Woman Tells how she Found Lost Siblings

"Woman Tells how she Found Lost Siblings." Bismarck Tribune, 23 July 2004, sec. 1B & 2B.

Valerie Ingram talks to a group gathered for the Germans from Russia Heritage Society Convention in Bismarck on Thursday.
Valerie Ingram grew up with a photo on the wall of siblings she had never met. She could put names to the faces of her half-brother and half-sister, but no one in the family knew if they were even alive.

In 194l, Ingram's father, Michael Renner, fled the Ukraine as the Bolsheviks were taking over and Germans were being persecuted. Renner had suffered because of his German roots ever since he saw his father tortured and killed when he was 10 years old.

When Renner fled the Ukraine, he left a wife and two children, hoping they would be able to join him in Germany. That hope never turned into reality. The family was split, with the lives of the family members taking two very different paths.

Renner remarried in Germany and started a family. Soon they moved to Solen, where Ingram was born, and then to Spokane, Washington. Back in the Ukraine, Renner's first wife, Lyuba, and children Adolf and Emma lived a hard life, ostracized because they were German. The children grew up believing their father had died in the war.

No one was willing to help the German family, and the mother was forbidden even to scrounge for leftover grain in a harvested field. The family faced starvation and the children were put into foster care at one point rather than starve to death.

In 1990, when Renner thought he might die soon after a fall that injured his head, his children asked if they could search for their half-siblings in the Ukraine. He angrily forbade his children from searching until he had died. Three days later he called all of them together, telling them not to bring their spouses or children.

Renner explained that the Soviet Government had worked by the creed "death to the cradle." Since his father had been executed, he would have been executed as well had his mother not doctored his birth certificate and sent him to live with relatives. Renner still feared the former Soviet government would track him down and persecute his family. He told his children they would have his full blessing to search for their brother and sister after he died.

After Renner's death in 1995, Ingram and her siblings began their search. She joined the Germans from Russia Heritage Society and began piecing together her family tree. For seven years, Ingram compared family trees and searched immigration documents, but could find neither a record of the town they supposedly lived in nor records of the brother and sister being alive.

In 2003, Ingram decided to visit the Ukraine on a group tour.

"I couldn't go all the way to Ukraine and not look in these villages to see if my brother and sister were still there," she said.

Valentina Fromm, a woman involved with the tour, began looking for Ingram's siblings in towns where they might have lived. Finally, Fromm located a phone book for Kramatorsk, a town not found on maps, and found Ingram's half-brother listed. Fromm called, and after confirming the names of Adolf's relatives and comparing pictures, Ingram had found her siblings.

The families on both sides of the Atlantic were overwhelmed with excitement at having located their relatives, but Ingram's oldest brother feared it might be a scam and needed proof. He asked Ingram to have the people who might be their half siblings spit in a bottle when she went to the Ukraine so they could do DNA testing. However, the resemblance of Adolf to their father when they received pictures was so strong that all doubts vanished.

When Ingram and some of her siblings were united with their brother and sister in the Ukraine, it was six days of feasting, heart-to-heart talks through a translator and interviews with local media. Adolf had the same mannerisms of his father--his smile, the tilt of his head, the way he spread his hands wide when he talked. Ingram and her siblings taught him to say "Okie dokie" just like their father had said.

The local museum kept asking to meet with Ingram and her group until Emma's daughter, Sveta, put a stop to the persistent requests.

"She said, 'No more museum stuff, no more concerts, no more expeditions. This is my family and I want to get to know them,'" Ingram said.

When it came time for Ingram and her group to leave, everyone said tearful good-byes and her relatives told her about a Ukrainian custom that when a family member leaves, no work is done until they hear the person arrived at their destination safely.

When Ingram arrived home she received a frantic phone call from her half-sister. They had discovered Adolf's phone had been tapped the entire time the family was visiting and feared for their safety.

Since the visit, Ingram's half-sister, Emma, and her daughter, Sveta, have started the process to emigrate to the United States. However, they have run into problems and it will be three to five years before Emma can emigrate and eight to ten years before Sveta can emigrate.

"With a few hundred prayers, we will have them here," Ingram said. "Miracles do happen and we have hope."

Ingram is telling her story, "Lost in Russia," at the Germans from Russia Heritage Society's 34th annual convention at the Ramkota Hotel Best Western in Bismarck. She will present her story and slide show at 9 a.m. today and 1:15 p.m. Saturday. The convention runs through Sunday.

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.

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