Incognito Press

truth. knowledge. freedom. passion. courage. Promoting free-thinking, activism & rogue writing.

Adopt an ancestor, enrich yourself

Posted by E on February 5, 2011

There are few things sadder to me than to see the vital documents, precious old photographs, and stacks of correspondence being auctioned off on ebay for profit. Just last week I saw a scuffed, stained porcelain doll that had been in a Jewish ghetto in Belgium, and another that made it through Buchenwald and was stamped as the possession of one Anna Schwarzman. A little girl once loved this doll enough to carry it around with her as she was displaced from her home and homeland.
Often these kind of personal treasures end up in museums, but it’s not always so, and possessions such as these surface frequently on ebay. Everything from old love letters to ID cards, to passports and assorted documents that had been of extreme importance to their owner.

Just last week, a photo of a young girl flanked by two older people, presumably her parents, was listed for an auction. The back of it had a line in Romanian, written in a delicate, cursive script: “So that the memory of this precious beloved day may never be forgotten.”

Surely back on that summer day in 1922, this girl never imagined that someday her precious papers would be on sale to strangers for less than $10 – perhaps she imagined that her own children would keep these items in treasured photo albums. Perhaps she never had children. Perhaps she never made it through the war.
Sometimes I wonder – will the things I love so much, the few remaining items of my childhood, be auctioned off by someone who will never understand their value to me?

Whenever I can, I’ve made it my mandate to rescue lost ancestors. For all intents and purposes I consider myself an orphan, with no family on this continent. The few distant relatives I do have back in my native homeland, a country I left when I was 10, are divided from me by more than an ocean: the barrier of language (my Romanian is terrible), different social norms, differences in how we perceive the world, society in general. I hardly know the people back in Europe, though we share some strands of collective DNA.
So when I’m on ebay and I look into the faces of these people whose names I may never know, I feel a special ache for the dispossessed. In their eyes, I see myself: an orphan collectively building herself a new family, one photograph, one letter, one wartime document at a time.

It started with one piece of paper – I was hunting around for something altogether different, an out-of-print book, when I stumbled upon a listing that captivated me. It was a stateless person document issued in a refugee camp in Austria at the end of WW2.

Stapled to the inside cover was a passport-size photo of an old woman who reminded me of my grandmother. She had the saddest eyes in the world, loaded with anger and pain and possibly defeat. I thought to myself, how would it feel to be 65 years old and be considered “stateless”?
At that age, she should have been warm and comfy in her own home, her meals cooked by a daughter-in-law…but no, she was a displaced person, a widow, someone with the echo of death already playing in her eyes. While people all around her were being selected by immigration committees, Canada, the US and Australia were looking only for young, able-bodied and preferably single persons to emigrate. Serafima would not have been on anybody’s desired list.
Not only did I acquire her documents, but I began to research her story from the few details included on the ID: the name of her birth-village, Labinskaya (changed to Labinsk in modern day) a small Cossack-founded town in the Caucasus Mountains.
Wikipedia told me that between August 1942 and January 1943, Labinskaya was occupied by the German Wehrmacht. The residents had fearlessly fought the enemy, and on January 25, 1943 Stanitsa Labinskaya was liberated from the Nazi occupation. But between that time, thousands of residents had been forced to either flee, or been sent to concentration camps.
Perhaps Serafima’s husband or sons perished in the fighting. One will never know, and a Google and Facebook search does not reveal anyone with her last name or variations thereof. It is possible the name Sadochlin(a) ended with the war.

I wondered why there would be so many Cossack refugees in Austria, and why they were still there after the war had ended, instead of returning to their Russian homes. Then, after another hour of research, I discovered about the Yalta Agreement, and the forced repatriation of Cossacks by the British Army.
Seen as enemies by both Russians and the Brits, the Cossacks who returned to Russia were sent directly to Siberian gulags where they met austere conditions and often death. The ones who refused to get on those trains were beaten and shot to death by the British Army.
In Lienz, Austria, there is a graveyard with some twenty crosses, where more than three hundred Cossacks who refused to return to Stalin’s Russia were instead massacred by the British Forces. I’ll probably never know if Serafima made her way to Camp Kellerberg from the massacre at Lienz, or was transferred there from another displaced persons camp.

The story may very well end here, with her document in my hands, but the memory of this heartbroken woman lives on inside me. I take comfort in knowing that Serafima has now found a person on the other side of the ocean, six decades and a lifetime after the moment that photograph was snapped, who will not allow her name to be forgotten.

8 Responses to “Adopt an ancestor, enrich yourself”

  1. Great post! And what a wonderful idea, retrieving lost artifacts, lost ancestors. This reminds me of W.G. Sebald’s writing (Austerlitz, in particular). I’m glad to have found your site. I’ve just started my own blog on related topics (your Russia tag popped you up on my account)…including writing, memory, suicide, and motherhood. I look forward to looking around here more!

  2. Elisa said

    Thanks, Kara! I just checked out your site also – interesting stuff you’ve got going on there, will definitely be back. Will also add Austerlitz to my reading list, thanks for the tip.

  3. I searched for “adopt an ancestor” on Google and came across a familiar name! A friend who used to run a rare/used book business out of his home told me it wasn’t unusual for people to drop off boxes of personal papers, journals, etc., items like the ones you’ve described.

