As a child I used to spend a lot of time with my maternal grandparents, Elisabetha and Viktor Haas, both 6th generation Volga Germans. After school I was hurrying home to them, scenting Grandma Lisa’s homemade German crumb cake countless times as soon as I reached the porch.
Despite having had a harsh life for many years – surviving deportation from their Volga homeland to Siberia in 1941, years of famine and forced labor and the loss of two children – my grandparents somehow managed to remain kind and lighthearted, still having so much love and attention to give to all of their family members and especially their then youngest granddaughter.
Apart from all the bad they had to live through, they never forgot all the good that had happened to them and loved to share memories of their life before deportation. My Grandma’s eyes always lit up when she recalled how she and my Grandpa met for the first time while her family stayed with relatives near Moscow. Initially thinking she was a Russian, my grandfather openly exclaimed in German that she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen, and that if she was a German, he would instantly propose. My grandmother pretended she did not understand a word he said, but when my grandfather found out who she was, he really did propose! And even though my grandmother turned down that first proposal, he was head over heels and started courting her until he won her over.
The union turned out to be a strong and happy one and even 10 years of separation when my grandfather was sent to a labor camp after deportation did not change that. Along with 16711 other men he was sent to Volzhlag, a labor camp for railroad construction. My grandmother had to do forced labor as well, working up to 16 hours daily in a bakery. It was a miracle for both of them to survive the inhumane conditions and to be reunited again afterwards and recover. I could not be happier about it – despite being already into their forties, two more children were born to them after their reunion, my mother being the youngest one.
However, deportation and labor camp were not the first challenges my grandfather had to face in his life. He was born in a colony on the Volga river, but grew up in an orphanage near Moscow, where he was sent to as a child after his parents’ death. Orphaned children were usually taken in by other relatives, but as he was told later, all his relatives emigrated to Canada and the United States at around the time of his birth.
He was so little when he lost his family that he could hardly remember anything about them – not even his mother’s face. All his life long he had a recurring dream about her bending over him in his crib, but he would always wake up every time he tried to see her face more clearly. As an adult he tried to look for his biological relatives and did some research, but was limited in his findings due to the lack of information. My grandfather died in 1988 – 26 years before I would take my first DNA test and dive into the wonderful world of genetic genealogy…
Back in February 2014 I did not have much to start with, except for:
- His date of birth March 18th, 1913
- Name of his father, David, thanks to the patronymic used in Russia
- Lutheran denomination (I remembered my Catholic grandmother’s remark about it as a child)
- Immigration of close relatives (aunt) to Canada and the United States around 1913 (The mystery of this aunt was solved thanks to a DNA match!)
That was it.
Luckily, I knew a lot more about my grandmother’s side of the family and started to build a family tree for her. At the same time I started building a family tree for my father as well, which turned out to be a little more difficult, because all of my paternal relatives live in Russia and I did not spend as much time with them as I did with my maternal relatives in Germany. Nearly all of them remembered me only as a little girl and were surprised by my sudden interest in family history. It was a great time reconnecting with many different branches of my family and learning many new stories about my ancestors, especially from those of the oldest generation. (Among other things I found out that one of my paternal great grandmothers was of Native Siberian ancestry!)
The internet was of huge help, too! That may be of no surprise to you, but I did not expect to find much to be honest. Unlike Americans or the British, only a small number of Russians or Germans from Russia has ever build a family tree or has records of their ancestors. I don’t even know why I decided to google my grandfather’s name on that day in March 2014 in the first place. That day when I nearly fell out of my chair when the internet actually did spit out a record on him – a record that even included my grandfather’s place of birth! It was an entry at an online memorial website for the victims of political terror during the Soviet regime:
VOLGA GERMAN GENEALOGY RESEARCH
Schoendorf on the Volga was given as my grandfather’s place of birth, so I searched it and came across a fantastic Volga German genealogy forum with several thousand members that turned out to be a gold mine for my research. This website contains valuable information on almost every mother and daughter colony founded on the banks of the Volga river, as well as some other German settlements elsewhere in the Russian Empire.
