I’ve mentioned the International Tracing Service (ITS) numerous times, as a key resource to finding out information about WW2-era Latvian emigrants who spent the post-war years in Displaced Persons (DP) camps in Western Europe. Despite their important activities, I rarely see them get a mention anywhere.

Until now! This news article, which I first saw in a local newspaper last week, highlights the important work they do – and even has a Latvian connection! [Update November 2011: Original link is dead, but you can read the same story here.]

“Peter Jaunzemis went by the name George for more than six decades, but always wondered whether the Latvian refugee who brought him to New Zealand and raised him there was really his mother…. Jaunzemis recently discovered his true identity through the help of the International Tracing Service, ITS, in the central German town of Bad Arolsen, some 66 years since he was spirited away from a displaced persons camp in Belgium. He visited the archive Thursday to view his original file.

For more than a decade, Jaunzemis sought to trace his Latvian family roots, searching first through archives in New Zealand, where he grew up and served 27 years in the air force, then in Latvia, where he moved in 2000 after marrying his wife. He found nothing, not even a birth certificate.”

Sometimes documents disappear – I have yet to be able to find my maternal grandmother’s birth certificate, even though I have for certain when and where she was born and baptized, since her older sister was there and able to verify to me the time and place of birth – but finding absolutely nothing regarding one’s existence? This can be indicative of something that hadn’t been considered before – that the name you’re looking for isn’t actually the right one. This was the case here – and finding the right one brought a whole host of previously unknown information, including living relatives – a tangible link to a past previously unknown.

“Margret Schlenke, who heads the ITS department for missing persons, immediately found a file for Jaunzemis. But it also held another name, Peter van de Velde — a boy with the same birthdate as Jaunzemis who had been removed from his mother at a DP camp in Belgium in June 1945.

The file, stuffed with more than 150 tattered, yellowing pages, contained old photos and letters from Jaunzemis’ natural mother, Gertrud van de Velde, who for years sought for her son. She died in Brussels in 2009, months before he first wrote to the ITS.

Nevertheless Jaunzemis, who now goes by Peter, said he is relieved to finally know who he is and that he has family, a nephew and a cousin in the eastern German city of Magdeburg, where he was born.

‘I am at peace with myself now,’ he said. ‘Before I felt that I was something that had dropped out of the sky.'”

Finding connections to the world around you, about your and your family’s place in history and how life moved from point A to point B and onwards, is, in my opinion, what genealogy and seeking your family history is all about. Adding names to your family database has little meaning if you don’t know the stories behind those names, and how they came to be there.

There may always be unanswered questions – but some questions will have answers, if you know where to look. And everyone with WW2-era Latvian emigrant ancestors should look at the ITS. Even if you already know when and from where your family came, there is always the potential to find out new information about their lives and families, and what brought them to this place in their lives.

Dates and places are handy reference points for charting an ancestor’s life – but in the end, that’s all they are. Points of reference along a line of one person’s experience, but the stories to be found in between – what brought them to these pivotal places and dates? What kind of feelings could they have had about these life moments? Did they see them coming, or were they surprises? How did they react when their world was turned upside down and everything they knew vanished? How did they make the choice to trek across a continent in the middle of a war, hoping that peace would be on the other side? What did they give up and leave behind to do so?

We may not be able to get direct answers to these questions. But by conducting fuller research into our ancestors’ lives, going beyond the basic statistics, we can begin to grasp their motivations, hopes and dreams, and begin to understand the choices that they made.

Importance of the ITS
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