Twins Reconnected by Red Cross Reunite in Poland

Twin brothers, George Skrzynecky and Lucjan Poznanski, were separated shortly after birth following World War II. After nearly seven decades, the Red Cross was able to reconnect them. Then, late this summer, they were able to reunite in Poland. Their story highlights how easily families are separated by crisis, the pain caused by this separation, and the relief and joy experienced when reconnection occurs. In the video below, George and Lucjan meet for the first time in 68 years.

For more information on the reconnecting families work of the Red Cross, please visit redcross.org/reconnectingfamilies.

Finding New Family: Red Cross Clarifies the Fate of Loved Ones Separated by World War II

Immediately following World War II, the Red Cross began clarifying the fate and whereabouts of loved ones for separated families.

Immediately following World War II, the Red Cross began clarifying the fate and whereabouts of loved ones for separated families.

Story by Robert Pollock, Volunteer, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Millions of families were separated during World War II, whether as a consequence of Nazi concentration camps or other displacements caused by war. Since the end of the conflict, the Red Cross Movement has played an integral role in reconnecting families and helping individuals learn the fate of their loved ones. Despite the long stretches of distance and time, this work continues today.

In June 2015, the American Red Cross received a request from the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Germany to clarify the fate of Mr. L. Gralski who was born in Poland in the early 1900s. The Inquirer, Mr. Gralski’s son, currently resides in Poland and wanted to learn more about what happened to his father following World War II.

Mr. Gralski had been drafted into the army in 1943 and was sent to the front. He never returned home.

The family in Poland received two letters from Mr. Gralski after the war.  The first letter came from a Polish Displaced Persons camp in Bavaria. The second and final letter indicated that he had met and married a woman with whom he had fathered a daughter. And that was all the information the family knew.

Through research done by the International Tracing Service, the American Red Cross learned that the new family subsequently immigrated to the United States, where Mr. Gralski lived until his death in 1984. This information allowed us to easily locate Mr. Gralski’s daughter, as the family was still living in the same residence in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

We reached the daughter via telephone.  As is common in cases such as this, she had doubts about our legitimacy.  We were able to persuade her that we really were the American Red Cross and that the detailed information we had gathered was all publicly available. The second hurdle for her was to come to terms with the fact that her now deceased father had another family prior to WWII, as he had never spoken of them.

Once she confirmed the accuracy of our information and verified her identity, we sent some documentation concerning her father’s life and that of his family’s prior to the war.

After reading over the documents and coming to terms with this new family history, she turned to a previously known family relative still in Poland, requesting that he reach out to this “new” family. He did, and subsequently, the daughter spoke directly to the son’s family via telephone and exchanged e-mail addresses.

Mr. Gralski’s daughter has traveled to Poland on a number of occasions in the past and may eventually return there to meet the new-found relatives.

As this story proves, it is never too late to reconnect with family or learn the fate of your loved ones. The first step is as simple as contacting your local Red Cross. To find your local chapter, please click here. You can also learn more about the reconnecting families work of the Red Cross and start your search online by visiting redcross.org/reconnectingfamilies.

Discovering the Fate of his Father: Mike Piorkowski's Quest of 60 Years

Photograph of Mike Piorkowski and his father, Stanislaw.

Photograph of Mike Piorkowski and his father, Stanislaw.

Story by Hank Bernstein, Red Cross Volunteer, Northern New Jersey 

Mike’s story began in August 1944 when he was just 14 and he and his father, Stanislaw, were seized by the German army. “I was in an underground bomb shelter protecting us from Russian shelling in my home town of Kregi, Poland when I saw my father being taken by the Germans. I raced out to try to rescue him, but was captured instead.” Thus began an eight-month nightmare of forced marches, packed railroad cattle cars, slave labor, little rest or sleep and near starvation conditions.

Finally, in April of 1945, as their German captors were retreating from the advancing American troops, Mike and his father escaped -- but not before being nearly gunned-down by the Allies, shot at by the Germans and attacked with scalding water by a German civilian!

At the end of WWII, Germany was divided into four occupation zones by the Allied Powers for administrative purposes.

At the end of WWII, Germany was divided into four occupation zones by the Allied Powers for administrative purposes.

Though father and son were now free, this was not to be an entirely happy ending. Just after Germany surrendered, Mike’s father became sick and Mike took him to a hospital in Halberstadt, Germany, which was, at that point, in a British Zone. Several weeks later, when the area was designated as a Russian Zone, Mike was evacuated from Schoningen, the village where he and his father had escaped, to the Delingson Displaced Persons Camp in the British Designated Occupation Zone, some 100km from Halberstadt. He never saw his father again.

“My father and I overcame terrible conditions together for eight months. We were made to travel from Kregi, Poland to Halberstadt, Germany, with many detours along the way. During that time we were forced to walk for 600 km, just to be separated forever at the end of the war.”

