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A visit to the Zhitomir area, 1995

Photo: Street scene in Zhitomir

This is an account of a brief trip to Volhynia in the fall of 1995. Versions have appeared in the Victoria (B.C.) Times Colonist and in the Bulletin of the Saskatchewan Genealogical Society.

By Dave Obee

zhitomir train station ZHITOMIR, Ukraine -- Don't mention you're here to dig up family roots -- or the locals might hand you a shovel.
In 12 years of researching my family history, I've visited cemeteries in five countries.
Never before had I found evidence of grave robbing. Never before had I stepped into an opened grave.
And it wasn't just in one cemetery, either -- graves had been opened in at least half a dozen of the graveyards we visited.
Welcome to family history research in Ukraine.
The cemeteries were in the old German Baptist colonies northwest of Zhitomir, about 200 kilometres west of Kiev, in an area known as Volhynia, Germans settled the area in the 1860s just after the tsar's decision to free the serfs created a labor shortage on the large farms in the area.
The Germans started moving out by the 1890s, and kept up the exodus until the outbreak of the First World War. There was another rush out in the 1920s that was stopped when Josef Stalin closed the borders.
My grandparents were among the hundreds of refugees who arrived in Edmonton in the 1920s. They were following in the footsteps of the Volhynian Germans who arrived in the Rabbit Hill area, just south of the city, in the 1890s.
By the mid-1930s, Stalin was killing many of the remaining Germans, using a bullet in the head if starvation didn't work. The best guess on the number of victims -- Germans, Ukrainians, and a whole bunch of people Uncle Joe didn't like -- is 20 million. But that's another story.
The vast majority of the Germans who were left, after the emigration and the killing fields, left Soviet soil with the retreating German army in 1943. Some made it to Germany, some to North America and some were captured by the Soviets and sentenced to slave labor in Siberia and Kazachstan. But that's another story, too.
These events make family history research today rather difficult, to say the least.
In most areas, a researcher can get valuable information from a tombstone. Here, the cemeteries have been neglected for half a century. As a result, they are covered in heavy undergrowth. It's possible to be within a metre of a headstone and not see it.
Not that there are many headstones left -- most of them have been removed. The ones that remain are the heavy ones, which are the toughest to carry. Some heavy tombstone bases were also left, but that doesn't help if the information was on the piece that was carted off.
Local residents said the tombstones were used for a variety of things, such as building foundations and sidewalks.
Why were the graves opened? Nobody seemed to know anything about that.
It was obvious, however, that the grave robbing had been going on for years. The walls of some graves had crumbled down, and there was heavy growth in the bottom. In one cemetery, however, the walls were intact and there was no growth of any sort in the grave itself - suggesting a bit of nocturnal activity in just the past few months.
Along with graveyards, we were looking for old buildings and any residents who remembered German families.
In both cases, we found plenty of locals willing to help. Some even drove with us to point out sites of cemeteries and parcels of land that had been owned by our relatives.
Every village had some elderly residents willing to spend some time with a journalist from Alberta, a retired Baptist minister from Oregon and their entourage -- a driver and a translator.
At all times, however, it seemed that the horrors of history were never far below the surface.
One elderly woman burst into tears when we said we wanted to know more about the area's Germans. The Germans, she said, had killed her husband.
Others said the Germans didn't suffer as much as the Ukrainians during Stalin's forced collectivization of farms. They simply moved away, we were told.
Moved? Deported, maybe. Or arrested and killed elsewhere.
It was interesting, though, to hear another perspective.
We were able to identify the old Baptist church site in the colony of Iwanowitsch. In the 1930s, Communists forced the Germans to gather outside and watch as all church records and materials were burned.
Under Communist rule, churches were used for grain storage, or as dance halls.
Today, however, the churches are making a remarkable comeback. The beautiful brick Baptist church in Neudorf is being restored by Ukrainian Baptists, with help from North American donations.
Missionaries are travelling from town to town, spreading the word. North American evangelists are making regular trips into the area, helping the locals as best they can.
Genealogists will find that regional archives are open, but they should be prepared to pay for what information they get. And don't expect the service we expect in North America - after all, it's easier for a clerk to say a record doesn't exist than it is to look for it.
There are also civil registration offices, which can yield precious nuggets of information. Precise information is needed before they will search for a birth, marriage or death certificate.
In both archives and registration offices, it pays to have a local resident doing the talking on your behalf. Along with handy translation, it can mean lower prices.

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