frida’s “choice” of her paternal ancestral town.
And lastly, another touch to Frida’s Hungarian mystery: a copy of the letter she wrote in Hungarian to Nickolas Muray. It was on display at the exhibition.




I love you like an angel. You are a lily-of-the-valley, my dear. 

I will never forget you, never, never. 
You are my whole life. I hope that you will not forget this, either. 

The language of the letter is quite curious. On one hand, the text is in proper Hungarian. On the other hand, it has multiple spelling mistakes (like missing diacritics, compound words written separately, etc.). It feels like it was either written by a Hungarian native speaker, who did not learn how to write properly (as it happens, for example, with émigré children), or by a non-native who wrote down a phrase learned by ear. It is not known, whether Frida indeed wrote this letter on her own, or got help from a Hungarian acquaintance.
In any case, there are many sides to this puzzle.


Thursday, August 2, 2018

How To Search for Russian WWI Records Online

Some time ago I have written about online resources for Second World War Soviet records, which can be accessed here. There has been a great interest in the First World War research, as well, especially as this year will mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War. The number of participants and casualties were so great, that most Europeans had ancestors or relatives involved in WWI.

In this post I will put together the top online resources for researching individuals fighting in WWI in the Russian Imperial army. It is estimated that 1,700,000 Russian soldiers and officers were killed and 3,749,000 were wounded in this war. Naturally, these resources do not only include the territory of contemporary Russia, but also other territories, that were part of the Russian empire at the time. Although the Russian WWI databases are not yet as comprehensive as those for WWII, but there have been significant efforts in this direction. Here is my summary of the best available resources and some of the expected developments. 
  • "In the memory of the heroes of the Great War of 1914-1918" (“Памяти героев Великой войны 1914-1918 годов”) is a web-portal, featuring the database of the fallen and awarded soldiers and officers. It was launched by the Russian Ministry of Defense with the support of the Federal Archival Agency and the Russian Historical Society and as of now has the most complete information on Russia's participation in the First World War. It contains 2,278,000 records from the “Card Index on accounting the losses in First World War 1914-1918”. The use of geolocation data of the battles and contemporary maps allows to visualize the route of a given person during WWI. Search is possible by multiple parameters, however, only in Russian. Here is a helpful guide by Vera Miller on searching this database without knowing Russian.
The encouraging news is that on July 20, 2018 the Ministry of Defense of Russian Federation has announced plans to allocate additional 700 mln Rubles for further development of the above database. Of course, it will take some time for the plans to be realized, but at least there is hope for future improvements. Among the plans are to add 4,530,000 records to the Card index of the Bureau for accounting losses in WWI 1914-1918; 3,150,000 records on prisoners of war (lower ranks); 5,100,000 records with names of the soldiers and officers perished in WWI; 830,000 award documents. I will follow the developments closely and will post updates on this blog. Stay tuned!
  • First World War, 1914–1918 (Электронная база «Алфавитные списки потерь нижних чинов 1914-1918 гг.») is a database of 1,337,430 personal records of the WWI soldiers (lower ranks) of the Russian empire, compiled by the Union of Revival of Pedigree Traditions. The search form is available in English, but the results come up in Russian language. However, I highly recommend to spell names and other key words in Cyrillic letters, to avoid mistakes due to transliteration. As always, try different spellings of names and places.
  • Nominal Roll of killed, wounded and missing persons of lower ranks 1914-1920 (Именной список убитым, раненым и без вести пропавшим нижним чинам [Текст]. - Петербург: Военная тип. имп. Екатерины Великой, 1914-1920. - 27 см. № 781-800. - [1914]. - С.12481-12800: табл.) is a digitized and searchable original document listing the victims of First World War (lower ranks) from Russian Empire, available on the website of Russian State Library.
  • Officers of the Russian Imperial Army (Офицеры русской императорской армии) is a database of the Russian officers (soldiers not included here!) who served between 1900 and 1917. It contains 60,339 personnel cards and 24,755 photographs. This database is in Russian, but you can also use this link showing this page google-translated into English. For those who are not Russian language users this step-by-step instruction on how to use this database will be useful.
  • Prisoners of the First World War ICRC historical archives, 1914-1918 is an online database that contains data from the International Red Cross archives, for all nationalities that took part in the Great war, including the Russian army. This resource and the search are fully available in English.
  • Personal History project (Проект "Персональная история") offers a number of relatively small databases and lists related to Russian Imperial Army personnel, including First World War. They are relatively small and not user-friendly, but still can be used as additional resource.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

How to Research WWII Ostarbeiters and Displaced Persons

During World War II approximately 12 million people from the Nazi occupied territories were conscripted and deported for forced labour in Germany. Two thirds of them came from Eastern Europe, mostly those from Ukraine and Russia, and are known as Ostarbeiters (“Eastern workers”).

At the end of the war, in 1945, cca 11 million former detainees, most of whom were forced labourers and prisoners of war, were freed. However, they could not immediately move freely. While waiting for decisions on their repatriation or obtaining a refugee status and further emigration, they were organized in so-called displaced persons camps (DP camps).

In the turmoil of these dramatic events millions of families were separated and lost connections. Even now, many decades after the events, a sizeable part of Eastern European genealogy projects involve uncovering the mysteries of the families torn apart by WWII. 

In this post I will share the main resources and tips for starting research on Ostarbeiter or DP family lines. As always, there is not one single list or resource to check. I recommend trying all of the available options, inquire at as many repositories as possible, and then piece the puzzle together.

1. The International Tracing Service (ITS), Bad Arolsen, Germany

This is by far the most important resource of all. ITS was founded immediately after WWII specifically to help reunite survivors with their families. Its archives, holding one of the world’s largest collections on the Nazi forced labour and displaced persons, have been accessible for research since 2007. The Central Name Index of the ITS with 50 million reference cards on 17.5 million persons. It includes original documents on the registration of the survivors after 1945, prisoner identity cards, correspondence between survivors and their families, and many other types of documents. A complete inventory of the ITS’s archival collections and other indexing information can be found here.

How to access ITS documents? Unfortunately, most of the documents are not accessible online. However, a small part of them has recently become available here and there are plans to extend the online collection in the future. But given the tremendous volume of materials, this process is likely to take many years.

In order to obtain documents about your DP or Ostarbeiter relative, you can fill in an online Request form and the ITS personnel will do the research for you free of charge. On the downside, be ready to wait for the results for months or even years (exceptions can be made, however, in case of explained urgency of the matter).

Given the overload of ITS with requests, it may be a good idea to inquire at (or visit in person) one of the ITS’ partner institutions that have access to the ITS Central Name Index, namely:

2. International Red Cross Organization in respective country

International Red Cross was directly involved in the relief efforts and assistance to the WWII prisoners of war and other detainees in the Third Reich. Between 1954 and 2012 IRC was in charge of administration of the ITS. Nevertheless, the resources that the two institutions hold are not identical and therefore it is worth requesting information at both ITS and IRC in parallel. The advantage of the IRC is its world-wide network of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, as well as museums, archives and international organizations that can be of great help in researching the fate of displaced persons and their families. Although the IRC’s focus is also gradually shifting to the DPs of the current or recent international crises, it still accepts inquiries as to the WWII DPs.

Currently, the IRC has a program called “Restoring Family Links” where one can submit a request on a family member. Tracing services are free of charge. To initiate research, contact your local Red Cross chapter. Just to mention a few IRC chapters, commonly involved in WWII displaced persons research:
  • American Red Cross Restoring Family Links program took over the requests to the American Red Cross Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Service, closed in November 2012. This service is not for genealogical traces, but may be done on behalf of family members with direct ties to victims of World War II and the Holocaust.
  • The German Red Cross Tracing Service. Queries on the missing of World War Two are still arriving at the German Red Cross at a rate of 8,000 per year. German government funding would expire in 2023, so the German Red Cross officials advise to anyone who wants to send queries, to do it as soon as possible.
  • Center for Search and Information of the Russian Red Cross is relevant for research involving all the ex-Soviet countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Republic of Moldova, Central Asian countries. To initiate research, you can download a request form, find contact information etc. (available in Russian only). A tip from my own experience with this institution is that following a request with a phone call can speed up the process.
3. A Memorial or Archives of a Particular DP / Labour Camp

In addition to the above tracing services, try to find resources that are specific to the particular place of detention in question. There are plenty of resources, such as memorials, museums, small archives, dedicated to a DP or forced labour camp. These can offer unique materials, such as personal archives, oral histories, memories, found nowhere else. Examples of local museums and memorials of particular camps or survivors communities:
These websites, listing places of detention, can be used to identify the needed camp and basic information about it for further tracing:
4. Searchable Online databases 
  • For Soviet research: “The Other Side” (“Та сторона”) is  a Russian resource on prisoners of war, contains information, interviews, biographies, cca 2 400 names and stories. It features 300 interviews recorded from the late 1980s to the latest, and about 400,000 letters from former Ostarbeiters received by the Memorial society in 1990-1991. A database with 320 thousand names of Soviet Ostarbeiters, based on the mentioned letters, has been launched. Here is a detailed blog post on how to use the database.
Further Resources

