The KGB and the Iron Curtain: Solving a Decades-Old Family Mystery

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After countless attempts to locate his family members who disappeared in the former Soviet Union, Rani Markovich always assumed he would never be able to find his long-lost relatives. His grandfather had become separated from his brothers during the Iron Curtain-era, and all efforts to locate them had failed. Their tracks had disappeared.

Rani’s aunt, the only one who could shed some light on the family mystery, had developed Alzheimer’s and any information that she could have shared was no longer retrievable. Rani had reached a dead end.

All this changed when Rani’s brother saw an interview with Founder and CEO of MyHeritage, Gilad Japhet, about MyHeritage’s success in locating lost relatives. Rani was astounded to learn that the company was run by an old friend. He had been in touch with Gilad 30 years ago, and although the two had parted ways, they were once very good friends. Rani decided to go straight to the source, and he contacted Gilad on Facebook to ask for his help.

“I’d be happy if you could refer me to the relevant people in your company, that could, perhaps, pull a miracle and help me fulfill an old dream that always looked unattainable; find the lost family of my grandfather, may his memory be blessed, based on the tiny fragments of droplets of information in my possession.”

Rani wrote that he was aware that this research would be difficult, and almost impossible. What Rani didn’t know is that “impossible” is not in Gilad’s dictionary! This was exactly the type of challenge that Gilad could not resist. Gilad responded immediately and asked for more details. He said that there was no need to refer Rani to someone else in the company, that he would take on the research himself. From that point on, everything happened very quickly.

Rani began to tell Gilad all the family history that he knew — which at this point, was very little. Some 35 years ago, when he was a junior high school student, Rani worked on a family tree project in school. As part of the project, he recorded an interview with his grandfather Shabtai (Sheftel). Unfortunately, both the recording and the family tree were lost during a subsequent move.

Rani’s grandfather

Rani’s grandfather Shabtai (Sheftel) Baskin was born in Slutsk, Belarus. He was a Zionist activist who was arrested in the 1920s for prohibited Zionist activity and sent to a Gulag in the Ural Mountains. Upon his release, he was sent to Stalingrad and from there wandered to Nikopol, Ukraine. It was in Ukraine that his two daughters (Rani’s mother and aunt) were born.

When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, the family fled eastward. Rani’s grandfather was an avid radio user, and so he heard a report that Germans were killing Jews. As he traveled eastward, he and his family arrived in Armenia. At the end of the war, he decided to realize their Zionist vision and to immigrate to Israel.

Sheftel and his family faced a terrible tragedy after his son Zvi was killed a few weeks into the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, a short time after the family had immigrated to Israel. At that point, he changed his last name from Baskin to Beit-Zvi to honor his fallen son, Zvi.

Since losing touch with his family in the 1930s, Sheftel sought to find and to reunite with his brothers. Sheftel died in the 1980s never having located nor reuniting with his brothers. Rani wanted more than anything to honor his grandfather’s legacy by locating his lost family.

An unknown picture and an unknown name

Rani remembered an old family photograph with a woman and a child. His aunt told him that his grandfather had received the photo after the war from the widow of one of his brothers from the area of Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Rani and his family no longer had the photograph. It had been lost, along with the name of the woman and child.

Rani also noted that in 2003 he had visited Belarus and submitted an application to the archive to locate documents about his grandfather’s family. In one of the documents was the name of a woman named Polina Josipovna Baskina, although he didn’t remember what the context was or who she was.

Gilad set to work with the little information at his disposal and tried to locate Polina Josipovna Baskina in MyHeritage’s vast databases. The Baskina surname is a rare one, as is the first name Polina. The combination of the two names together is even rarer increasing the chances of finding them.

He wrote to Rani:

“The truth will come out soon. We have the potential for disappointment on the one hand or an emotional union on the other, and such family reunions give me the motivation to do the unusual things I do, like working on your research deep into the night.”

Lost and found

Gilad’s extensive search tackled the mystery from every angle possible, and it yielded an exciting gem. He found a reference to Sheftel Baskin in a book written by Prof. Ziva Galili on Zionist activity in Soviet Russia. Apparently (and to Rani’s great amazement) the Soviets had wanted so badly to get rid of Shabtai that they had granted him a rare visa to immigrate to Palestine. But news of this visa never reached him so he was unable to take advantage of it.

After contacting Galili for more information, she looked into her research materials for the book, and located a three-hour recording of an oral interview with Sheftel from 1966! Rani was able to get a copy and now has a rare recording of his grandfather interviewed more than 50 years ago, and telling the fascinating story of his life. The baby that can be heard crying in the background of the recording is Rani’s older brother!

The recording led Gilad to understand that he needed to locate Sheftel’s KGB records for more information since he had been interrogated by the KGB.

Gilad enlisted the help of Yuri Dorn, a professional genealogist in Belarus, who was asked by Gilad to search for relevant documents. Yuri plunged into the archives and soon managed to find some documents. Gilad was ecstatic to hear that Yuri also found the name of Rani’s grandfather’s brother, Boris. He even found Rani’s grandfather’s grandfather’s name and address where the family lived. The encouraging findings increased the chances of locating their living descendants.