    Years ago, another friend bought a 1911 Daily Diary at a used bookstore and gave it to me. I’m not an orphan–I have a wonderful family–but I am an immigrant, so I decided to adopt the diary’s original owner as my Canadian ancestor. I’ve learned a lot about her, and her diary has been a great resource for a time travel story I’m currently writing. I’m planning to write a series of blog posts about the diary before the story’s release.

    It’s sad that her own relatives didn’t value the diary. I’m sure she never imagined that her 1911 diary would end up in the hands of a writer and be used as a resource for a story in 2011, but such is life.

    Continue to rescue those lost ancestors. I might bump into you on eBay sometime…

  4. Elisa said

    Hey Sarah, small world, eh? I really do look forward to reading those blog entries and finding out more about that time travel story. As to my newly-adopted ancestors, I feel like I know them already; it’s strange how I can be holding a photograph, or letter, in my hands and feel so close to someone I’ve never met….it’s like being a custodian to their memories, you know?

  5. dave said

    Great write up. I was cleaning out an old deserted house over the summer and i found a bunch of old things. I did a little write up on what i found. All items were going in a dumpster. The officer i mention was in charge at Kellerberg Russian camp.

    Hi, I have some Russian antiques I acquired cleaning out an old deserted house. I have some Russian Religious Icons (some silver, some paintings), Russian imperial spoons (11), Two of the spoons are tied to Nicolas the first’s son Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich, they have his monogram on them. Russian Cossack saber (broken), Egg shaped hand painted Christmas ornaments, wooden boxes, etc. I actually have a lot of WW1 & WW2 items, war photographs, pictures of Nicolas the second and his family, Imperial family photos, 80 books dating from 1800 and up, propaganda, etchings, prints, to much to list. Also a bunch of personnel items and war photo albums from a famous military figure that was a bodyguard to Nicolas the first and later in life was a hi commander in the white army (second in command). He actually lead his army to join the Germans to fight against Communism. He exiled to the US in 1952. I have his life’s story. I literally loaded my pickup truck up with all I could take. If you have any interest in helping me to see what I have please respond or if you can direct me a site i can get help it would be appreciated. I can provide photographs or more information if needed. Thanks, Dave

  6. dave said

    I have been doing a lot of research on this amazing man. Here is a message he spoke: They surrender to Great Britain, Russia wanted them back, they all eventually fled to America, Canada and other parts of the world because they had no home to go to..

    From the book “Russian White Guards”

    November 1st 1945 at Camp Kellerberg

    The last order of the last commander of the Russian Corps read:

    “ORDER TO THE RUSSIAN CORPS No.129. 1st of November 1945. Camp Kellerberg.
    “Officers, soldiers and Cossacks! Four years ago, on the Day of Saints Prince Alexander Nevsky, the Russian Corps in Serbia was formed. You and your children joined the ranks, without any preconditions. The image of our greatly suffering country, the same as a quarter century ago, demanded from us to continue our struggle to liberate her. We all desire to liquidate the world evil-communism. For a quarter of a century, our country was dominated by the regime, which cannot be matched by any other tyranny in the history of the world.

    This system took over the greatest country in the world, and succeeded in dominating the soul of the Russian people, and converting them into slaves and the tool to destroy all independent countries and the political-economic freedom in the world. You were guided by simple truth and ideals and this was the main reason why we were not alone in our fight. Our ranks of the White Knights were joined by people from every corner of the Soviet Union our deprived brothers, ex-Soviet citizens. By experiencing the horror of the tyrannical system and learning about the freedom of the rest of the world they became the strongest enemy of communism like us.

    The Russian Corps in Serbia walked the long lasting and punishing road. In our memory will be engraved for for ever the battles at Zayach, Zvornik, Leshniza, by Belyi Kamenh, Valievo, Kladovo, Aleksinaz, Krushevaz, Chachak, Shabaz, battles defending the planes of Ibr, our historic march through the mountains of Sandzhak and Bosnia, battles by Travnik, by Busovach and Brchko.
    On this road we sacrificed or lives and blood fulfilling an obligation to fight the world evil-communism and ascended to Calvary of our unlimited love of our Country and our people.

    The Eternal Peace will embrace our fighting comrades who surrendered their lives for the dream of establishing freedom in our country. We the survivors should guard the sacred flame which inspired us to carry the name “White Nights”. Our patriotic fight in usual circumstances forced on us by the military and political structure is understood and properly appraised by the English Military Command. They did everything possible to alleviate our moral and material situation.

    Today, by the order of the English Command all Russian members of the Russian Corps in Serbia, in Kellerberg are changed to civilian status but temporarily will remain under my command and control. The Russian Corps in Serbia is ending its existence. Officers, soldiers and Cossacks! Let’s be thankful to the Military Command of his Majesty the King of Great Britain for his knightly behavior towards us. We will not spoil this trust with our future behavior.
    God help us to still see during our lives in the new Russia, the defender of freedom and peace in the whole world”

  7. dave said

    sorry, i did not mean to hijack your thread…i just stumbled upon it doing research.

  8. dave said

    Ironically I have a Russian name and I’m part Austrian. So i found this whole thing interesting.

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