However, my first inquiry on that forum was fruitless. I entered my grandfather’s name and date of birth on the thread for Schoendorf and asked if someone had any information about his parents. My message was bluntly ignored. Nonetheless, I soon learned how to navigate that forum and how to get answers from those experienced members, who turned out to be very kind and helpful!
Many of them are in possession of several census lists for a large number of colonies obtained from AHSGR (American Historical Society of Germans from Russia) or through own research at the archives, and when someone posts a question about a certain family, those in possession of the census will look the family up. The information is provided for free, but you will be asked to open up a new thread for the family name you are interested in and the colony that family was from. The idea behind it is to collect information on every Volga German family through the years and make it an openly available resource for all descendants interested in family history.
Unfortunately, the majority of the digitalized censuses range from 1764-1767 (Prof. Dr. Igor Pleve’s book on first Volga German settlers) to 1857 (resettlement to daughter colonies). Only a handful of later censuses are available for a few colonies, either because the other documents were not digitalized yet, or in the worst-case scenario, because those documents were lost during a fire in the archives.
The good news was that a 1897 census for Schoendorf (where I could look for my grandfather’s father David Haas) existed in the archive in Engels along with household lists for 1915 and 1920. The bad news was that none of the documents were digitalized yet. I would lay my hands on the original census book only four years later (the thick one in the middle).
PROGRESS ON MY GRANDMOTHER’S SIDE
In the meantime, I had way more success with my grandmother’s side of the family tree. My first clues were the things she once told me herself when I was younger. Decades ago, when distant relatives came to a family reunion, my grandmother told me that one of the boys was my fourth cousin. And I happened to remember that boy’s name! I asked around, but no one was longer in touch with that branch of the family after the elder generation passed away. So I decided to try my luck with social media instead. After contacting several people on a Russian networking website, I only got one reply. From the right person!
He vaguely remembered that we were related, but could not say how and gave me his mother’s number. In addition to being my mother’s third cousin, his mother turned out to be a former classmate of my other uncle who tragically died at 22 in 1976 and really wanted to help me with my genealogy research. She in turn gave me the number of her nearly 90-year-old aunt and said: “Be sure to have plenty of time when you call her. This lady knows everything!”
The lady turned out to be my maternal grandmother’s second cousin and they both shared the same maiden name – Antoni. (As it turned out later, Antoni was only one out of three lines we are related on due to endogamy that was common in Volga German colonies.) My newly found 2C2R, or aunt V. as I now call her, happily shared tons of new information with me and she even happened to have lived in the same house as a teenage girl as my then newlywed grandparents for a short while .
Prior to that call my grandmother’s tree ended with her father Heinrich Antoni, born in 1879, and son of another Heinrich Antoni. Census information for the Beauregard colony (where the Antoni families originated) was available for 1850 and 1857, and thus, there was a good chance that the older Heinrich was listed in one of them as a boy. However, just in case there would be more than one Heinrich Antoni of the appropriate age, I first needed to find out what the name of his father was.
And this is where aunt V. was able to help me out. Her father was a first cousin of Heinrich Jr. and her grandfather Joseph was the younger brother of Heinrich Sr. Luckily, she was also able to remember her grandfather Joseph’s patronymic – he, and thus our Heinrich Sr., were the sons of another Joseph Antoni. Now I had enough information to post a question on the thread for the 1850 and 1857 censuses and Sander, one of the admins, replied!
