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, my grandparents never forgot all the good that had happened to them, and loved to share memories of their life before deportation. My grandmother’s eyes always lit up when she recalled how she and my grandfather met for the first time while her family stayed with relatives near Moscow.
When my grandparents met for the first time, my grandfather mistook my grandmother for a Russian and 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 my grandparents to survive the inhumane conditions and to be reunited again afterwards and recover. I couldn’t be happier about it – despite being already into their forties, two more children were born 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 of his remaining relatives emigrated to Canada and the United States at around the time of his birth. As an adult my grandfather tried to look for his biological relatives and did some research, but was limited in his findings due to the lack of information.
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.
UPDATE: After working through the documents at the archive, I’ve come to the conclusion that my grandfather must have been around 7 or 8 years old when his mother died, and not a toddler as the rest of my family believes. As I found out in 2018, his mother and even my grandfather’s grandparents were still alive at the time of the 1920 census. It is therefore very likely that all of them died during the Volga famine of 1921-22. This would explain my grandfather’s knowledge of German despite growing up at an orphanage near Moscow. When I found out the name of his mother in 2018, I also realized that it wasn’t a coincidence that my grandfather’s first daughter shared her name.It appears that my grandfather did remember a few things after all, but he didn’t talk about it.
(According to another document my grandfather’s father was mobilized into the army in 1914. He was mentioned in the 1920 census as well, presumably because his faith remained unknown after WWI and there was no official information about his death as of 1920.)
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:
- My grandfather’s 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
That was it.
When I received my DNA test results shortly after, I was really surprised to learn that I had several hundred genetic relatives living in the United States and Canada! Although all of them were really distant, some of them (the ones who descended from Lutheran Volga German settlers) were still able to provide me with first hints about my grandfather’s place of birth, which a little later could be confirmed as Schoendorf on the Volga.
I nearly fell out of my chair when I googled my grandfather’s name and 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. (Click to enlarge image.)
VOLGA GERMAN GENEALOGY RESEARCH
When I searched my grandfather’s place of birth on the internet, I 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.
Many members 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 their 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 digitized 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 digitized 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 these documents were digitized 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
All of this happened before all the great clustering tools emerged, and in order to make the most of my DNA matches, I needed to separate them into different family lines first. So, I focused on my grandmother’s side of the family tree. In addition, I began offering DNA tests to different cousins on my mother’s side.
My first clue was a memory of a family reunion with distant relatives when 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 even happened to have lived in the same house as a teenage girl as my then newlywed grandparents for a short while, and she happily shared tons of new information with me .
Finally, I’ve collected enough information about my grandmother’s side of the family to ask the members of the Volga German forum for help to follow the lines further back in time. And they did! I will be forever grateful for the help and collective input of so many amazing people there! 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 myself 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! (Click image to enlarge.)
Until then, nobody in my family knew anything about my grandmother’s distant relatives emigrating to the United States as well. Thanks to her now well researched tree and the testing of several cousins on my mother’s side, it was now quite easy to establish the connections to numerous genetic cousins in the US, who turned out to be the descendants of the Arnhold, Meis, Müller/Miller and Staab families. A smaller number of distant cousins also confirmed our connection through Weltz, Hertlein and even Mockstadt!
Next, I’ve also started building a family tree for my Russian father’s side of the family, 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! (And I’ve always wanted to know why my father was of a much darker appearance than other Russians!)
My mixed ancestry, the testing of cousins from different sides and the family trees allowed me to separate the DNA matches on my grandfather’s side from the others – from the Russian and Finnish matches on my father’s side, and from the descendants of Catholic Volga German colonists on my maternal grandmother’s side. Certain surnames soon began to stand out – Wagner, Rudy, Schlegel, Brack, Knack, Wilhelm, Wittig, Litzenberger, Pfaffenroth – and could be immediately linked to my grandfather.
However, separating my grandfather’s matches into more distant lines turned out to be a quite complicated task, because all of them appeared to be related to one another! As I learned later, endogamy was common in the Volga German colonies and the isolated geographical position of Pobochnaya, the colony my grandfather’s family was originally from, fostered it even more. Thanks to the X-Chromosome, however, it was still possible to single out several DNA matches who are related to us through my grandfather’s mother.
This graph was created by Shelley Crawford from ConnectedDNA.com and the dots are representing my matches at Ancestry. (Click to enlarge.) It is also a good visualization of endogamy. Red and blue, the two biggest clusters, can be both linked to my grandfather! The smaller green cluster shows matches on my grandmother’s side. Who would have thought that the majority of our DNA matches would turn out to be related to our family through my orphaned grandfather!