Gilad wrote to Rani and asked to search for any document or family photo that could help. A week later, Rani was announced that his lost family tree school project had been found!

“I have good news! My parents found the family tree project that I prepared in childhood and also the recording of the interview with my grandfather 30 years ago.”

From the family tree project, it was possible to determine that the names of his grandfather’s brothers were Zvi (Hirsch), Pinchas and Boris. Pinchas had married a woman named Fania, and they had children.

Three months later, they received a real breakthrough. Yuri sent an email stating that he had found the details of Sheftel’s two brothers: Pinchas and Boris, including their addresses. Pinchas, according to the findings, had been deported to the Novosibirsk region. Boris had disappeared during his military service.

The most incredible finds, to which a power of attorney from Rani’s mother allowed access, were documents from Sheftel’s KGB file including rare photographs of him as a prisoner in the Gulag. Among the documents are the details of his arrest in May 1925, including photographs and documentation of his interrogation by the interrogator Andreyev. From early 1922 until 1923 he was a member of the illegal Zionist movement Kadima in Slutzk and was arrested for the third time in Grozobos in Slutsk.

A rare find: Rani’s grandfather’s KGB interrogation record (click to zoom)

The file contained Sheftel’s full testimony, in which he ostensibly admits everything in his possession, including materials printed in Hebrew. He had bravely refused to give the name and address of the man who handed him the materials. Handwritten Yiddish documents were also found in the raid.

The file also contained letters sent from Sheftel’s parents: “Your father went to Moscow today to apply for a lighter punishment because of the lung disease you suffer with from childhood,” the mother wrote to him. “Please write to us more often and take care of your health.” The father promised to do everything to release him: “I am sure that within a few months you will receive a pardon from your punishment. I will send you 10 rubles, please take care of your health.”

A few days later, Yuri told Gilad and Rani that they were close to solving the mystery.

“We caught a big fish in the net today. We found documents in St. Petersburg that Pinchas’s family, returned to Leningrad. In October 1944 his wife Faina and her two daughters, Galina and Tatiana, returned to St. Petersburg.”

He located Pinchas’ grave and found in the cemetery records that it was a woman named Galina Petrovna Linnik who had organized the burial. Galina’s address, which appeared in the cemetery records, was the same address as the one on the registration of an immigration card that Yuri had located. Gilad assumed that Galina was Pinchas’ daughter and that she may have emigrated to the United States or to Israel over the years.

Last seen in 1961, in St. Petersberg, Russia, Gilad wasn’t sure how he would manage to find Galina. He searched and was not able to locate her. He decided to try his luck on Facebook. Galina would be in her late 80s today, so it would indeed be a lucky find. Gilad typed in her name, and hundreds of Galina Linniks stared back at him, some in Russian, some in English. As only a stubborn genealogist would, Gilad painstakingly went through every single profile of women that would be in that age group, one by one, until — jackpot! He found an older-looking Galina Linnik from St. Petersberg, who now lives in Columbus, Indiana. When Gilad scrolled through her Facebook page, he saw that she mentioned names from the family that were familiar to him. He had successfully found the niece of Rani’s grandfather!

Galina Linnik’s Facebook Profile.

On November 9, Gilad told Rani that the search was over:

“We located your lost family. Galina and Tatiana did indeed leave Russia and emigrated to the United States. I found a woman named Galina Linnik on Facebook, who wrote that she was born in St. Petersburg and now lives in Columbus, Indiana. In another search I found a Tatiana who died in 2014. She has a son named Michael and a husband named Paul. Bingo! We found them in the US. Tatiana passed away but left behind a family, and Galina is still alive.”

An emotional reunion

Approximately six months after first asking his friend Gilad for help, Rani and his parents arrived at the MyHeritage offices for the first time to have a video call with their newfound family. Rani and his parents spoke with Galina, Pinchas’ daughter, and her son Paul. They exchanged stories and experiences.

The Israeli branch of the family went on to visit Galina in the United States. Watch their emotional reunion here:

Rani couldn’t believe what they had accomplished

“We did not imagine that it would be possible to find them after so many years of searching. But the unbelievable happened and we are sitting here talking to them.”

Rani views this photo, containing a photograph of his grandfather, and one of his grandfather’s brother Pinchas, as his victory photo. Rani wrote the following emotional words:

“I estimate that these two small oval photos were taken more or less at the same time, more than a century ago, in 1915. Since then, they have passed separately with their owners world wars, Bolshevik revolution, arrests, more arrests and deportations, a prolonged siege without mercy, severe hunger, disease, a communist iron curtain, a journey of wandering for the sake of immigration to Israel, wars of liberation and independence, bereavement and emigration to two different continents. Until they were united again into a common picture of victory”

For the first time since the family was separated in the 1930s, the Markovich family felt a sense of closure. Their story of separation and the decades-long mystery was finally put to rest.

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  • Susie Zada


    July 31, 2018

    What a magnificent heart-warming story – well done Gilad Japhet and MyHeritage

  • Nancy Cunningham


    August 20, 2018

    Wonderful story. A miracle!