Red Cross Reconnects Family Separated by the Cold War

Story by Bart Frank, Regional International Services Program Coordinator, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

In September 2015, the Oklahoma City chapter of the American Red Cross received a call from Linda*, asking for assistance to find her mother Anna’s missing brother in Germany. Anna fled East Germany as a young adult during the Cold War in the mid-1950s. She married an American and they settled in the United States. Anna’s last contact with her family in East Germany was in the mid-1960s by telephone when she was advised to no longer call. Anna is now experiencing early signs of dementia, and wished to find and visit with her brother Emmett before her health deteriorated further. 

As a part of the global Red Cross/Red Crescent network, the American Red Cross provides Restoring Family Links services, reconnecting families who have been separated internationally by conflict, disaster, migration and other humanitarian emergencies. Bart Frank, the International Services Program Coordinator in Oklahoma City, interviewed Linda who provided extensive details about her family’s past.

"Despite this wealth of information, the case was difficult from the outset given that over 50 years had elapsed since Anna's last contact with her brother Emmett, the eventual merging of East and West Germany, and the mobility of people over time,” said Dr. Frank. Always hopeful, the details were relayed from American Red Cross paid and volunteer staff to colleagues at the German Red Cross to search for Anna's long missing brother.  

The case was received by the German Red Cross at the same time they were responding to an influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa that kept Red Cross workers throughout Europe very busy. "In August 2016, we heard the first news that Red Cross workers had uncovered a lead about Anna and Emmett's parents from several local authorities," said Dr. Frank.  However, they had not been able to locate any living relatives. It was only later that we learned the search was further complicated because Emmett had changed his last name.

In February 2017, the German Red Cross located Emmett in a small village not far from where he and Anna attended high school. According to the German Red Cross, he was “positively surprised” when he learned of the search for him and could not wait to hear news from his relatives. He thought the mail was the best way to communicate since he did not speak English. The next day he called the German Red Cross and told them he found a neighbor to act as an interpreter and that he had already called his family in the United States. 

Linda told the American Red Cross how happy her family was to hear from her uncle. "We are now talking almost daily to each other", she said. "We are very grateful for all the help provided by the Red Cross, it is amazing what you all have achieved! The entire family is overjoyed by this reunion! We have exchanged pictures and text messages.  I have been able to translate through Google, and Emmett's daughter can write in English but not speak it very well. She said she will learn the English language again so we can speak. Our mission now is to save enough money to make a trip to Germany for them to meet again. We will continue to pray for that day!  Thank you from the entire family for making this reunion possible!" 

Every year, the Red Cross helps thousands of families reconnect with their loved ones. These services are free and confidential to use. Starting your search could be as easy as a phone call. If you or someone you know if searching for a loved one, please call our Helpline at 1-844-782-9441, or visit your local American Red Cross office.

*Pseudonyms are used in this story to respect the privacy of the family.