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

How To Search for the Soviet WWII Records Online

Beginning of May is marking the anniversary of the last days of World War II in Europe. In the ex-Soviet countries 9th of May is known as the Victory Day. Despite it being often abused to promote nationalism and militarism, to most families, who lost their close family members, this is an important, but sad holiday. Having a great grandfather and other relatives perished in the war, I prefer to commemorate this event by remembering the deceased and reflecting on the colossal human losses in this horrible tragedy.

As a genealogist, I like to do this through documents. The good news is that researching WWII Soviet soldiers is one of the easier parts of Eastern European genealogy. The reason for this is the unique for this area degree of digitization and searchability of this subject. The online databases are very comprehensive, and impressive in their scale, even internationally. I am happy to share my tips on finding Soviet military records online.

If your ancestor / relative perished in the war, start with:

Memorial (Обобщенный банк данных «Мемориал») is a database of those Soviet soldiers who perished in WWII, launched in 2007. The database contains over 17 mln digital copies of documents about life losses of Red Army soldiers and 20 mln name entries of those who died in the Great Patriotic War. It also has information about the burials of over 5 mln soldiers and officers, as well as the names of 1 mln of Soviet prisoners of war in the Nazi captivity. The website has an English language version, including information about the project, its sources and most importantly the fields of the search. Although the search itself only works for Cyrillic letter key words, it is still a big help for non-Russian speakers to know what each field stands for. The documents found in this database are very useful for genealogical purposes. The so called “report on losses” document offers information like year and place of birth, military rank, place of death, home address and the closest relative.

If your ancestor / relative survived the war, start with:

Feat of the People (Обобщенный банк данных «Подвиг народа в Великой Отечественной войне 1941–1945 гг.») is a database on those who survived and received a military award / decoration, launched in 2010. It includes over 12,5 mln records about those who were decorated with medals "For Courage" and "For Military Merit", and cca 22 mln cards on the decorations awarded on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Victory over the Nazi Germany. Similarly to the above database, it has an English language version, with the same exception that the search words need to be in Russian. Also like the previous project, the work on this database is ongoing and constantly updated with new records. The information in this database includes the place of birth and conscription, military rank, and a detailed description of the “heroic deed” for which a person was decorated.

Next, go to this resource:

Memory of the People (портал “Память народа”) is a project which provides a more ample and interactive content, based on the two databases above. For this project over 100 Soviet military maps were digitized and introduced to the database. The people and events in the military records were linked to locations, providing a unique opportunity for visualization. Thus, the database users have the opportunity to see the itinerary of the researched person in the war on the map, from conscription till demobilization (or death), with all the battles and operations they took part in, as well as hospitalization and place of burial (if applicable). To see the itinerary visualization you need to click on "Боевой путь" button below the found entry under. On the downside, this website and the database do not have English language version (yet?).

This is how a war itinerary looks like:

Other resources:

Soviet prisoners of war and other databases of the Documentation Center of the Foundation Saxon Memorials (Die Stiftung Sächsische Gedenkstätten) in Dresden, Germany. Available in German and Russian.

The Immortal Regiment (Бессмертный полк России) was launched in 2015. Despite the political agenda and controversy behind the project, their database is a great tool for relative search. Its unique feature is that the names and stories of the WWII veterans are added by their relatives. So, one can not only find a WWII veteran, but also get in touch with the living relatives.

All-Russian Burial Search Center (Всероссийский информационно-поисковый центр) is a unified database of the results of the military burial search expeditions (exhumation, identifying unknown graves, and other field trip findings). Their old search can be used as well. Unfortunately, only available in Russian.

The Reclaimed Names (Возвращенные Имена) is a relatively small database, containing only 209,647 names. Among its useful features is The Siege of Leningrad database, with 631,063 names.

Ukraine’s Electronic Book of Remembrance (Проект «Электронная Книга Памяти Украины 1941-1945») is a database of the Ukrainian Union of Burial Search. It contains cca 929,120 names of Soviet veterans from Ukraine.

