International Tracing Service: finding one’s identity – after 66 years
“I’ve finally found peace of mind … what I feel is extreme relief.” 69-year-old George Jaunzemis sums up his feelings. He never knew who his mother was, what his real name was or where he was born – questions the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen has now answered. The turmoil of post-war Europe separated George from his mother at the age of 4. In May 2011, he met his relatives for the first time and visited Magdeburg, his place of birth.
George grew up with Anna Jaunzemis in New Zealand – a woman who posed as his mother, but never was. “I have always had my doubts about her,” relates Jaunzemis. “She just didn’t behave like a mother. She was fairly cold, never gave me a hug. And whenever I reproached her for not caring about me, she got angry.” Anna, a Latvian by birth, avoided talking about the past in general and the Second World War in particular. “Whenever I asked after our family, her only answer was: ‘They are all dead.’” She told him his father had been a submarine officer.
In reality George was born in Magdeburg on 18 October 1941 under the name of Peter Thomas. His mother Gertrud had fallen in love with Belgian prisoner of war Albert van der Velde, a forced labourer at the railway post office in Magdeburg. Immediately after the end of the war, on 22 May 1945, the two were married at the registry office in Magdeburg’s old city centre. Albert accepted Peter as his son and the family left for Belgium.
But as a German citizen, Gertrud had no entry permit. She was held in an internment camp for three months. Mother and son were separated, with four-year-old Peter being placed in a camp for displaced persons.
Anna Rausis, a 46-year-old Latvian, took care of the child in the camp and named him George. Following an odyssey through various displaced persons’ camps in Lübeck and Munich, Anna boarded the “Dundalk Bay” with the boy on 20 May 1949, emigrating to New Zealand via Italy. She changed her name first to Rause and later to Jaunzemis. Albert and Gertrud van der Velde spent years searching for their lost son – in vain. The Allies took part in the search for the child at the time – as evidenced by the 150-page child tracing file preserved in the ITS archives.
My search went round in circles
Not knowing his origins plagued him throughout his childhood, Jaunzemis remembers. “Other children all had their families. But I had nobody I could turn to. A life without family roots is a lonely and unhappy life.” After Anna’s death in 1978 he started to search for his origins, starting in New Zealand. “I wanted to have a look at our immigration papers,” recalls Jaunzemis. “But I was given no information.”
Contact with Latvia brought a first breakthrough. “I went to Latvia for the first time in 1997. My search was made harder by only knowing the name Jaunzemis, not Rause. Finally, I found out that Anna had left Latvia in October 1944 – alone.” Accordingly, there were no papers regarding the birth of a “George Jaunzemis” in Riga in November 1941. “I’d always presumed that I was one of the 300 orphans aboard ship that was leaving for Germany at the time,” relates Jaunzemis. “It gave me a shock to realize that all my theories were wrong.”
In 2000 Jaunzemis moved to Latvia where he had met the woman who became his wife. He intensified his search, but “for seven long years my investigations went round in circles. I began to think that nothing would come of them. The ITS was my last resort.” He wrote to the ITS in October 2009. After one and a half years, the ITS was able to establish the true identity of George Jaunzemis alias Peter Thomas, and find his next-of-kin, with the help of Magdeburg city authorities and the Latvian and Belgian Red Cross Societies. “At first I thought all this was impossible. But then everything fell into place. The documents from the ITS, the records I already had … each piece fitted in with the others. What I feel is extreme relief, because I’d always been haunted by the question as to who my parents were.”
Jaunzemis visits Magdeburg, his place of birth
Sadly, the house in Magdeburg where he was born no longer exists, but the mayor invited him to a reception. “It’s very emotional,” says Jaunzemis. “I’m happy to have a family, but it still feels strange and unreal. So much time has simply been lost.” During a one-week trip to Germany in May 2011, the New Zealander (who now also has Latvian nationality) met two cousins in Magdeburg and a nephew in Berlin. “The meeting with the son of my sister was a real highlight,” reports Jaunzemis enthusiastically. “He always knew there was an uncle somewhere. When I arrived, the first thing he did was hug me. I almost burst into tears. There was so much support and help, so much understanding. And there was no distance between us, even at the beginning.” Jaunzemis learned that his sister Gerda had asked the Red Cross of the former East Germany to initiate a search for him. But she could only give them the name Peter Thomas, so the search was unsuccessful, all the more so as East and West Germany were still separated at the time. Gerda, who had been left with their joint grandparents in Magdeburg in 1945, died in January 2007.
Jaunzemis’ mother Gertrud died in Belgium in April 2009 – six months before Peter asked the ITS for help. Her husband Albert is now 90 and lives in a home for the elderly in Belgium. “He doesn’t want to talk to me. He asked others to tell me that he feels sorry for me,” says Jaunzemis. “He’s kept the location of my mother’s grave a secret from the German family.” Another riddle that the ITS will try to solve. “All this comes as a big surprise to us,” says Peter’s cousin Joachim Sumpmann from Magdeburg. “After all, our family used to think that Peter had died.” The family has exchanged photos with him and completed their family tree in the light of the new knowledge. “We’re delighted that events have taken this course,” says Sumpmann.
“The Air Force gave me a sense of community”
Jaunzemis himself can only speculate as to why Anna kidnapped him. “One thing is clear: she never wanted to give me up,” he recalls. Between 1949 and 1952 he and Anna lived in Wellington, before moving to Christchurch. “I think she was illiterate,” says Jaunzemis. “She never married and always worked as a housekeeper, cook or factory worker. She never learned English properly and had enormous difficulties in adjusting to life in New Zealand.” In 1952, the boy was taken into care temporarily because she had neglected him.
When George finished school in 1967 he left home to join the Royal New Zealand Air Force as an aircraft fitter. “The Air Force gave me a sense of community. My relationship with Anna became more and more aloof over time.” Jaunzemis remained with the Air Force until his retirement, spending the last years of his career working at the museum he had helped to set up. “My feelings towards Anna are mixed now. I’m trying hard to understand her. Sometimes I hate her, sometimes I don’t. After all, she was the one who raised me somehow. But when I look back, I can’t see any closeness, any real relationship.”