In 1951, Mike’s mother contacted the Red Cross in Holland requesting that they try to locate his father. Mike tried to complete the questionnaire, but all that he could tell them was that he had seen his father in a hospital in Halberstadt three days before he was evacuated. Unfortunately, this was not enough, as the hospital was in the Russian zone and information was not being released. In 1956, Stanislaw Piorkowski was officially declared missing.

“Though only 15 at the time, I feel guilty that I could not help him… It has weighed heavily on my conscience.” For 69 years Mike has wondered what happened to his father. Did he recover? Was he imprisoned? Did he live or die?

In September of 2013, while writing a summary for his son and grandson of what had happened those many years ago, he decided to try one more time. “I felt I was getting old. I had to do something.” So, Mike called the Red Cross of Northern New Jersey. He reached Terri Illes, the region’s International Services manager, asking her if, after all this time, the Red Cross might be able to help him in his quest to learn of his father’s fate. Terri forwarded Mike’s request to her volunteer assistant for Restoring Family Links, Hank Bernstein, and thus began the Red Cross’ search.

“I called Mike,” said Hank, “and he related his harrowing experience during the war, the long march and the separation from his father. I then drafted the Tracing Request, with the support of Leslie Cartier, a virtual volunteer with National Headquarters, and submitted the inquiry. The request was then forwarded to the International Tracing Service and to our Red Cross partners in Poland and Germany. I told Mr. Piorkowski that his case was in progress and while we were hopeful, it was possible that the search would not bear fruit. Mike was, nevertheless grateful for our willingness to try.”

Every successful reconnection is made possible through the work and dedication of Red Cross staff and volunteers around the globe. This is a picture of American Red Cross and German Red Cross staff and volunteers during a trip to discuss casework.

Every successful reconnection is made possible through the work and dedication of Red Cross staff and volunteers around the globe. This is a picture of American Red Cross and German Red Cross staff and volunteers during a trip to discuss casework.

Several months passed and then in March of 2014, great news - a notification from the German Red Cross. They had determined when and where Mr. Piorkowski had died - in July of 1945, in the hospital in Halberstadt where Mike had taken him, just three months after he last saw him. They had even obtained a copy of the death certificate. Hank delivered this to Mike who was tremendously grateful for the news and the efforts of the Red Cross.

But the story doesn't end here. While talking with Hank, Mike mentioned, in an off-hand way, that he would have liked to know where his father might be buried. So, Hank had a thought, might the German Red Cross conduct a search of cemeteries in Halberstadt to see if Mr. Piorkowski's father was buried in one of them? National agreed and forwarded this new request to the German Red Cross.

Mike Piorkowski's father's gravesite

Mike Piorkowski's father's gravesite

And in July, the response came. Not only had our German counterparts found the grave site, but they took a picture of it! And in September, the final piece of the puzzle, the cause of death, sepsis, was identified. Information from the International Tracing Service and Polish Red Cross confirmed much of the above.

Mike shared the sense of closure that came with the results. “After 60 years my mission is accomplished. Now my heart is at peace knowing where my father is buried. .. Finally, I know the cause of his death. Once more, thank you very much. Great job! Sincerely, Mieczyslaw Piorkowski.”

“Not every case turns out this well,” remarked Hank. “It is very gratifying when we can deliver such important and comforting news to a Client.”

Uncovering What One's Family History Can Mean

Story by Connecticut and Rhode Island Region

April 16, 2015 is Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. In honor of this day, take a moment to reflect on its meaning and the work of the American Red Cross to help victims of the Holocaust and their families.

On June 6, 1944, Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy, and attacked Adolf Hitler’s forces. Thousands of American, British, and Canadian troops lost their lives in the intense fighting, but eventually the Allied forces won the battle. This marked a turning point in World War II, putting a crack in Hitler’s control of France. One year later, the Germans would surrender, ending the war in Europe and putting an end to the Holocaust.

When remembering the Holocaust this month and the millions who lost their lives, let’s take a moment to also remember how the Red Cross has helped the world heal from this tragedy. The American Red Cross has been providing tracing services for victims of WWII and the Nazi regime since 1939. Following the release of WWII documents to the Red Cross in 1989, the American Red Cross opened its Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Center in Baltimore, Maryland in 1990 to facilitate Holocaust Tracing requests. Since then, the American Red Cross has helped more than 45,000 families locate or find information about people separated by the Holocaust.

While the American Red Cross Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Center closed in 2012, all WWII related casework continues through the Restoring Family Links Program at American Red Cross national headquarters in Washington, DC. The program helps search for missing family members as well as obtain documentation on the wartime and post-wartime experiences of family members. This service is not for genealogical traces, but may be done on behalf of family members with direct ties to victims of World War II and the Holocaust.

