Hunting for the Clues

We are all so busy. There’s not enough time in our day as we run from one activity to the next. Even our children are overscheduled with music lessons, baseball practice, dance lessons, and school. No one has time to talk to each other, or more importantly, to listen to one another.

Then we grow older and look in the mirror and see the passage of time reflected on the wrinkles on our foreheads. Perhaps we even see the faces of our parents in that image looking back at us. That is when we want to slow down that clock and then do a quick rewind to get back just a bit of our lost time.

That is what happened to me. My father always had stories about his youth. Everyone’s father, mother, grandmother, and grandfather do, but in our efforts to make it through our own busy days, we don’t have the time for them. The song, Cat’s in the Cradle was spot-on in saying:

               I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then, Dad

               We’re gonna have a good time then.

Sometimes, that get-together—that really important sit down and listen to their story get-together—keeps getting postponed. Then all of a sudden, it’s too late. The memories of our loved ones fade or they die before you find the time to sit down and listen to their stories. For me, my father would begin a story and then say, “I have the papers to prove it,” but I never asked to see those papers.

After he died, I found the papers in his dresser drawer along with an eighty-year-old diary. It was a treasure of information which I regret not having seen earlier when we could have talked about what he had kept tucked away in that dresser for all those years. Part of the diary was in Russian, which proved to be a huge challenge to me.

I knew nothing about genealogy research but decided it was time to learn. I discovered that census records, city directories, and enlistment records were floating around the Internet just waiting for me to discover them. That was how I learned that my grandfather had come to the United States via Argentina in 1913 and that my grandmother and his brother joined him just six months later leaving from the port city of Libau.

I taught myself the tricks to unearthing missing records using something called wildcards, which filtered out misspellings and presented me with my grandfather’s WW I enlistment card. Grandpa had dark hair and blue eyes.

Vasily Wardamasky- WW I Registration Card

My grandparents returned to their Russian homeland in 1931, taking their six American-born children with them. The diary provided the two dates of the trip  including the name of the ship for the earlier voyage. (The family did not travel together, but I still do not know why.) Filling in the ancestry search forms without my last name resulted in the manifests for both trips.
Mauretania Manifest                    Berengaria Manifest

Why did they leave? Dad blamed it on the Great Depression, but I never heard of other families leaving the United States for that reason. It made no sense, but a Google search lead me to a book about Americans who moved to the Soviet Union during the Great Depression. I looked in the index and saw the names of two of my aunts. How did a journalist from the UK know about my family?

A Facebook search on the author’s unusual last name lead me to his sister, who provided me with his email address. The author of the book explained that the National Archives contained consular records from the American Embassies in the Soviet Union, so I planned a trip there and returned with over one hundred documents. The consular records are stored at the National Archives II in College Park, Maryland.  It was an emotional visit for me seeing letters written by my father so many years ago. The facility is a genealogist’s dream.

Among the documents I found  on my trip was a list of people who were issued their American passports in Moscow during the month of April in 1941. There was my father’s name–line number twelve.

American Passports Issued April 1941 in Moscow

American Passports Issued April 1941 in Moscow

I researched every name and eventually located an eighty-seven year old man in Wisconsin named Jerry. This very sweet man filled me in on his return trip home via the Trans-Siberian Railway, a steamer to Japan, and a ship across the Pacific to Seattle. This was within two weeks of my father’s trip, so now I knew what Dad experienced when he returned to the states.

How did I find Jerry? listed associated relatives, one of whom had her email listed on her employer’s website. I emailed her, and within a day, I received an email from Jerry. He was so excited to talk about that part of his life. We corresponded via email and spoke on the phone. Jerry told me, “I’m really enjoying this. It is more fun than I have ever had on the computer.” I am so happy I found him and could put a smile on his face.

A Google search on “Trans-Siberian Railway” took me the Holocaust Museum website, where I was able to view videos of two individuals who had also traveled within a few months of my father. One man is still living, so he graciously agreed to speak with me by phone one afternoon.

Finally, I contacted individuals at two museums in London and two historical societies in New Jersey, who answered questions about life during the years my father lived there. One gentleman from the British Museum sent me a video depicting a scene in London in 1931. I learned it never hurts to ask. Now I had enough information to recreate my father’s story.

There are still many unanswered questions to this story along with the regrets that I never found the time to sit down and get a first-hand account from my dad. While I would love to have a wide audience interested in reading Dad’s story, this is not my biggest hope. I would like this to be a lesson to all the children out there whose parents are still alive and mentally alert: Sit down, ask a few questions, and really, really listen to them.


Do Svidanya Dad- Tracing the Story of an American Family Trapped in the USSR



About kjw616

I am a genealogy detective. I have already written one book about my Irish family's journey from 19th century Ireland to the United States- a family history sprinkled with personal anecdotes. My second book was intended to be a similar story about my Russian ancestors. Instead, it turned into a tale of just my father's immediate family. It is the tale of what happens when 6 children from New Jersey are moved to the Soviet Union by their Russian-born parents during the Great Depression. It details who lives, who dies, and who is able to return to NJ during a time when leaving the USSR was not an easy endeavor, particularly during World War II and the Cold War. It is my hope that those interested in history during this time period will find this story fascinating as well as those fellow amateur family historians who will learn some of the tools such as, visits to the National Archives, and local libraries I used to uncover this story.
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