The Lost Sisters:  Discovering Living Relatives of People in Old Photos

Bender, Melvin. "The Lost Sisters:  Discovering Living Relatives of People in Old Photos," Saamis Seeker Newsletter, February 2013, Volume 34, Number 1, 13-14.

Magdalena Vilhauer Family.
Jacob and Barbara (Lachenmaier) Diegel Family.
Matilda (Bitsch) Bröse.

Many family researchers have old photos of named/anonymous people. From relatives and my grandparents’ photograph album, I’ve collected some great pictures. Discovering more information about relatives in old pictures can be a challenge. It can also bring very rewarding results.

The Jacob & MagdalenaVilhauer photo was received from my dad’s cousin with a written note stating that this was the sister of my great grandmother, Elizabeth (Grosshans) Bender. The photograph indicated it had been taken in South Dakota. Census, ship, and naturalization records were helpful, but the best information came from a descendant of the family that I stumbled across, who was able to tell me that Magdalena Grosshans had been married three times. The Wishek News obituary for Magdalena Wöhl obtained from the newspaper collection at the State Archives, North Dakota Heritage Centre, Bismarck, North Dakota, listed her parents and a description of her life. Her daughter’s family was found in Canada. A 1923 Der Staats Anzeiger letter to the Wöhls written by my great grandparents, Christian and Elizabeth (Grosshans) Bender, described life in the couple’s village of Kassel, South Russia. The Germans from Russia Heritage Society (GRHS - has indexed GR letters published in German newspapers.

Looking at my grandparents’ photo album, I wonder how many distant relatives have similar albums holding pictures of my grandparents’ family.

A letter/photo to the GRHS Hoffnungstal Odessa SIG newsletter attracted my attention. The pictured lady was obviously Barbara (Lachenmaier) Diegel whose family photo I had. Walter Diegel, the letter writer and Barbara’s grandson, was contacted. He has shared a family history book, copies of photos, and names of many people in other pictures.

After my 2008 Journey to the Homeland: Germany and the Ukraine Tour directed by Michael M. Miller of NDSU Libraries, I stayed extra days in Germany to visit Walter and Gerda Diegel in Honhardt. It was really wonderful to visit relatives connected to an old photo.

EWZ (Einwanderungszentralstelle - Immigration Control Center) records have supplied some information on Diegel family members. GRHS and the Mennonite Historical Society of British Columbia have worked on indexing and making copies of these records available to researchers. Detailed online descriptions (EWZ) can be easily found. From 1939 to 1945, people of German roots attempting to resettle within German boundaries had to prove their German ethnic origin to EWZ authorities.
My grandparents had large oval portraits in metal frames; one was my grandfather’s young sister, Mathilda Bitsch. All that was known about Mathilda was that she had married a Bröse. A GCRA (Glückstal Colonies Research Association) listserve query resulted in my contacting Valentina Hausauer, whose husband, Helmut, is the grandson of Mathilda. In 2008 I also visited the Hausauers in Germany and met Helmut’s mother, Hilde (Bröse) Hausauer, Mathilda’s daughter, my grandfather’s niece!

Through e-mails, photos (one of Mathilda and her mother) and family history have been exchanged. The Bröse family’s EWZ50 records contain a Personalblatt that lists the couple’s parents and grandparents.

Magdalena Wagner is another of my grandfather’s sisters who remained behind in South Russia. Her EWZ50 record includes a three-page family history written by her describing the family line from Silesia to Russia and her family’s situation in Russia. Her daughter, Emilie, living in Germany visited our family some years ago.

From found German relatives and other resources, the lives of lost relatives pictured in old photos can be partially revealed. What has been most rewarding has been discovering that relatives survived the many hardships in Russia and that their descendants are now living comfortably in Germany.

Mel Bender and Walter Diegel – Germany.

EWZ Records – US National Archives has the microfilmed collection. Microfilm indexes and copies of records are available from societies/websites.
Websites – volhynia .com – description,,,,, – page examples,, and 8000/EWZ.html – description.
SGGEE (Society for German Genealogy in Eastern Europe) Journal – “How to Search and Understand the EWZ Records on the Odessa Library” – by Karl Krueger Vol. 10, No. 3
The very helpful EWZ50 records can contain a three-generation family tree, a life story written by the applicant, and other documents.
Naturalization Records – North Dakota Index –, South Dakota Index –
State Historical Society of North DakotaState Archives –

Printed with permission of the Saamis Seeker Newsletter.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller