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A journey back in time – written by Megan Ward

Shown: Megan Ward's grandmother as a young lady
Megan Ward's grandmother as a young lady, photo: Megan Ward

It’s April in Northern Germany, the spring air is cool, and the countryside has me mesmerised. I’m approaching the tail end of my 2015 European visit, a very important and emotional chapter of my journey.

Nerves and anticipation are forcing me to sit bolt upright in the car while watching the lush, green fields pass by. I follow the narrow track before me, my eyes dancing with expectation, looking left, then right, and then left again; fast to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. Yet my racing heart isn’t allowing my mind to digest the surroundings as vividly as I would like.

And there it is, standing tall and proud on the right side of the peaceful road - The farmhouse from my genealogical past. The impressive building had been the ’forced’ home of  my Grandmother, it was  here that she had spent the last years of her youth during the Second World War.

My grandmother was a beautiful woman, clever, inspirational and admired by so many. Her past, however, was mysterious, confusing, and in many respects hidden to everyone but her.

Sadly, my grandmother Nina passed away in 1979, several years before I was born, and it wasn’t until I was 10 years old that I remember hearing for the first time bits of stories of her European past. I was fascinated that day to learn how heroic and strong my grandmother Nina or “Babcia” had been, and it was then that my emotional journey into unlocking her past began,  the start of decades of heartbreak, frustration, acceptance and elation.

Nina was born in Ukraine in the mid 1920’s, the eldest of several children.  The story in our family was that she had been kidnapped by Germans, along with her sister Nadia, during 1943 and transported by cattle train to Germany. Here she was separated from Nadia and sent north as an “Ostarbeiter” to work on a local German farm as a kitchen hand. She was never to see her family in Ukraine again.

Nina later spoke very fondly of the family she had lived with. She had memories of kind people who treated her very well and she considered herself to be very lucky.

Living under the protection of this German family, Nina survived the war, only to be caught by Russian soldiers, and subsequently accused   and punished by them for ‘traitor activity’.  It took me years of research to understand the significance of what happened to her because of this.

 Miraculously she escaped the brutality and the interrogations of the Red Army. Beaten and bruised she fled to the safety of a Polish Displaced Persons (DP) Camp. Here Nina was hidden under a worn mattress, the sleeping place of an ill child. A young Polish mother diverted the Soviet soldiers’ attention elsewhere when they came searching, convincing them not to move her contagiously ill and resting child.

And so, Nina was not found.

Early in 1946, while living in the Polish Displaced Persons Camp,  Nina took the opportunity for escape she had there by registering as a Polish DP, a single decision that was to change the course of her life forever. This was where her existence as ‘Janina’ or Nina as everyone came to know her, began, her former identity was to be a lifelong secret. 

A couple of years later she met my Grandfather, a former Polish insurgent, and together with their son, they immigrated to Australia.

Nina went on to have several children, and over the years told little stories of her earlier life. However, the only solid link of information to her childhood came from a school assignment my mother completed as a 13 year old. This old and worn handwritten family tree and simple biography  was to be a major key into unlocking her past. 

Over the years the International Tracing Service provided me and my dad, also a keen researcher, with documents of Nina’s post war existence. Yet without knowing her true name, trying to find out more about her adolescent years was beginning to prove impossible.

It was taking an alternative approach and initiating research into her sister Nadia with the help of the ITS that was to be the most beneficial in the end. The breakthrough which we had long waited for came by way of  a letter from the ITS stating that although no information on Nadia was available, her father had also made a request to the International Tracing Service looking for her, years ago. The feelings we experienced from such a letter were simply overwhelming. Was this  our first genuine link to her family? Rumours among extended family had long been that Nadia had never made it home, that she had suffered at the hands of the Russians after the war. Did this letter confirm her ill fate if her father      had been looking for her so many decades later? But why look for Nadia only, when Nina had also not returned home? The father’s name, Konstantin, matched my mother’s notes, and although some things were still unclear, the Russian Red Cross began a search, through the continual support and help of the ITS, to locate the origins of the request made by her father.

Soon after, I was given contact details to a woman by the name of Olga. Living in Russia, she was the youngest grand-daughter of Konstantin. What came next was information we least expected.

Olga informed me that among Konstantin’s children there had been 2 older girls, Nina and Nadia, who had been kidnapped together and sent to Germany. The single, most important twist being that Nina had returned home to the Soviet Union, Nadia had not.

After many more months of exchanging information, comparing our notes, and learning more about each other, it became absolutely clear that my grandmother was, in fact, Nadia. Surprisingly, her surname, a Polish name, she had never changed.

We were delighted  to learn that one of Nina’s sisters was still living in Ukraine, and so we could still be reunited as a family. Olga and her family have become very important to me.  I was delighted to meet them in Moscow during April of this year, my first “face-to-face” contact with my grandmother’s European past.

With the information I had now gathered, and a true name to use, I was able to approach the ITS again, and they provided me with Babcia’s insurance documents while she had worked on the farm. I was able to use these documents to determine her employer, and with the help and kindness of the local Mayor, contact was made with the current owners of the farm. As luck would have it, the farm had remained in the same family, the current owner having been just a young boy when Nina lived there.

So here I was in April with the Mayor, stepping back in time to 70 years ago. Walking the land where my Babcia had worked and lived for two years, hearing the history of the farm and the family who owned it. Drinking tea in the same house she had, listening to stories about how she was considered part of their family and the courtesies they had shown her despite the risks involved had they been reported. I was able to personally express my gratitude to the family who had cared for my grandmother when she was young during such a troubled time.

Without the time and dedication of the ITS and the Russian Red Cross, or the generosity and kindness of those who have helped me along the way, I would not have been able to re-trace the journey of my Babcia, linking long-lost family together, travelling her war and post war steps across Germany. It is an experience that has given my family, especially me and my mother, a deeper awareness of Nina’s life, the challenges she had faced, and the strength she had to survive.

Having dedicated many years into understanding her life, and its secrets, this was the ultimate opportunity to show that her sacrifices have not gone unnoticed and to ensure her story will be remembered for generations to come.   

Megan Ward, Australia