Reconnecting History with the Present: A Day in the Life of a Restoring Family Links Case

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Story by Jessica Murison, American Red Cross Volunteer, Denver, Colorado

While the world stood together to remember the persons lost and those who survived Auschwitz during International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the American Red Cross was busy tracing leads on an inquiry we received from a woman in Denver. Although each case is unique – there is no such thing as a “typical” case – we wanted to share this story as an illustration of how the Red Cross works to reconnect families separated by conflict, disaster, migration, and other humanitarian emergencies.

The Restoring Family Links program is extensive, and it is a complex process to obtain the right combination of information needed to reconnect families who have often been separated across years and thousands of miles. In this particular case, an elderly Russian woman hand-wrote a letter to the Red Cross Mile High Chapter, inquiring about her brother who went missing during World War II. Robbe Sokolove, a Red Cross Restoring Family Links volunteer caseworker, got the letter translated from Russian to English and then met with the woman to collect additional information that would be helpful for the Red Cross to start searching for the long-lost relatives.

During this interview, Robbe found that the woman’s brother was married and had a child.  So, she opened three cases: one for the woman’s brother, another for his wife, and the last for his child. The inquirer explained that her brother was a shoe salesman, and left for work one day and was never seen again. Robbe asked her to point on a map where she thinks he may have gone missing, as she vaguely remembered his driving route. Her brother was Jewish, so she believes that he may have been taken or perhaps perished in a bombing raid that occurred around that time. 

Tim and Robbe of the Restoring Family Links Team go over the case prior to delivering the documentation.

Tim and Robbe of the Restoring Family Links Team go over the case prior to delivering the documentation.

Robbe submitted an official family tracing case through the American Red Cross. Once a tracing case is initiated, the inquiry is forwarded to national Red Cross societies in the countries where the missing person was last seen and/or where he or she may have relocated. This case was also forwarded to the International Tracing Services, an international tracing office that specializes in cases that have a tie to the Holocaust.

In January, the American Red Cross received information from the Russian Red Cross regarding the Russian woman’s sister-in-law and niece. It was only one small, initial clue towards the broader puzzle: a record that the sister-in-law had been evacuated during WWII. Members of the Restoring Family Links team then set out to deliver the message by hand to the woman.

The message was written in Russian, therefore the team knew a general idea of what the form contained but was not privy to the full content. “With WWII cases, we deliver each individual piece of information as it comes along, because many of the inquirers are elderly and it can be a lengthy investigative process to track down the whereabouts of someone who disappeared so long ago,” explained Tim Bothe, who oversees the Restoring Family Links program in Colorado.

Jon Dillon prepares to deliver the documentation to the client.

Jon Dillon prepares to deliver the documentation to the client.

When the Restoring Family Links team arrived at the adult day care center in Denver where the Russian woman spends many of her days, the woman seemed anxious and excited, and reached out to read the international tracing message immediately, trying to make sense of the information. Jon Dillon, Caseworker and Outreach Associate for Restoring Family Links at American Red Cross National Headquarters, patiently explained in English that it was only preliminary information, and that as the Red Cross continued to find clues to the mystery of her brother and his family, they would continue to deliver each article of news, piece by piece.

There are several obstacles that can occur within a case. First, language is often an issue. Many people seeking to reconnect with their families abroad are refugees learning English as a second language. This barrier is always a consideration for Restoring Family Links staff, and they utilize all the tools available to them to be able to communicate effectively with our clients. In this case, Jon communicated with the woman through the assistance of Russian-speaking staff at the day care center.

Managing expectations can also be an issue, as locating missing family members can be a long process. Months can pass as Red Cross workers in far distant countries and here in the US exhaust all possible measures to find information on the whereabouts of missing family. Tim Bothe explained that Red Cross caseworkers seek to update clients on a regular basis after the case is initiated, even if no new information has been found, to reassure the client that the case is still open.

When information is found, caseworkers usually deliver the updates in person. Sometimes, unfortunately, there just isn't enough information or the trail has gone cold, and a case hits a dead end. But in many cases, Restoring Family Links efforts result in reconnecting long-lost family members – or, at the very least, uncovering new information that helps the seeking family member gain peace of mind about where their loved one went after the separation.

After Jon was finished speaking with the Russian woman, she seemed grateful and thanked him for delivering the news to her. The case is not solved yet, but the information given to her provides comfort that the Red Cross is moving forward, making progress and will continue to trace family links until all measures have been exhausted.  

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