HAAS FROM SCHOENDORF AND POBOCHNAYA
The fast progressing on my grandmother’s side at the forum 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 digitized 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 – Konrad Haas, who settled there at the age of six with his mother and two sisters.
For more information, however, I had to visit the Russian archives myself. Most original documents on Volga German colonists can be found at the Engels and Saratov archives on the banks of the Volga river. According to the 1897 census for Schoendorf there was only one David Haas and his family was listed as follows:
Peter (son of Philipp) Haas, 38, head
Margaretha (daughter of Georg), 34, wife
Katharina (daughter of Peter), 8, daughter
David (son of Peter), 5, son
Peter (son of Peter), 4 months, son
A few months before I went to Russia, I also started looking for people with the family name Haas and roots in Schoendorf at the forum. One of the members told me about his cousins, A. Haas from Bremen and O. Haas from Chemnitz, who kindly agreed to take a DNA test for me. According to the DNA tests results, they were estimated to be my mother’s and her siblings’ third cousins. Thanks to the census records at the archive, I was quickly able to connect their family lines to our family tree. Our common ancestors were my ggg-grandparents Philipp Haas and Anna Margaretha Schlegel.
THE POWER OF GENETIC GENEALOGY
Some time ago a new match with the family name Aul appeared on Ancestry for my aunt and me (my mother and uncle tested at 23andme).
Mr. Aul was the highest of our unknown matches so far, sharing 142cM with my aunt and 85cM with me. If you took his age into account, it placed him in the 2c1R range for my aunt and 3C for me (same gg-grandparents).
I didn’t come across the family name Aul in my research before, but according to his family tree his great grandfather Heinrich Aul, b.1882, was from a Volga German colony by the name of Krasnoyar. After checking the Find A Grave website, I’ve also learned that his grandfather, Victor Aul, was born in Russia as well in 1908.
Victor Aul Sr., the grandfather of our match, married a woman with the Irish family name Walsh, so we weren’t related to him through her line. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any information about the maternal side of our match.
I sent Mr. Aul a message with a brief description of our family history, but didn’t get a reply. So I tried to find out more about our mysterious DNA match in a different way by comparing him to our other matches at Ancestry. There weren’t that many matches shared between us, but our distant Haas cousins from Bremen and Chemnitz were among the few. And he wasn’t matching anyone of our other higher matches, who I was previously able to assign to Sophia (David Haas’ wife) thanks to Visual Phasing and the X-chromosome inheritance pattern. (Of these, I mean not those sharing at least 20cM with him and us, which is the necessary threshold to appear as a shared match at Ancestry. On a more distant level everybody in that colony was related due to endogamy.)
Besides, I also had access to the profiles of the distant Haas cousins and could see that they were a more distant match to Mr. Aul than my aunt. They each shared 70cM with him, while my aunt shared 142cM, as you already know. Our common ancestor with the Haas cousins was my ggg-grandfather Philipp Haas, b. 1818. Thus, our common ancestor with Mr. Aul had to be my gg-grandfather Peter Haas, b. 1858. According to the 1897 census my gg-grandparents Peter and Margaretha had three children: Katharina, David and Peter. According to the 1920 census it remained that way – David and Peter were still listed there, but there were no other, younger siblings of the two. Therefore, Mr. Aul had to be either a descendant of my great grandfather David’s sister Katharina, b. 1888/89, or their brother Peter, b. 1896/97.
I couldn’t sit still anymore after I realized that! I checked Facebook and found Mr. Aul’s profile, including a picture of his parents in their younger years. His mother appeared to be a beautiful woman of Hispano-American origin – that meant we couldn’t be related to him through her! And neither through his Irish paternal grandmother! Our connection had to be on his paternal Aul line! And that meant his paternal grandfather’s mother must have been Katharina Haas!
