The following article was posted on February 15th, 2011, in the Santa Maria Sun – Volume 11, Issue 49
A Santa Maria Red Cross volunteer introduces a Santa Barbara woman to a past she never knew
BY SHELLY CONE
On any given day, people building family histories discover new information about their genealogy. The revelations tend to be interesting, but not often earth shattering. They may find a new relative here or there, maybe word of an interesting career or a love story.
Nearly 1.4 million subscribers search Ancestry.com’s databases for help tracing their family trees.
Anastasia Harman, family historian for the company, said they hear of thousands of stories of reunions. Some of the more amazing connections are featured on their website.
“People are shocked with how quickly they can start finding information about their family,” Harman said.
Some people, however, don’t want to be found—or they simply can’t be found.
“We like to tell people to prepare yourself for a journey of discovery as much as possible and keep an open mind about what you are going to find out about your family,” Harman said.
No matter what researchers uncover, it’s always an emotional experience in some way, big or small.
Trudy Bartlett—a writer, filmaker, and former chemist and software engineer—wasn’t looking to be found, nor was she hiding. And she certainly didn’t know her mother was being sought for decades.
She described her mother’s early life: “She loved to dance. You know Germans love their polkas.”
Bartlett’s mother and father were dancing champions in the days before they were married. Even with family in tow, they would steal opportunities to dance.
“We’d go to this place that wasn’t too far to get to from where we lived,” Bartlett remembered. “She was really in her element there. She was just really in her element.”
Sitting in the conference room at the Red Cross’ Santa Barbara office, Bartlett looked off as if she could still see the scene. It’s one of the things Bartlett has always known for sure about her mother—and it didn’t change when Bartlett got a letter from the Red Cross that made her realize practically everything else she thought she knew about her mother’s past was wrong.
That letter changed everything. It came from her mother’s brother, from a branch of the family tree Bartlett didn’t even know existed. Through roughly translated correspondence, Bartlett would discover a tale of hardship, persecution, murder, and deception that would challenge everything she knew about her family, eventually ending in a form of absolution.
In 2009, Bartlett was watching So You Think You Can Dance, her favorite show, when she got a call from Sharon Eames, a volunteer from the Santa Maria office of the Red Cross. Eames had been waiting for the right time to pick up the phone. She volunteers with the Red Cross’ Family Links program, which traces family members separated by war or natural disasters. Making the call wasn’t as easy as just dialing, though.
“I thought, ‘I have to think about what I’m going to say,’” Eames recalled. “Then I thought, ‘She’s young. She may have kids, or maybe she’s off picking them up from school, so don’t bother her during the day.’ So I decided to call her in the evening.”
Eames picked up the phone at 8:15 p.m.—which was the wrong time, in Bartlett’s opinion.
Bartlett almost didn’t want to break from her show to answer the phone. But she did anyway, and Eames explained that a distant relative was trying to connect with her.
Bartlett immediately thought it was someone from her father’s family—relatives Bartlett
had known and to whom she had no interest
Eames told her, however, that it was someone from Bartlett’s mother’s side.
“I was stunned. There were no words. I couldn’t process it,” Bartlett said. “I mean, I didn’t know anything about that side of the family. I didn’t know they existed, so there was no way to process that information.”
After the call, Bartlett went into the Red Cross office to sign a release, but she still had no details concerning who was trying to contact her other than it was someone from her mother’s family.
But she didn’t have to wait long. In a day or two, a letter came from the Red Cross outlining who was trying to make contact. It was her mother’s brother, Paul. He said Bartlett’s mother was born in the Ukraine, had been separated from his family, and had gone to live with an aunt. The details were sparse, but enough to send Bartlett reeling.
Even though she was anxious to start digging into this unfolding history, she figured that since her uncle had made the initial contact and she had signed the releases, he could contact her directly.
But she couldn’t wait. By the third day, she had written a letter in her mind, so she put it on paper and mailed it to Paul.
Waiting for a response was excruciating.
“I kind of hoped I would get a response sooner,” she said. “I even included my e-mail address. It took six weeks. And the letter came back in German.”
Only one member of Bartlett’s newfound relatives spoke some English: a 15-year-old girl who took Bartlett’s letter to her English class for translating. Bartlett relied on some of her rusty German-language skills and the help of a friend to translate, too. Little by little, Bartlett informed her uncle Paul about what she knew of her mother. In turn, Paul told Bartlett the truth about her mother’s childhood.
Bartlett’s mother Erika had always believed she had been born in Austria and that she was given away because her family had too many mouths to feed. The story Bartlett learned, however, was a bit different. On Nov. 22, 1937, in a small village in the Ukraine, Erika’s German-speaking father (Bartlett’s grandfather) was arrested in his sleep by the Soviet authorities along with 40 other men in the village. Anyone who was German was considered the enemy. Bartlett’s newfound uncle Paul explained in his first letter:
My father was a farm worker and in winter he fed the cattle of the collective. Shortly before the night came, an old man, a village guard, knocked and woke up my father and said, “Kelm, you are asleep and do not know what’s going on in the village, who is being taken away and such and such. Get up and flee.” But where should he go? He did not feel guilty. After a short time they came to us. That night 40 men disappeared.