Book of Remembrance of Jewish Soldiers Perished in the War with Fascism 1941-1945 (Книга памяти воинов-евреев павших в боях с нацизмом 1941-1945, Volume 4, 1997, Moscow.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Archival Resources and Research of Victims of Soviet Terror

In my previous blog post I described how to search for information about Soviet repressed relatives online. I strongly advise to always start with online research, as it is the easier and faster method of research. You can then use the clues found online to deepen your research at the archives. If you have not found any information in the databases, you should still proceed with the archival research, as the databases are far from being complete.

Archival research tends to be more time- and effort-consuming than online search, but it is also more comprehensive. Archival research on the Soviet repressions can be confusing, so in this post I will provide an overview of the available resources, the general approaches to finding the records, as well as some practical tips on accessing them. I mainly focus on Russia and Ukraine that I am most familiar with, but similar logic applies to other ex-Soviet countries. I hope this will help you find out the destiny of a relative or a whole family who became victims of Soviet terror.

Define the Type of Repression

The materials on Soviet repressions cover the period of 1917/1918 (year of creating the Extraordinary Commission known as Cheka) till 1991 (the dissolution of the USSR). For simplification of the document search, categorize the case you are researching. The most common categories are: 
  • Criminal cases: relate to those persons who were convicted and sentenced by a court of a similar institution to imprisonment, camps or death penalty; by now many of them can be rehabilitated, but some are non-rehabilitated;
  • Administrative cases: various non-criminal repressions like forced settlements within the dekulakization in 1930s, deportations from border territories (such as Operation Vistula), "preventive" deportations of representatives of various ethnicities in 1940s (Germans, Crimean Tatars) etc.; 
  • Filtration cases: relate to the former Soviet citizens, who were in the Nazi captivity in during WWII, including former Red Army prisoners of war, civil population of the occupied territories forcefully taken to German labour camps (Ostarbeiters), other displaced persons who returned to the Soviet Union after the war, and then placed in the so called filtration camps by the NKVD.

Where the records are located

The main difficulty lies in the dispersion of the KGB archival documents across countries and archives.
  • Criminal cases: as a rule, all over the ex-Soviet countries these cases should be located at the central archives of of a respective security service (Central Archives of FSB in Russia, State archives of the SBU in Ukraine etc.) or its local department in the region where the trial took place. However, there can be exceptions.
  • Administrative (non-criminal) cases: the documents are even more dispersed. In Russia they are most often held at the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF) or at the respective regional department of Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) of the region of arrest or birth of the repressed person. Some dekulakization and other administrative cases can be located at the state archives of the respective region. In Ukraine such cases are held by the state archives of the central or regional Archives of MIA of Ukraine. The lists of families forcefully re-settled from Poland to Ukraine after WWII are located at the State Archives of Lviv Region, independently of which region they were settled in.
How to find the right documents 

As demonstrated above, the distribution of cases is not always clear, but there are two main strategies you can follow to get started: 

Strategy 1. If you know the researched person’s place of arrest or residence at the time of repression, you should start with request to the departments of security service and MIA of that region in the respective successor country. If you do not know the place of arrest/residence, you can also address the above-mentioned authorities in the region of the person’s birth or punishment/serving sentence/deportation, if known. The key here is to make the best guess possible, but mistakes can happen. If you receive a negative response from these repositories, proceed with Strategy 2.

Strategy 2. If you do not know the place(s) of the person’s birth/residence/arrest/repression, you should send a request to the Main Information and Analytics Department of MIA of Russian Federation in Moscow, asking them to confirm the fact of repression and inform where the archival case is located. This institution has all the information about the persons who were convicted or repressed in some way in the former Soviet Union. In this case, you would still need to know the name, approximate date of birth and repression. You can also address the central archives of the security services and MIA of the successor state. After obtaining the answer about the location of the archival case you need, proceed with Strategy 1.

Of course, if you are willing to take the extra efforts and time, you can go ahead and apply all strategies at once.

How to access records

Who has the right to access the cases of the Soviet repressions? According to the current legislation in most ex-Soviet countries, it is the repressed persons themselves, their close relatives and heirs, their legal representatives or anyone after 75 years since the creation of the documents, with the consent of the repressed person or their legal heir/representatives.

There are three main ways to request records: by mail, by email and in person. There is also a possibility to work with the documents in person in the reading hall of the repository. This should be agreed upon in advance with the archives.

The requests can be completed in a free form, but make sure to include these elements:
  • Name of the institution addressed and the addressee (head of the institution)
  • Your full name, address and contact details 
  • Your relationship to the researched person (supported with documents)
  • The goal of the request (photocopies, archival certificate, other) 
  • Full name of the researched person 
  • Date and place of birth of the researched person (if not known, make the best guess)
You should also include any additional details about the person or repression, as it will help the search to be successful.

The requests should be submitted in the official languages of the respective country (Russian in Russia, Ukrainian in Ukraine etc.). If you cannot write in this language, I recommend you to prepare the request yourself and then have it translated by a friend/relative or a professional. Do not use googletranslate or other translating software for this purpose. Any misunderstanding or misinterpretation may affect the whole research.

Foreigners can also request information via International Red Cross organizations, but this would mean a longer waiting time, as it involves an intermediary. Addressing the right repository directly will yield the results in the fastest manner. Note that requesting time with most repositories is 30 days, which can be extended to 45 days, but it may vary in different archives.

Sources and further readings:

Monday, April 16, 2018

Top Online Resources for Tracing Victims of Soviet Terror

As I described earlier in this blog post, genealogy can be a means of dealing with traumatic events, such as genocides or political repression. These events usually lead to an increasing interest in personal history, in particular, publications of the so-called Books of Remembrance or Martyrologies, which list the victims and tell their stories. These records make a precious source for genealogy research, providing an opportunity for the relatives to remember the innocent victims of political regimes, discover details of their life, and possibly re-connect with lost family members.

One of such tragic pages in Eastern European history was the Soviet terror that happened on a truly massive scale. The estimates of the number of victims vary significantly, partly because of the difficulties of the definition. The most moderate accounts suggest about 10 million people were executed, imprisoned, sent to labour camps, expelled, deported etc. In this note I will list the best online resources to use when searching for an ancestor or a relative who became a victim of the Soviet totalitarian regime.

A few technical notes. While there is an abundance of smaller local projects, I will focus on the most comprehensive resources. They are primarily based on archival documents and testimonies from family members and witnesses. Although none of the databases has a complete account of the victims, they are constantly being developed and extended. The databases contain names, surnames, dates and reasons for arrest, destiny etc. Most of them, with some exceptions, are in Cyrillic characters, therefore using them would require some basic knowledge of the alphabet or googletranslating names and data.

Without further due, let us look into the online databases.

  • Victims of Political Terror in the USSR (Жертвы политического террора в СССР) is the biggest and most comprehensive database of its kind for all Soviet Union. It has been developed by the Memorial society since in 1998, mainly by processing the Books of Remembrance (Книги Памяти) published in various regions of the former Soviet Union. By December 2017 the updated database with over 3 million names has been presented. According to the project developers, this represents about one-forth of the total number of the Soviet terror victims. The old version of this database is still available, but lacks some of the latest updates.
  • The Open List (Открытый Список) is a Wikipedia-style online database of victims of political repression during the Soviet era (1917 - 1991), launched in 2016 by the Russian charitable foundation Reach Out. This project uses the data published by the above-mentioned Memorial society, as well as several other projects. It has a Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian and Belarussian sections (each in the respective language), incorporating several projects from these countries. Specifically, the Belarussian sections is based on Stalin’s Card-Index (Картатэка Сталіна) with over 60 thousand names. For Ukrainian data they used The National Data Bank of the Repressed, described in more details below. The Georgian part is very small at this time, only has cca 600 names.
  • All-Russian online Book of Rememberance “The Repressed Russia” (Общероссийская электронная Книга Памяти «Репрессированная Россия») is developed by the Russian Association of Victims of Illegal Political Repressions. The database contains over 1.4 mln names. It includes some data from the Memorial project, but is also supplemented by the original work performed by cross-institutional working groups and researcher teams from over 60 regions of Russia.
  • The Immortal Barrack (Бессмертный барак) is an ambitious pilot project launched in 2015. The project’s authors declared the goal to grow its database to 6 mln names. The database is using otherwise available Books of Remembrance, but it offers a convenient unified search in them. Its main feature called Monument” (Памятник) contains portraits and personal stories added by relatives of the listed victims. It makes this database stand out as the most interactive and socially engaging among similar projects.
  • The Stalin’sLists database contains information on those who were prosecuted by the personal order of Stalin and his close comrades, known as the “Great Purge” of 1936-1938. Strikingly, the lists from 1937-1938 contain 43 768 names, while between 1940 and 1950 – 1160 names. The database is searchable by name and by region.
  • The Shot Generation or 1937 is a smaller database containing names of the victims of repressions in 1937 and beyond. There is a search by names and by categories of people (e.g. academics, party members, priests etc.). Although the navigation is not the most convenient, the project uses original sources other than Books of Remembrance, like historical books, encyclopedias and directories.
  • The Reclaimed Names (Возвращенные Имена) is based on the index called "Books of Remembrance of Victims of Political Repressions in the USSR", published in 2004. It is a relatively small database, containing 209 647 names, but it can serve as additional source in Soviet terror related genealogical research.
  • The Gulag Online project contains data and visuals on the GULAG prisoners, with special focus on the victims from Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary. Although the website offers a relatively small number or personal stories, it is a convenient English-language resource, with useful maps and a 3D visual of the camps.
  • National bank of victims of political repressions of the Soviet era in Ukraine (Національний банк даних жертв політичних репресій радянської доби в Україні) is a result of a Ukrainian project, started in 1992. It includes the names of the residents of then Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic who were prosecuted by the Soviet regime for political reasons. Although this database is not very large (209 465 names), the project has gathered original information that will be especially useful to those with Ukrainian ancestry. Search can be done by name, place of birth, place of residence and full text search.
  • The Holodomor database (Голодомор 1932-1933) is another Ukraine-specific project, dedicated to the famine of 1930s in Ukraine known as the Holodomor. The website features a map to search by regions. On the downside, the database is not very informative, only contains names, places of residence, year and reason of death, without references to the source. The website has no information on the number of names there in the database. At the same time, this resource can be useful in Ukrainian research. Apparently, this database is based on the The National Book of Remembrance of the Holodomor Victims 1932-1933  (Національна книга пам’яті жертв Голодомору 1932-1933) which can be also viewed and searched online in separate pdf files by regions.
  • Index of the Repressed (Indeks Represjonowanych) is a Polish project completed in 1988 - 2013 with support of the Institute of Popular Memory in Poland. It is mainly based on the Memorial society’s database, offering over 300 thousand names of Poles or those from the Polish territories at the time, who were subject to the Soviet repressions. Similar data is contained in the Kresy-Siberia database. Another useful online resource for Polish research is the Killed in Katyn index publication. It was a joint project of the Memorial society and Polish center "Karta", completed in 2015, listing the Polish prisoners of war shot by the Soviet authorities in 1940. The index is available as a pdf file, and can be downloaded and full text-searched.
  • Political arrests in Estonia, 1940–1988 (Politilised arreteerimised Eestis, 1940–1988) was a collaborative project of several Estonian institutions, including the Estonian Repressed Persons Records Bureau and the Information and History Committee of the Estonian Association of Illegally Repressed Persons MEMENTO. This Book of Remembrance in 12 volumes was published in 1996 and holds information on the Soviet regime victims from Estonia. Available for full text search in pdf files by the link above.
I will continue to monitor the online resources on the victims of Soviet terror and will be making updates to this post with new links.

Once you find a relative in a database, or if you have not, but have enough reason to think a family member was under Soviet repression, you can then proceed with a deeper research in the archives. In the next posts I will be covering how to do archival research of the victims of the Soviet terror.

  • Victims of Anti-Polish Terror in the Soviet Union 1934-1938 (Ofiary antypolskiego terroru w Związku Sowieckim 1934-1938 / Жертвы антипольского террора в Советском Союзе 1934-1938) is a new database by the Center for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Mutual Understanding.  The database search is available in Polish and Russian languages. A related page (available in English) is dedicated to the "Polish Operation" of NKVD 1937-1938, which was especially brutal (139 835 victims, including 111091 shot, according to the database). Overall, it is estimated that at least 200 thousand ethnic Poles who were Soviet citizens were killed in the "Great Purge".

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

How to Get the Most from Your Family History Interview

If you have done any reading on family history or talked about it to a genealogist, you have probably already heard that the first step of any genealogy research should be interviewing your relatives. Why? Because it is usually easy to do, does not require special knowledge or skills and, above all, yields unique information that cannot be substituted or found elsewhere. Also, it is a way to (re-)connect with family members in a meaningful and useful manner.

Having interviewed numerous of families, I thought I would share some tips and lessons learned along the way on how to do a successful genealogy interview.