Georgia Hunter's Story

For Georgia Hunter, finding out about her unusual family history began when she was given a homework assignment by a high school English teacher. The assignment was to do an “I-Search” to look back at her ancestry.  Her mother suggested she begin her search by speaking with her grandmother. Little did Georgia know what that conversation would reveal.

Georgia’s grandfather had recently died and the story her grandmother began to share was not something she had ever imagined. She learned that her grandfather was both Polish and Jewish, not something she remembered having heard before. She was struck by how difficult his life had been. Georgia’s grandmother encouraged her to speak to her grandfather’s siblings to find more pieces of the story.

Her interest was sparked well beyond that high school project and in 2000, when Georgia was a new college graduate, she found herself at a family reunion attended by all of her grandfather’s siblings, her grandmother and various cousins and relatives she had not met before. She recalls sitting at the table listening to snippets of stories about her grandfather and the other siblings and how they survived the war with determination, courage, cleverness and amazing good fortune. It is a story that spans five continents and has many twists and turns.

Georgia continued to collect family stories, traveling many miles to put them all together. She found the memories had holes here and there; understandably after all the time that had passed, many details are fuzzy and pieces forgotten. On behalf of her grandfather's siblings, she decided to also reach out to the Red Cross to see what information they may be able to provide.

Georgia contacted the Red Cross by mail in 2011, in hopes of tracking down family records. Though several years passed, in 2014, an envelope filled with documents arrived at the local Red Cross office in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Georgia received a call from a Restoring Family Links caseworker in Connecticut and soon received the records sent by the Polish Red Cross.

Left to right: Jan Radke, Senior Director of Military and International Services at the American Red Cross Connecticut and Rhode Island Region with Georgia Hunter holding family documentation provided by the Restoring Family Links program.

Left to right: Jan Radke, Senior Director of Military and International Services at the American Red Cross Connecticut and Rhode Island Region with Georgia Hunter holding family documentation provided by the Restoring Family Links program.

The documents included birth certificates from a Registry Office in Radom (the family’s hometown in Poland); applications for identification cards during Radom’s Nazi occupation, marked with the seal of the Supreme Council of Elders of the Jewish Population; and a record of a sibling registered as a survivor in 1946 with the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. These records, from all over Poland, not just the family’s hometown of Radom, provide a few more pieces of history, forgotten no longer,  now documented, tangible.

There are fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors left to tell their stories so now is the time to preserve the memories and encourage anyone who does not know the fate of their loved ones because of the Holocaust to initiate a case through the American Red Cross. The American Red Cross Restoring Family Links program provides tracing services for Holocaust survivors and their families, working to provide hope, information and answers. Family tracing services are free of charge. For more information contact your local Red Cross at 1-800-REDCROSS or start your trace online.

After 60 Years a Family Reconnects with the Help of the Red Cross

Story by Erica Viviani, Communications Specialist, Princeton, New Jersey

At the onset of World War II, Michael Chudik left Poland for the United States. As the war continued, battles between Nazi and Soviet forces destroyed the village of Smereczne that Michael’s family, including his brother Nicolas, called home. Many villagers were relocated to Ukraine as part of an exchange of populations between the Soviet Union and Poland.

For more than 60 years, attempts made by Michael’s family in the United States to locate their relatives in Ukraine were unsuccessful until Michael’s daughter Dorothy and her cousin John sought the help of the American Red Cross.

“The American Red Cross helps families who have lost touch or have become disconnected because of natural disasters or war or other kinds of conflicts,” said Hank Bernstein, the Restoring Family Links volunteer caseworker who worked on Dorothy and John’s case. “In those situations, one of the great emotional issues that people face is the loss of contact with their relatives. The Red Cross provides a service to link them together.”

Bernstein worked with Red Cross Restoring Family Links colleagues at the International Committee of the Red Cross to attempt to locate Dorothy and John’s family. After several months, the Red Cross found Dorothy’s cousin Ivanna and her granddaughter Viktoriya in the Ukraine.

“Hank called me and said ‘We got a connection,’” Dorothy recalled. “And goodness, it was the greatest thing that anyone could have ever told me.”

In February, Bernstein set up a Skype call to connect Dorothy in New Jersey and John in Wisconsin with their family in Ukraine. With the help of a volunteer translator arranged by Red Cross of Northern New Jersey Board Vice Chair Ed Susco, Dorothy and John were able to see and communicate with the family they had been unable to reach for decades.

During the call, the family was able to share photographs and help fill in the missing pieces of their family tree. Dorothy was relieved to find out that her father’s family was alive and well.

“To know they are fine and living and have children and grandchildren is just great. It really is wonderful,” she said. “I am so grateful to the Red Cross - extremely grateful.”

Bernstein was happy he could help bring the family back together through the Red Cross Restoring Family Links service.

“It’s a very rewarding experience,” he said. “It’s been very meaningful to me to help do something to help others.”