DNA is incredibly powerful, but DNA alone isn’t enough – you have to look for another, independent piece of evidence. Although I didn’t get a response from Mr. Aul, it occurred to me where else I could turn for help to: the Volga German forum! It’s the place for people with Volga German roots outside the US and Canada. As I mentioned earlier, members of the Volga German forum collect information about their ancestors, and there are already numerous threads on certain family names and colonies. Thus, I wasn’t surprised to find out that a thread on Aul from Krasnoyar already existed and posted my request there:
Here is the translation:
“There is a person with the family name Aul among our DNA matches at Ancestry, whose grandfather Victor Aul was born in Krasnoyar in 1908 into the family of Heinrich (son of Konrad) Aul, b. 1882, and the family emigrated to the United States in 1912. Mr. Aul and my aunt share 142cM (he and I share 85cM), which makes him a 2C1R for my aunt and a 3C for me. On our side the connection must be through my great grandfather David Haas, who had a sister named Katharina and a brother named Peter. If the connection is through his paternal Aul line (there was no information about his mother), his great grandfather Heinrich Aul must have been the husband of Katharina Haas from Schoendorf (the sister of my great-grandfather and the aunt of my grandfather, the one who emigrated). Does anyone have access to the family books of Krasnoyar from that time and can help me to confirm my theory? Thank you very much in advance!”
In the meantime, I decided to continue my search at Ancestry and have a look at the 1930 US census. I did find a person named Heinrich/Henry Aul there, who was born in Russia in 1882, but he was married to a woman named Amelia and not Katharina. In addition, the peculiar name of one of his daughters “Badilja” has caught my eye.
Other documents from that time also listed Emilia/Amelia Rieb as his wife. What a setback! I just couldn’t believe it, because our DNA results were telling me something different! For now, however, I had to accept what my eyes were seeing. Totally devastated, I then edited my post at the forum: “Update: It looks like we are not related through his paternal Aul line after all… According to the 1930 US census, the wife of Heinrich/Henry Aul was Amelia Rieb and not Katharina Haas. Were there any Rieb families in Krasnoyar?”
When I finished, I noticed that AndI, one of the forum’s admins (and no other than Andreas Idt, the author of a book on Volga German colonists “Auswanderung deutscher Kolonisten nach Russland im Jahre 1766”, as it turned out later!), replied to my previous message:
“According to my notes, the parents of Viktor Aul, born on Dec 31st, 1908, were Heinrich Aul, born on April 9th, 1882, and Katharina Elisabeth Haas, who were married in 1908, but I couldn’t connect her to any other Haas families from Krasnoyar. Presumably because she was from Schoendorf. It would be very interesting to find out more about her line. According to my notes, Heinrich Aul and Katharina Haas also had a daughter named Adele, b. 1910. ”
So it was Katharina Elisabeth Haas after all! What a dramatic turn of events! What a stroke of luck! My theory based on the DNA results was absolutely correct and finally everything started to make sense! Amelia Rieb must have been Heinrich Aul’s second wife, and since they had to have been married in the US, I would surely find their marriage record! And the 19-year-old “Badilja” in the 1930 census must have been Adele! Most likely because the name was pronounced as Adelja in Russian.
Andreas Idt only had notes, but no copies of the original documents, because this Aul Haas family was one of his sidelines (the maiden name of Heinrich Aul’s mother was Idt). Another forum member advised me to contact Prof. Dr. Igor Pleve, because he reportedly had access to all family books from Krasnoyar, and could email me a copy for a fee.
While I was waiting for Prof. Dr. Pleve’s answer, I continued to search Ancestry’s database for more US documents. You can get a copy of the passenger lists, naturalization records, censuses, as well as marriage, birth and death certificates there, and I would need almost everything to piece the puzzle together.
There was an entry from Jan 11th, 1912 on the passenger list of the SS Merion from Liverpool to Philadelphia about Heinrich Aul (29), his wife Katarina (23) and their two children Victor (3) and Adela (1):
And here is the marriage record for Heinrich Aul and Amelia Rieb from 1913. Katharina Elisabeth Haas must have died during her first year in Chicago before reaching the age of 25, leaving two little kids behind.(Click image to enlarge.)
Next, I found two naturalization records for Henry Aul that listed all of his five children. His three younger girls were by his second wife.
According to the naturalization records, he was a widower and the first record stated his wife’s name as “Elizabeth”, born on October 31st, 1888 in “Schondorf, Russia”! (Click image to enlarge.)
The second record stated his wife’s name as Amelia:
Prof. Dr. Pleve’s email rounded everything up. The left side lists male colonists of Krasnoyar, Heinrich (son of Konrad) Aul and his son Viktor, and the right side his wife Katharina Elisabeth Haas and daughter Adele:
Genetic genealogy and paper research were complementing each other perfectly! None of this would have been possible without a DNA test. Neither without the documents. However, each of them alone by itself wouldn’t have been enough!
(I’m still working on my grandfather’s other branches, but endogamy and missing documents make it so much more complicated.)
Last updated and corrected on November 26th, 2020