Success Stories

Translating Grandma Helen’s Past

Written by Juliette Eames

As a child, Kathy had little interest in learning about family members in generations before her. In fact, her most extensive family history endeavor was an interview with her paternal grandmother, Helen Weber Ross, for a 9th grade biology project, primarily regarding genetic traits.

Ironically, Kathy would learn much more about her grandmother Helen years later, when she had few older living relatives to learn from. Kathy became interested in her family’s history after becoming the steward of her mother’s family picture albums in 2012. As Kathy looked through the picture albums she wondered, “Who are these people?” As she gleaned every detail she could from her own memory, and looked to her local genealogical society and relatives for information and guidance, she had many clues, but no concrete path forward.

Helen Weber Ross remained a bit of a mystery; it is difficult to measure how much time Kathy spent researching her grandmother. Some said that Helen was German, others said that she was Russian or Ukrainian. Questions abounded. Was she Catholic? Or was she Evangelical Lutheran? Did she come to the United States through Canada? And what about the report from Kathy’s mother that Helen was indentured at age 13 to a New York dentist?

Grandma is one of my brick walls.  I would say the time and effort would be measured in years, not in hours.

Most records Kathy had found gave general places of birth. The obituary written by Helen’s son stated that she was born in Germany. Census records indicated that Helen was from Russia, and her parents were from Poland. The record that had given Kathy the best clue was a World War I draft registration card for Helen’s brother, which stated that he was born in Tutchin, Russia.

One night on FamilySearch, Kathy found a record that she thought might apply to Helen and the Weber family. She ordered a microfilm from FamilySearch, and anxiously looked through it when it arrived at her local center. Although she was able to spot family names, she was unable to read most of the record. Even her husband, a former Russian translator for the military, was unable to translate the records. She did some additional searches through online indexes, and eventually found five digital images about her family from an Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Although excited to have these records, the difficulty of using Google translate and attempting to decipher the words on the page became real. She decided that the best way forward was to find someone with expertise in reading the difficult handwriting. This is when she decided to post the following request on AncestorCloud: “I have located 5 birth records in the Lutheran Church records for my grandmother and her siblings. Records are from Tulchin/Zhitomyr region of the Ukraine in the late 1800’s. While under Russian control at the time, I believe the records are in German. They were German speaking. The records are handwritten. I would like translation of the headers on the form and then the descriptions of their births. I can supply either/both screen shots of the records, or online links to the digital files.”

Only one day after posting her request, she had a couple offers from experts who were interested in helping her. She decided to accept the offer from Nick Gombash. Shortly after that, Nick provided Kathy with translations of the five records she had struggled through in a format that was easy for her to use. In her own words,

He was spot on related to the report I wanted to receive.  The translation was prompt, in a useful Excel spreadsheet format, and exciting to read.

As a result, Kathy learned of grandmother Helen’s two previously unknown sisters. Kathy learned the birth and baptism dates of each of five sisters, their father’s name and occupation, their mother’s maiden name, the name of their godparents, and where the family lived, among other things. In addition, Kathy became equipped to read the headers on this particular kind of church record. These translated records provided Kathy with reliable sources for important life events, new leads to follow, and a hope that she will be able to find out more about her grandmother Helen’s family.  These things made all the difference in this piece of her research.

I’ll use AncestorCloud again as an adjunct to my research – another set of hands and eyes of individuals who are expert in the areas where I am struggling. It makes all the difference.

Want help with your research? Contact helpers like Nick or post a request to our community of experts today!


The Best Genealogy Newsletter... For Free.

Tens of thousands of researchers love our weekly newsletter and we think you will too. Subscribe to our newsletter and stay up to date on the latest genealogy tips and tricks. 

Congrats! You're awesome. You've successfully subscribed to our newsletter.