I never know what treasure I will find whenever I dig through the countless documents, certificates and photographs left to me when my father died. There is documentation from both sides of my family, mostly in either German or Russian. But now and again I stumble across something in English, like the two letters I found tonight.
One of the letters, dated October 1946, is addressed to a Miss S and refers to an enclosed letter for Miss S from her mother. I believe Miss S is the woman I knew as Aunt Olga. She was the niece of my maternal grandfather. From a 1940 US Census I found online, it appears she was living with my grandparents and my mother at the time. Although my mother spoke of Aunt Olga many times, I only met her once when I was ten. At the same time I also met her mother, known to me as Aunt Natasha.
The first letter, written to Miss S, was apparently written by a friend and neighbour of her mother’s when the author lived in Dairen. I had never heard of Dairen before. I had a vague idea that, at the time of the Russian Revolution, my grandfather’s family escaped to Harbin in China. But Harbin is not Dairen. I had to do some more exploring.
The same 1940 US Census gave me further information. In answer to the question of which state or foreign country she lived in in April 1935, Miss S had written Manchukuo. A bit of Googling on my part and I discovered that Manchukuo is what we call Manchuria and Dairen was its port city. I believe the area was ruled by the Chinese at the time of the Russian Revolution, although I’m not sure. However, between 1933 and 1945 the Japanese had control. In 1945 Soviet military units swept into Manchuria and took charge.
The arrival of the Soviets explains why Miss S’s father was arrested and “sent away, like most of the former Russian officers and White Russian emigrants.”
The second letter is written to Miss S by her mother. I wonder why she wrote it in English, when their mother tongue was Russian. However, I’m glad she did.
Upon further investigation in Ancestry.com, I discovered a US Petition for Naturalization by a Mrs S, in 1953. So, Aunt Natasha must have made the journey from Manchuria to America to be with her daughter. The only mention of her husband is that he “now resides at a camp in Potma, Russia”. A quick Google brings up the information I had suspected. Potma lies 600 kilometres from Moscow and, in 2003, was a Russian gulag. Apparently, it is unique in that all of its inmates originate from countries outside of the former Soviet Union. It is a camp for foreigners. I guess in 1945 it was also a gulag. Knowing her husband was there must have convinced Aunt Natasha he was never coming home.
I’m sure there is more to this story. It is yet another avenue of exploration for me as I continue to research my family history.