The 1857 census showed that Heinrich Sr. was born in 1852 (the original birth record I came across later said 1853) and was the son of Joseph Antoni (b.1820) and Anna Maria (b.1831). The 1850 census revealed that all Antoni families in Beauregard were related – four brothers, Joseph was the youngest – and also that the first name of my ggg-grandfather Joseph’s mother was Maria, who was born in 1776. A little later I found out, that the copies of the original 1850 & 1857 censuses were also accessible online at FamilySearch. My ggg-grandfather Joseph Antoni’s death record was also found there and it mentioned that his wife Anna Maria’s maiden name was Meier.
Brent Alan Mai’s two-volume 1798 census book disclosed the full name of my ggg-grandfather Joseph’s mother as Anna Maria Löwenbrück, wife of Nikolaus Antoni (b.1773). The young couple moved to Beauregard from another colony by the name of Leichtling and became the ancestral couple of all Antoni families in Beauregard. On a side note about movements between colonies Nikolaus’ family name was spelled as Antonius and according to the First Settlers List of Igor Pleve’s four volume book “Einwanderung in das Wolgagebiet: 1763-1767” there was only one colonist with that name – Johannes Antonius, who came from Seligenstadt in Germany and settled in Leichtling in 1767. (However, according to the church books for Seligenstadt the original spelling of the family name was Antoni.) Anna Maria Löwenbrück’s parents came from Trier, the oldest city in Germany.
Step by step it was possible to follow the Antoni family line back through various censuses and reveal its origins. As for my maternal grandmother’s mother Ottilia Arnhold’s line, however, I first needed to contact the archives to find a link to 1857. I knew her birth date and place and asked a forum member who lives in Russia to look for it at the Engels archive. Thanks to the correct data, he quickly found her baptism record and mailed me a copy for a small fee.
The record revealed her mother’s maiden name, but neither of her parents were found in the 1857 census, so I asked the same forum member to look for their marriage record, too. This time he had to do a “blind” search (which costs a bit more) and check the church records for eight years prior to my great grandmother’s birth until he found the right couple. The marriage record revealed the names of the parents of bride and groom and with the help of several other forum members information on all four of these ancestors was found in the 1857 censuses of Beauregard, Katharinenstadt and Zug colonies and made available in the corresponding threads that were opened for each family branch.
I will be forever grateful for the help and collective input of so many amazing people on the forum! In the beginning I had to rely only on the information they provided to me online, but it turned out to be correct in every single case, so that I easily found all original birth and marriage records for my ancestors when I traveled to the Engels archive in May 2018!
Today I know the names of all of my maternal grandmother’s 16 great great grandparents. Nearly all of her lines have also been traced further back to the first settlers in 1767. What’s even more exciting is that several of those lines have already been confirmed by DNA! (More on DNA later!) Numerous distant genetic cousins in the US turned out to be the descendants of Arnhold, Meis, Müller/Miller and Staab families. A smaller number of distant cousins also confirmed our connection through Weltz, Hertlein and Mockstadt!
HAAS FROM SCHOENDORF AND POBOCHNAYA
The fast progressing on my grandmother’s side had given me new hope and I decided to open up a thread for a Haas family from Schoendorf as well. However, I did not set my expectations too high since there was a huge gap between my grandfather’s year of birth and the digitalized 1857 resettler’s list for the newly founded colony of Schoendorf (the 1897 census along with other documents for Schoendorf were only available at the archive and nobody at the forum had a copy).
To my surprise, however, there were still some good news! According to the 1857 resettler’s list there were only two Haas families in Schoendorf at the time the village was founded – the families of Konrad and Philipp Haas, who were brothers! This meant it was possible to trace the Haas line back in time! The Haas brothers resettled from Pobochnaya, a Lutheran colony founded in 1773 by German settlers from the county of Isenburg in Hesse, Germany. Forum member Viktor2 kindly took me under his wing and within an hour or so presented me with the name of my first Haas ancestor on the Volga.
*** To be continued soon! ***
More to come on how special the colony of Pobochnaya turned out to be due to its isolated geographical position within other colonies (endogamy!) and how different DNA techniques helped me sorting my genetic relatives.
January 22nd, 2020