Search for Siblings – Found in Russia: The Story Continues, Hope Fulfilled, Part 2

Tandberg, Kathy. "Search for Siblings – Found in Russia: The Story Continues, Hope Fulfilled, Part 2." Beulah Beacon, 3 November 2005, 6.

Valerie Ingram of Spokane, Wash., grew up looking at an old black and white photo of two children hanging on the wall of her childhood home. She had never met these children, nor played with them.

All she knew of the children was what she had been told – their names, Emma and Adolf, and they were her father, Michael Renner’s, first children who had been lost in Russia many years before.

Valerie Renner Ingram reunited recently at the local Germans from Russia meeting with many cousins from the area including Hazen resident Mel Beckler.

These lost children were assumed to have died during World War II, along with their mother. She knew by the look in her father’s eyes that he loved and missed these children very much. It was a thought that has never left her.

"As kids we asked Dad questions about them and he told us about them with tears in his eyes," Valerie said.

When Michael spoke of his first children he told them gently of how much he loved them, but of little else, leaving many unanswered questions in his children’s minds.

Valerie was raised in a loving home with five other siblings and her father and mother Angela Kiefel Renner. But Michael had always been quiet about his past life.

"He was a proud father, the best father. But he always made it clear to us he did not want the world to know he knew Russian (he wasn't Russian and would get really irritated if someone said he was) because he feared if they (the Russians) knew he was alive they would harm his family," Valerie said.

Because her father held his past life with Emma and Adolf secret in his heart, all Valerie knew of those siblings was their image. And she wanted to know more but didn’t intrude.

In 1992 one of her brothers decided to ask their aging father if they could search for Emma and Adolf. His request was met with an anger that shocked his grown children.

But the request must have laid heavy on Michael’s mind and a few days later, he called his children home.

No spouses, no grandchildren, not even his wife were allowed to hear what he had to say to his children. They sat before him waiting. And then their father, their hero, began to speak and didn’t stop for more than four hours as he opened his heart and told his story, his sad secret.

"He told us of life in Russia with his family. Drew us maps and showed us the family chutor (home). Then he told of his father’s arrest and death, of watching (the Russians) cut off all of his fingers, ears. How they burned him and poked his eyes out and then shot him in front of the villagers as an example," Valerie said.

Michael’s mother Barbara lived in fear of the Russian creed "Death to the cradle." Michael was the cradle of his family and so she sacrificed the ultimate mother’s sacrifice and sent her young son away with false documents (which made him 3 years older) to live with relatives.

Michael later wandered the countryside, on his own completely at the age of 19. He later married Leogadia Maier, the daughter of a German Russian and a Russian. They became parents of two children, Emma born in 1935 and Adolf, born in 1937.

Russia was in times of war and turmoil. Raids on German villages were increasing. German males were taken away from their homes and families by the truckloads.

Michael realized that for the safety of his family, they needed to leave the country. But his wife refused to leave her recently widowed mother. She believed that she and her children would be safe because of her Russian blood.

Michael left his home and family in 1941, finally arriving in Germany in 1944. He thought his family would one day follow and filed the appropriate documents that would allow them to enter Germany, but without further word.

He never saw or heard from them again. Trying to find them again would have put them in too much danger. His wife knew he was in Germany and was to try and come and find him but never did. So he assumed them to be arrested by the Russians and either taken to Siberia or killed.

A few years later, Michael moved on with his life and married Valerie’s mother. In 1952 Michael and Angela, already the parents of three sons, were airlifted out of Germany to the U.S. They moved to Solen, N.D. to make their home. It was there Valerie was born.

The family later moved to Spokane, Wash., had two more children and settled there for life.

After telling his sad story to his children he made them swear an oath not to search for their siblings until his death. He thought with him dead, the Russians would have no further interest in him. Sadly he died in 1995. He was 87.

Three months later the search began…

Valerie used whatever resources she could find, including records from the Germans from Russia organization with international headquarters in Bismarck, N.D. She began making phone calls and sending out letters to other researchers, looking for any Renner in the United States.

Valerie also posted inquires on the Internet on various sites. That led her to Michael Miller, an expert on Germans from Russia history and heritage with North Dakota State University in Fargo.

"My first reply was from Michael Miller," Valerie recalled.

Miller led Valerie to Dale Wahl and then she really got started. She ended up connecting with many cousins over the Internet. Together with new-found cousin Al Berger, she built a database for Catholic families from the villages of Speier and Sulz, where the family had once lived, and soon added more villages.

Valerie continued her search and it was in 1998 that she sent a letter to the Landsmannschaft in Germany, asking for their help in locating her lost siblings. She never received a reply, but tried again, this time sending information from her father’s EWZ documents (with German Russian information, names, dates, marriages, births, villages) enclosing copies verifying that he did leave his children behind and that he had made it into Germany.

A reply came in December from a man named Peter Mock who had read of her plight. Peter lived in Canada at that time, and had gone to Germany to visit his grandmother. While there he saw the query posted in "Volk Aug Dem Weg" and told Valerie when he returned to Canada.

A month later she received a letter from Germany that was written in Russian. After having it translated, she learned that the letter was from a first cousin, Selestina Renner Rau.

Rau, who had been born in the same village of Speier, was the daughter of her father’s half brother, Peter. While she did not know of the lost siblings, she wrote of the fate of the rest of Michael’s family after he had been sent away as a child of 10 with false papers.

"They (Michael’s family and mother) had been arrested and taken off to the labor camps in Kazakhstan in 1939, along with my grandmother. Finally I knew the fate of my grandmother, Barbara Bernhardt Maier Renner, whom my father had last seen in 1923," Valerie said sadly.

Michael’s mother had died on the march due to Siberia and was buried in the woods along the way. Like Valerie and her family searching for Emma and Adolf, Rau and her family knew nothing of Michael and his life after he left home at age 10. The search was a blessing two-fold.

Valerie continued her search, attending the 2002 Germans from Russia convention in Bismarck where she spoke with her cousin, Vera Hoff. Hoff had recently toured the Ukraine and convinced Valerie she should go as well to continue her search.

The trip was planned for September 2003 with Robert Schneider LLC Tours. Val’s cousin David Kilwien would travel with her. The tour schedule included the Catholic villages in Beresan, to see where Valerie’s father had gone to school, to church, to walk the same streets where her grandfather was murdered so many years ago.

Valerie had indicated to Schneider that she needed to visit all the Catholic villages, explaining why.

"I couldn’t go all the way to Ukraine and not check where I thought my siblings may have lived. I needed proof that they had once lived so I could put them to rest in my mind," Valerie said.

Schneider sent the list of villages and information on to Valentina Fromm of the Ukraine. Fromm worked with his tour company in Europe. Fromm volunteered her services as a researcher to see if any member of the Renner family could be found still living in the area.

Valerie was on the Internet in January 2003 doing her morning email when she opened a message from Fromm.

Fromm has sent the information from Valerie to the German Society in Nikolaev Region. She then looked through all information that was found and a miracle occurred.

Valerie scrolled down in the email and read the next line in shock.

"I have found your brother and sister!"

Emma and Adolf were both alive and living in Russia! Her trip to Russia would be more than a search. The lost was now found!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Look for the third and final story of Valerie’s reunion with her lost siblings in "Lost in Russia" in next week’s issue.

Reprinted with permission of the Beulah Beacon.

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