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Finding one’s identity – after 66 years

“I feel relieved. I can find peace of mind after all”, 69-year-old George Jaunzemis sums up his feelings. He never knew who his mother was, which his real name was or where he was born – questions the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen has solved now. A four-year-old boy, George had been separated from his natural mother in the turmoils of the post-war time. In mid-May 2011, he met his relatives for the first time and came to see his birth place Magdeburg in Germany.

George grew up with Anna Jaunzemis in New Zealand – a woman who posed as his mother, but never was. “I have always had my doubts about her”, relates Jaunzemis. “She just did not behave like a mother. She was rather cold, never gave me a hug. And whenever I reproached her for not caring for me, she got angry.” Anna, a Latvian by birth, avoided talking about the past in general and the Second World War in particular. “Whenever I asked after our family, her only answer was: ‘They are all dead.’” His father allegedly had been a submarine officer.

In reality George was born in Magdeburg on 18 October 1941 under the name of Peter Thomas. His mother had fallen in love with the Belgian prisoner of war Albert van der Velde who was a forced labour at the railway post office in Magdeburg. Immediately after the war end, on 22 May 1945, the two were married at registry office Magdeburg old town centre. Albert accepted Peter as his son. The family left for Belgium. But Gertrud as a German citizen had no entry permit and was kept in an internment camp for three months. Mother and son were separated, and four-year-old Peter was put into a camp for Displaced Persons.

Here Anna Rausis, a 46-year-old Latvian, took care of the child, named it George and, following an odyssey through various DP Camps in Lübeck and Munich, went with the boy aboard the ship “Dundalk Bay” on 20 May 1949 to immigrate to New Zealand via Italy. She changed her name first to Rause and later on to Jaunzemis. Albert and Gertrud van der Velde spent years searching for their lost son – in vain. The Allies took part in the search for the child at the time – as is evidenced by the heavy tome of a child tracing file of about 150 pages preserved in the ITS archives.

“My search went round in a circle.”

Not knowing his origins plagued him throughout his childhood, Jaunzemis reports. “All other children had their families. But I had nobody I could turn to. A life without family roots is a lonely and unhappy life.” After Anna’s death in 1978 he started a search in New Zealand first. “I wanted to have a look at our immigration papers”, recalls Jaunzemis. “But I was not given any information.”

Contact with Latvia brought a first breakthrough. “In 1997 I travelled there for the first time. That I knew the name of Jaunzemis, but not the name of Rause was a hindrance to my search. Finally, I found out that Anna had left Latvia in October 1944 – alone.” Accordingly, there were no papers at all about the alleged birth of a George Jaunzemis in Riga in November 1941. “I always presumed that I had been one of the 300 orphans aboard the ship bound for Germany at the time”, relates Jaunzemis. “It gave me a shock to realize that all my theories were wrong in the end.”

In 2000 Jaunzemis moved to Latvia where he had come to know his wife. He intensified his search, but “for long seven years my investigations went round in a circle. I had the feeling that nothing would come of them. The ITS was my last resort.” He wrote the office a letter in October 2009. After one and a half years the ITS, acting in conjunction with the town authorities of Magdeburg, the Latvian and the Belgian National Red Cross Societies, was able to clear up the true identity of George Jaunzemis alias Peter Thomas and find his next-of-kin. “First I thought all this impossible. But then everything fell into place. The documents received from the ITS, the other records I already had, one piece fitted in with the other. What I feel is extreme relief, since I had all the time been haunted by the question as to who my parents were.”

Visit to his birth place Magdeburg

The house in Magdeburg he was born in does not exist any more, unfortunately, but the town’s mayor invited him to a reception. “It is very emotional”, says Jaunzemis. “I am happy to have a family although it still feels strange and unreal. There is so much time that just went lost.” During a one-week trip to Germany in mid-May 2011, the New Zealander and newcomer to Latvia met two cousins in Magdeburg and a nephew in Berlin. “The meeting with the son of my sister was a real highlight”, Jaunzemis is enchanted. “He always knew that there was an uncle somewhere. When I arrived, the first thing he did was embrace me. He almost touched me to tears. There was so much support and help, so much understanding – and what is more: no distance right from the beginning.” Jaunzemis learned that his sister Gerda had turned to the Red Cross of the German Democratic Republic and requested that a search for him be initiated. Having given Peter Thomas as his name, she was unsuccessful with her search - all the more so as the wall separating East and West still existed at the time. Gerda, who had been left with their joint grandparents in Magdeburg in 1945, died in January 2007.

Jaunzemis’ natural mother Gertrud is also deceased, she passed away in Belgium in April 2009 – half a year before Peter requested the ITS for support. Her husband Albert lives in a home for aged people in Belgium today – aged 90. “He does not want to talk to me, he asked others to tell me that he feels sorry for me“, so Jaunzemis. “He kept from the German family where my mother’s burial place is.” The ITS will try to solve this riddle, too. “All this comes as a big surprise for us”, says Peter’s cousin Joachim Sumpmann from Magdeburg. “After all, our family used to think that Peter had gone missing.” The family exchanged photos with him and completed their family tree in the light of the new knowledge. “We are delighted that events have taken this course“, Sumpmann gives his view.

“The Air Force gave me a sense of community.”

Jaunzemis himself cannot but speculate on the reasons or motives Anna may have had for kidnapping him. “One thing is clear: she never wanted to give me up”, he recalls. Between 1949 and 1952 he and Anna lived in Wellington, later on in Christchurch. “I think, she was illiterate”, narrates Jaunzemis. “She never married, always worked as housekeeper, cook or factory worker. She never learned English correctly and had enormous difficulties in adjusting to life in New Zealand.” In 1952 the boy was under state child care temporarily because she had neglected him.

When George had finished school in 1967, he left their home to join the Air Force serving as mechanic repairing airplanes. “The army gave me a sense of community. My relationship to Anna became more and more aloof over time.” Jaunzemis kept staying with the Air Force until his retirement, in the last years of his working life on active duty for the museum he had helped to build. “My feelings towards Anna are mixed now. I am trying hard to understand her. In some moments, I hate her, in others I do not. After all she was the one who raised me somehow. But when I look back, I do not make out any closeness, any real relationship.”

“I wish to celebrate my 70th birthday in Germany.”

Feeling the need of coming to terms with the latest developments first, Jaunzemis cannot yet make any plans for the future. “But I wish to celebrate my 70th birthday in Germany, though”, anticipates Jaunzemis. And he thinks about changing his name. “My friends call me Peter already. But as I formally have both, the New Zealand and Latvian citizenships, an official name change may prove difficult.”