Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Uncovering my grandmother's mysteries


For the past couple of months I have been working on a number of various projects, one of which is trying to track down information about my Russian grandmother.

A few months ago (right around the time that Maya started school) I started getting these dreams about my grandmother - whom I have never met. I started to have these strange dreams about Russia - a place where I have never been. I woke up with a feeling that "now is the time - I need to start looking" - for some strange, intuitive reason.

While husband-ji is so certain in his ancestry - coming from a long line of arranged and inter-family, inter-regional marriages, my family heritage is quite mixed and all over the place, filled with chance meetings, love stories, and immigration from the East to the West. A huge hole in our heritage has been the lack of information regarding my mother's biological mother.

My maternal grandmother was such a mystery to us. She was born in Russia to a family in theatre, and when the war broke out she was forced to become a child soldier. A female child soldier. In World War 2. Can you imagine? She picked up a gun and defended her country alongside the men.

Post-war, she immigrated to Canada, speaking hardly any English and not knowing a soul, leaving her war-torn homeland behind...forever. She met my Canadian grandfather - who was twice her age and already married with six children - and had my mother. She named my mother "Zonda" after her best friend in Russia, who was gang raped so violently by German soldiers that she could never have children. On their first date night after my mother was born, both my maternal grandparents were tragically killed when their car collided with an oncoming train at midnight in rural Ontario. My grandfather died instantly, but my grandmother survived the car crash only to die hours later in the hospital from her internal injuries. She was listed as an "unknown female" until someone identified her, only to misspell her oh-so-foreign name. She is buried in an unmarked grave in rural Ontario, which we have never even seen. My mother was orphaned at the age of 2 weeks old.

That dark night that she died....our entire connection with Russia was lost. With my paternal grandmother having been such a huge impact on my life, I often wonder about my other grandmother - how different would our lives be if she had survived? On that night, we not only lost our grandmother, but we lost our connection to an entire culture, language and family.

A few years ago, Ontario's adoption records were made public so my mother decided to request hers. At the age of 60, she saw her birth certificate for the first time with her mother's handwriting on it - stating her full name, date of birth, and place of birth. We knew she was from Russia, but we never knew where in Russia. Turns out she was from this very remote small town in Southern Russia - basically the middle of nowhere.

After I started randomly dreaming about her earlier this year, I decided to use my online detective skills to try to track down some more information, but I just kept hitting roadblocks. My mum said that a family friend told her she may have come to Canada with the Red Cross, so I contacted them and they said all their records from that particular year were lost in a flood. What luck! Then, I wrote to Citizenship and Immigration Canada to try to get a record of landing - I was hoping it would say where she departed from. If I could find out which city she departed from, I could then track her movements and determine if she was displaced during the war, or if she stayed in the same city. Citizenship Canada got back to me and said they have zero record of her ever landing in Canada. So, now I don't know if she even came here legally!

I was beginning to feel a bit defeated, until something happened that was completely random. Sometimes in life, I find that if you pray hard enough, God will send you some angels in disguise - which is exactly what happened....

At preschool, there is often this woman dropping off a child in Maya's class whom I have felt very drawn to since I met her. I don't know why - it is one of those inexplicable things. We never say much more than small talk as we are rushing to pick up/drop off the kids. The other day, I started talking to her a bit more, and it turns out SHE IS FROM THE EXACT PLACE IN RUSSIA that my grandmother was from. That small remote town!!!!!!!! What are the odds?

So, of course I had to tell her the big story (which by the way - is only 1% of it) and she seemed eager to help me and use her resources in Russia and translate for me. As I am writing this, I am still in shock that I found someone from her town. She even kinda looks like me - same blue eyes, eyebrows, and nose. Anyways, I hope I can find something....but that's just the start. At this point, it's like a needle in a haystack. But I do feel like I'm on to something....

So, this Mother's Day, I am thinking about my maternal grandmother - someone who I never had the pleasure to meet. Because of her bravery, our life has been untouched by the perils of war. I think of that young woman getting on a boat, leaving her war-torn country behind and heading to Canada for dreams of a better life. Because of her courage, we are here...


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13 comments

  1. What a beautiful soul you are Alexandra. God Bless.

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  2. Wat a lovely post, Alexandra! I've always been curious abt your family, since you mostly talk abt your Indian side..and yes because we indians marry mostly people in the same community, u can easily trace back several generation s...I wd say pay close heed to ur spiritual self, u may never know how it will help you....
    do keep us posted abt wat you may find...wishing you luck..

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  3. I can suggest to write to http://poisk.vid.ru/ it's a Russian TV programme that is looking for lost people, restoring family connections.. Could be helpful, you never know :)

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  4. Congrats! This just sounds so exciting! You and your mom must be stoked! Your grandma sounds like a true heroine. If you ever write a book about her please let us know. I'd buy it in a heartbeat.

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  5. Very Intresting... You took an very interesting emotional and exiting subject but ended with small story... Looking forward to see more from thr above story.. I wish you could write a book... My Russian girl friendz from Voronezh. Anyway its a Sad ending love story... :)

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  6. That is awesome to find out! A scary start to life for her - I'm glad at least that you're getting some closure and can honor your maternal grand mother (BTW, one of my great-greats was German who was sent to Russia... she came to the US, had she not, she'd have been shipped to Siberia to die, as most of the German Russians were from that town shortly after!) There are a so many things to learn in genealogy.

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  7. So beautiful and destined to be. You really must must must keep us updated and continue on your quest!! Brought a year to my eye! Beautifully written too, I must add xx

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  8. This one gave me the goosebumps! Wow- what are the chances that this woman you chit chat with is from the same place?! Good luck and I really hope you learn a lot about your grandmother.

    Raina.

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  9. Lovely story :-)
    I hope u will really find more about her - all the very best! And when you do, pls keep us posted :-)

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  10. Wow! This was so interesting and moving.

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  11. Interesting... I have been doing my genealogy from both sides of my family and family search (free) is a great source to use. Try it you may never know. Try looking for your mother's half siblings on family search or your grandfather and get clues from there. Good Luck.

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  12. Fascinating story. I hope you find out more about your grand-mother. Are you intending to visit Russia at some point ? (Pad)

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  13. Hi Alexandra, You definitely have resemblance to your grandmother and after what happened it is amazing that you have a photo of her. My ancestors also originally came from Russia, but I have no idea where their ancestral village is. Due to the harsh regimes over the past century it was common for Russians to move locations (mine moved thousands of miles towards Siberia) and then defect across the border into China. I can recommend a book written by Alex Saranin ‘Çhild of the Kulaks’ which retells his escape as a child from Russia into China (it is available on Amazon). It is a very interesting read.
    The town of Harbin in northern China once had many thousands of Russians living there. In the mid to late 1950s the Chinese government’s policy was to remove all foreigners. My dad (who was born in Harbin) and his family then travelled to Hong Kong as refugees. They could choose between Australia, Canada and South America, to which my dad’s family chose Australia. Who knows…maybe your grandmother followed a similar path? Tasha

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