Now the misery began in earnest. The men were taken to the county capital; my mother went almost every day out there, but could never speak to my father. It was 14 km away. The things they brought him, he probably never received. Later it turned out that they all were executed. They were all shot.
Paul explained that Erika was just an infant at the time, and before her mother knew her husband had been executed, an aunt with no children of her own pressured her to entrust Erika into her care. In his letter, Paul explained that their mother resisted giving Erika up. The family was eventually forcibly expelled as enemies of the Soviet Union, and, dealing with a missing husband and a family to feed, Erika’s mother agreed to a temporary arrangement.
When we were in deportation, there were several young women with children of 1 to 2 years. The women had to work, and their children were badly cared for and are all dead.
The fact that Erika made it into the care of a relative who wasn’t deported likely saved her life. She didn’t immediately return to her family, however. Bartlett said her uncle indicated there may have been some confusion about the arrangement. His letter went on to explain a difficult return in 1940, and squabbles among family members.
The family spent some time with Erika and the aunt who was caring for her the next year. Then war broke out. Their village was on the warfront, and the family was forced to flee again. Bartlett said she was confused about how her mother and her caretaker were separated from the family, but her uncle did explain that he and the rest of his family were arrested and forced into 20 years of hard labor for their escape.
By the time they were free, they received news that Erika was living in Canada. They made some contact and wanted her to know they wanted her, but ultimately lost track of her, Paul said.
Life from death
Bartlett said her mother lived an average middle-class life. They occasionally visited the woman they called grandmother, who lived in Michigan.
“There was always something that seemed weird,” Bartlett said. “There was something not right.”
Otherwise, life was comfortable. It was average, but it was fraught with inner turmoil. Bartlett said her mother struggled with alcohol. Bartlett and her older sister knew asking about their mother’s childhood was taboo. It was obvious that it was painful for her to discuss.
Bartlett’s father, whose family had emigrated from Germany, died at the age of 47 “of general unhappiness, I think” Bartlett said in a letter outlining her tale. Her mother died at the age of 49.
“She was very, very bitter about having been callously and cavalierly given away, or so it was in her eyes,” Bartlett said. “She died at age 49, feeling abandoned from start to finish. She died of a broken heart.”
What Bartlett’s mother never knew was that Paul had been looking for her for decades, but ran into countless obstacles. Eventually he connected with the Red Cross, and through the Holocaust & War Victims Tracing Service, found Erika. More precisely, he found her death certificate.
“And bingo, bango, guess who’s on the death certificate? It’s who gives witness, which is her daughter Trudy. She’s right here in Santa Barbara,” said Eames, the Red Cross volunteer assigned to the case.
Sitting across from Bartlett at the Santa Barbara Red Cross office, Eames gave off a quiet calmness, as if she was contemplating everything before speaking—much the same way she deliberated and decided 8:15 would be the best time to call a woman to tell her a long-lost relative she’d never met was
looking for her.
The details of the connection are obviously special to Bartlett, but also to Eames. These situations are exactly what compelled her to volunteer and take classes to participate in the Red Cross’ tracing services.
“It was just really fascinating to me how people could be found, so I took the classes and volunteered,” she said.
According to the Red Cross, a special program to trace victims of World War II and the Nazi regime had its genesis in 1989 when the Soviet Union released documents to the International Committee of the Red Cross, documents that included Auschwitz death books and hundreds of thousands of names of concentration camp victims. As part of the international committee, the International Tracing Service in Arolsen, Germany, houses 47 million records, making it the largest repository of Nazi documentation. The Holocaust & War Victims Tracing Service opened in September 1990.
The Santa Barbara County Chapter averages one tracing case per year. Since 1990, the American Red Cross has opened 43,000 tracing cases in the Holocaust & War Victims unit around the country and has facilitated 1,500 reunions.
Paul, Bartlett’s uncle, had been searching for decades for his baby sister. His search only got traction in 1988 when he and his mother and two sisters were finally permitted to leave the Ukraine.
Bartlett said it seemed he’d stop at nothing to find her. Even after his sisters urged him to quit looking, Paul explained in letters to Bartlett that his sisters thought maybe Erika had lived a different life and had been brought up differently.
“Has it ever occurred to you that she wants nothing to do with us?” Paul said his sisters told him.
Still, he persisted.
Bartlett said she thinks Paul considered it his duty to find his sister and tell her the truth about her family. She said her true grandmother, Paul and Erika’s mother, died in 1998 and wanted to know Erika was OK so she could have peace.
“I think [Paul] carries his mother’s guilt from the loss the way I carry my mother’s feelings of abandonment,” Bartlett said.
Bartlett said Paul was sad the sister whom he hunted for so long had passed away. He asked for a picture of her gravesite or funeral for proof. Bartlett complied. She’s also begun building a relationship with her distant relatives through letters.
“Blood isn’t everything,” she said. “So I’m thankful for this period of letter exchange, because we’ve gotten to know each other and build a relationship.”
Her new relationship with her mother’s long-lost family has been confusing at the least, but it’s also provided some closure. Bartlett said she started a tree on Ancestry.com. That marked a small way she was able to announce to the world that her mother’s family had been found.
She told Paul she hoped the connection gave him closure as well, though she wished her mother could have known.
“It would’ve made all the difference in the world to my mother to know they were looking for her,” Bartlett said.
Contact Arts Editor Shelly Cone at [email protected]