Story by Michelle McSweeney, SAF and International Services Manager, Chicago, IL and Sam Breslin, Intern, Chicago, IL
To lose contact with her closest family member Irene once was heartbreaking, but to lose contact twice - Mary thought ‘well maybe, she just didn’t want to be found.'
Mary Venus was born in 1943 in eastern Prussia during World War II. Conditions in her home country were difficult. Mary’s family faced constant discrimination following the end of WWII as the war-torn East Prussia was divided between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of Poland, and their family didn’t belong to either nationality or culture.
At the age of six, Mary and her family left on a ship to the United States after receiving sponsorship by a family in West Virginia. Unfortunately, the support was not enough. As a result of limited resources, the family could barely afford to eat and bed bugs were a constant problem - leading to the parents sleeping on chairs with the sisters in their arms. At the same time, Mary was often sick, suffering from tuberculosis. Eventually, the family moved to the Chicago area after receiving sponsorship from two women in Evanston.
Irena Gorski, Mary's cousin, was born in the late 50's in Poland. As a result of the infamous "Iron Curtain,” it took her family five years to return to Polish territory. During this time, Irena’s family eventually lost contact with Mary’s family in the United States. Over the next couple decades, Irena worked as a language teacher and nurse.
As only one (she thought) to have concern for her family in Europe, Mary initiated a tracing case with the American Red Cross in 1978 to find her cousin. Through the Red Cross, Irena was located and Mary flew over to meet her for the first time in decades. However, due to the political situation at the time, Mary was only able to visit with Irena in Russia, and could not visit her home town. But for the two, this was enough; it was enough to know that their desire for family connection was mutual and they had a tie both to their past, and to a future together.
Then in 2006, it happened again. The cousins both experienced a series of events that caused them to move homes and change their phones, and sadly, the only two living relatives from their family in East Prussia lost touch once more. Almost ten years later, after trying every method to locate her cousin on her own, Irena knew her next step - to reach out to the agency that helped her so long ago - and see if they could do it again.
So in November 2014, Mary initiated her second tracing case with the Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois. Fortunately the news was positive once more, and we had the pleasure of sharing with Mary that her cousin had been found, and she absolutely wanted to be in contact.
Mary often thinks back to the reconnection and believes that, “If it wasn’t for the Red Cross, I never would have found out where they were.” That very same day she received the call from the Red Cross, Mary told us that she had called Irene as soon as she hung up with caseworker Christa Kuntzelman and they proceeded to talk for hours, laughing, crying, and remembering.
The two already have a trip planned in July, where Mary and her husband will fly to Poland and stay with Irene’s family, and visit their former hometown. And to Mary’s surprise her grandchildren have all shown interest and pride in learning more about the family. When the time comes, Mary plans to take her grandchildren to Eastern Europe with her, where the history of Mary and Irene’s family, and their unwavering bond will be shared and remembered for generations to come.