  • Select the interviewees. Naturally, the oldest family members tend to be the most knowledgeable about a family's origins. But do not limit your interview to your grandparents. In my observations, women usually have a stronger interest in family history than men. So, for example, a great uncle's wife can make a good candidate for an interview. Also, some younger family members can have the most insight into a family history, maybe because they were babysitted by their grandparents or just happen to have a natural curiosity for these matters. If there is no suitable person among relatives, try to find someone who was close to the family in the past, like a best friend, a neighbour, a co-worker, an ex-spouse etc.
  • Interview more than one person. The more interviewees, the better. First, because different people will be able to tell about different lines and aspects of the family tree, which you can then combine and match, like pieces of a puzzle. Second, because this is a great way to validate the obtained information. In many cases, accounts of the same events will differ. By comparing them you will be able to see what information is confirmed unanimously and therefore is more reliable, and which facts need caution and additional verification.
  • Prepare some questions in advance, but don't make it too formal. The main questions to ask in a genealogy interview are the names, dates and places of birth, marriage/divorce, death, other major events like immigration, military service, a family's religion etc. There are plenty of sample questions available online, for example here. However, I am not a fan of "universal", one-fit-all questionnaires, though, as each family's history is unique. Instead, make it into a flowing conversation, with natural, open-ended questions that are relevant for your family and reflect crucial points of a human life. Do not to make it very formal and technical, as it might feel like an interrogation.  
  • Bring and/or ask for old photos, documents and letters. Human memory is tricky. Sometimes it fails to extract information from its “zipped files”. Having visuals, like family pictures, will help arise the hidden memories. Also, documents or letters that your interviewee may have can speak better than any memories. I remember visiting a family on a field trip in a Western Ukrainian village, when my interviewee was not recognizing any of the names I was asking about. The minute I was ready to leave empty-handed, she remembered there was an old letter in the attic. She returned with a yellow, decrepit letter from a relative, which turned out to be a condensed description of the family relationships and the missing links I was looking for. It felt like a message from across time, answering all my questions.

  • Dating events. People, especially in advanced age, may have difficulties remembering exact years or dates. I deal with it is by “playing associations”. To get at least an approximative date, try making connections with other, better remembered events. For example, you can ask how old they were at the time of the event in question. Was it before or after they got married or had their first child? Sometimes you can even get exact dates, by relating to a holiday or a well-known event. It is amazing how such associative thinking can help in remembering even minor details.
  • Plan several sessions with each interviewee. It happened so many times in my experience when an interviewee said he or she could not remember anything (else). Almost always, when I followed up in a few days, there would be a new piece of information waiting. Apparently, this is how memory works. By arising some memories, others are triggered, and so on. It is also preferable to interview different people separately, so that they do not influence each other's memories.
  • Make a family chart. Always prepare some sort of a chart or a scheme of the family before a family interview. First, because this helps when the amount of names and relationships become overwhelming. And second, because having a structure in front of you will help you come up with better questions in the process of interviewing. This way you can improvise and not only stick to the initial plan. If you do not have a family tree yet, you can start with a simple drawing, keeping people on each generation on a separate level and adding new people as you go. It is not very common, but it can happen that the interviewed family may already have some kind of a family chart. The picture below shows an unexpected school project by a young family member, called “Social Genealogical Diagram of the Fedyuk family”, also in Western Ukraine.

  • Record everything and quote sources. If your interviewee is comfortable with audio- or video- recording, definitely opt for it. This way you will have the most precise representation of the interview. If not, take notes of the conversation in some way. You will want to get back to the notes throughout your research process. Make sure you record not only the information about the family members, but also the sources of this information. Ask your interviewees how they know what they are telling about or why they think so. Is it their own experience, is it a guess or is it something they heard from others? Later,when analysing possible discrepancies, you can have a better judgement of which piece of information has more “weight”.
  • Prepare for surprises. With all my love and respect to family interviews, I have learned to take them with a healthy dose of doubt. So many times have I encountered documents proving family stories and legends wrong. Just because “grandmother said so”, it does not always mean this is what really happened. It has to do with human subjectivity, tricks our memory plays with us and many other factors. We may remember a wrong piece of information or re-interpret it in some way, misunderstand, forget or confuse with something else etc. Getting the family's knowledge is just the beginning of research, which can and should be verified and supported with documents.

I hope this was helpful. If you haven't done so, consider conducting a family history interview at the nearest occasion, like holidays or a birthday. The sad truth is that there will not always be the opportunity to do so...