Torn apart by war, reunited in aged care

Every now and again, a story comes by that makes staff stop and acknowledge just how rewarding it can be to work with older people. Vladimir’s story is just one of the many.

Above: Villa O’Neill resident, Vladmir

By Yasmin Noone

Every older person has a story. A few months ago, Vladimir – an 85 year old man of Estonian origin who lives at Villa O’Neill aged care facility in Melbourne – thought his story was already set in stone.

In 1949, Vladimir (also known as Bill) fled his homeland and a suppressed life under Russian occupation. He came to Australia on a ship called General Omar Bundy and started a new existence thinking that all his family were dead.

He thought his parents and siblings had all been killed, either in World War Two or at some point thereafter during the reign of terror imposed on Estonians by the KGB. Vladimir never married and did not have any children. He lived his life alone and in later years, developed dementia.

But a few months ago, 68 years after the assumed death of his brother, Vladimir’s life story was rewritten. A letter from the Australian Red Cross informed Vladimir that Bernhard (his brother) was still alive, living in Estonia, and had been searching for him for more than six years.

“It has been a very, very long time since I saw my brother,” Vladimir said.  “I am glad my brother survived the war, that’s the main thing.”

The Australian arm of the International Committee of the Red Cross had been contacted by the Estonian branch three years prior. Up until that point, Vladimir could not be found. The Australian Red Cross case manager had no leads and no luck. Villa O’Neill (a Villa Maria facility) was the last shot in the dark before the case was to be closed.

As the case worker for the International Tracing Service, Ivana De Masi-Chan said, it was an aged care contact in Melbourne that pointed her in Vladimir’s direction.

“A community contact [working in an aged care service] knew Bill was at Villa Maria,” De Masi-Chan said. “The good news came when we then followed through with the service.”

After Bill gave permission to accept contact from his long-lost brother, Ms De Masi-Chan went out to visit him.

“I said to Vladimir that his brother is alive and well, and that he had been looking for him for a long time. At first he was happy but it took him a little while to register the news as he couldn’t believe it. It was wonderful.”

Although it took Ms De Masi-Chan a long time to find Bill, she said, the team “didn’t give up”. “Vladimir was in his 20s when he left Estonia thinking his family was dead and he is now in his 80s.”

Ms De Masi-Chan said that although she remained objective throughout the whole process, she was touched by the reunion. “To be taken away from your family, to survive war, and who knows what he saw, and to have always wondered what happened to your family and 60 years later to be told your brother is alive, you can’t help but be affected.”

Staff at the Villa Maria facility where Vladimir lives are thrilled with the news. Lifestyle coordinator, Marie Ryan, said Bill became a very popular and much-loved resident when he moved in a year ago.

“We were thrilled for him because he is all by himself,” Ms Ryan said.

“He was under the assumption that his brother was dead. He was convinced that his whole family was dead. And the brother couldn’t get any information about whether Vladimir was alive, as back then – under the iron curtain – [the KGB or government] weren’t going to give defectors anything were they?”

Unfortunately due to Vladimir’s dementia it is still not known exactly how the brothers lost touch, except that their last contact was before he went off to fight with the German Armed Forces in 1944. Bill survived the war but in 1948, while Estonia was under Russian occupation, he was held in a camp of sorts. 

Ms Ryan said that, although Vladimir lives with dementia, at times he is still able to vividly recall life the Second World War and time thereafter.

She explained that when offering Vladimir choice of food at meal time, “…he says, ‘When you are on the Russian front, you eat what you get’.

“He will remember being in the army and being told not to be picky. We will say to him, ‘That doesn’t matter any more as you are not there now. Then he may say again, ‘When you are in the army you eat what you get’. He goes back and forth [with his memories].

“Vlad would’ve had it hard I think. He does remember Estonia, his brother and where the country’s capital, Tallinn is. He can remember all of that.

“He did understand that his brother is alive and that they had found him but he just couldn’t get past it. It was a complete and utter shock to him. [Knowledge] about his brother being alive comes and goes…It all depends when you catch him.

“He doesn’t cry. He’s obviously a tough old bird. He goes quiet. You can see he’s absolutely ticking over in this brain. He just sits there thinking. He just stares ahead and you know he is processing the news. 

“It’s a big thing, really and truly. I was sitting with him when the Red Cross [representatives] said his brother was alive. If you had seen his face you would know the news would have definitely meant something to him.”

Thanks to the Red Cross, the brothers have now starting to correspond. On June 6, Bernhard sent Bill a heartfelt letter, some photos of his family in Estonia – a wife, four children and seven grandchildren – and some black and white photos of the brothers playing together when they were children.

Ms Ryan read out parts of the letter received: “The first thing it says is ‘I haven’t heard anything from you in 68 years. Uncle George searched for you in the time of the Russian occupation but there were no results’.

“Then the letter goes on to say that his grandchildren got onto the internet and started searching for him around six to seven years ago. The only hint that he was still alive was information about an immigrant ship [which evacuated people from Estonia] called General Omar Bundy.

“The ship arrived in Australia in 1949. Then the family sent a request to the National Archive of Australia to get some records. These records contained information about his arrival to Melbourne in 1963 and his citizenship.

“Three years ago they made a request to the Estonian Red Cross to find him and finally, on 3 June, the brother got a reply. [The Australian Red Cross] sent a letter verifying that they had found him, that he was living.

“So now Vladimir has got himself a brother, sister-in-law, three nieces and a nephew.”

“For a man, he must have just felt so very alone…There is a degree of suspicion with Bill [because of his past]. He’s lived alone his whole life and chose to do that.”

The brothers plan to soon connect face-to-face via Skype and see each other for the first time in almost seven decades.

Ms De Masi-Chan said that, without the Red Cross’ links with people in the aged care sector, the brothers’ reunion would not have been possible.

“In fact what we would like is to build those links to be even stronger,” Ms De Masi-Chan said. “If we know someone is quite elderly and have a feeling they could be in a nursing home, it’s hard for us to know where to look…We are always interested in building stronger links with the [aged care sector].”

Over the past 12 months, the Australian Red Cross has established contact for 198 families. Currently it is working with 966 people to find family members around the world missing due to war, conflict or natural disaster. Many of these families are looking for around 4,000 missing relatives.

Ms De Masi-Chan asks that anyone in the aged care sector, who wants to help a resident/older person to get in touch with missing family, should contact the International Tracing Service in their state or territory. Click here for more information.

Tags: international-tracing-service, red-cross, villa-maria, villa-oneill,

5 thoughts on “Torn apart by war, reunited in aged care

  1. Fabulous stuff, I can’t wait to see a picture of the bother and hear how it goes

  2. Well presented story and great to hear good things still come true for the elderly.

  3. Wow! what a wonderful story. A real tear jurker!!! Hope it all works out for Bill and his brother.

  4. Such a message for all aged care staff… ‘Know your residents’… know their history and what is unresolved in thier lives……. such a lovely ending for Bill. How many others have been ‘lost’ in some way and how can we help find them

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