Restoring Family Links program helps bring closure and healing

When Cristina Austin asked for the Canadian Red Cross’ assistance in January 2020, she had just one question: “What happened to my grandfather?”
A man in WW2 uniform in a black and white photo
Klaus Schumacher in uniform during the Second World War

Klaus Schumacher had served in the German army at the Russian Front during the Second World War and was last seen by his family in May 1944.

His only surviving child, Cristina’s mother, Hildegard Patricia, has spent a lifetime waiting and wondering about her father.
A first generation Canadian, born to German immigrants who arrived in Montreal in the early 1960s, Cristina was inspired to look into her family history for many reasons.
“My parents were children of war, born at the very beginning of World War II, in Germany,” she explains. “Both were impacted by their respective childhood experiences. My mother lost both parents as a child. My father’s family fled but was able to stay together.”

Exploring a family history of inherited trauma

Over the years, Cristina was able to piece together some details, but still had many unanswered questions about her maternal grandparents, and especially her missing grandfather.
She had also decided to write a memoir about inherited trauma, a reality for generations of people who have experienced loss. In particular, she wanted to examine the legacy of war on the next generation.
A blurred image of an old diary
Klaus’ diary revealed his opposition to the Nazi war efforts.
“I only ever met one set of grandparents. If I look at the photos of each set, those of my mother’s parents stop at black and white images. All I knew about my maternal grandfather, Klaus, was that he resisted joining the Wehrmacht because he was opposed to the Nazis.”

She continues, “There came a point when he had no choice to serve in the army, otherwise his family would be further imperiled. He joined in 1943, at age 43, as a foot soldier. He refused any promotion on principle - he didn’t want to support the Nazi cause in any way.”
Klaus left behind a valuable written record that would become a family heirloom and the last tangible item that his family could cling to.

“I have his diary from the 10-month journey,” Cristina reveals. “In it, he wrote that he knew he was marching to his own death. He left his diary at home, on a leave. One month later he disappeared. Attempts to find him, the last in 1968, turned up nothing certain.”
The Schumacher family was tormented by his disappearance, especially his daughter, Patricia. 

“His missing in action (MIA) status haunted my mother,” Cristina admits. “In the 70s and 80s, she wondered if he could still be alive, a prisoner of war. While my maternal grandmother had a grave to which I’d bring flowers on trips to Germany, this grandfather was never laid to rest – there were no answers.”

Reconnecting families

Cristina turned to her local Red Cross in Toronto, where she and her family now live. She had heard about a track and trace service and had been redirected to the Canadian Red Cross after first approaching the German Red Cross.
A black and white photo of a man holding a young girl
Klaus and Patricia in Germany

She was connected with Radmila Rokvic-Pilipovic, a Canadian Red Cross Restoring Family Links manager, who was able to assist her with the search for her grandfather Klaus.
“The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is the largest humanitarian network in the world. It has a responsibility to reduce the distress of families separated because of armed conflict or other situations of violence, migration or natural disaster,” Radmila explains.

“The Canadian Red Cross supports this mandate by providing several services to the public through the Restoring Family Links Program,” she says. “It helps prevent family separation and disappearance of persons, to restore and maintain contact between family members, and to contribute to clarifying the fate of persons who are reported missing.”


Restoring Family Links

The Restoring Family Links team offers services including:
  • Confirming if a loved one has been detained
  • Sending a message to a loved one where postal service or other means of communication have been disrupted due to conflict, disasters or emergencies
  • Making health and welfare inquiries when communication is affected due to an illness, to obtain a Health and Welfare report on the physical wellness of loved ones living in another country.
  • Providing official documents such as school records and birth certificates to minors, or family members in conflict areas, through the ICRC network.
  • Supporting Second World War missing persons inquiries - the Red Cross can attempt to obtain documents related to deportation, detention, internment, and forced labour during WWII.
  • Connecting people with other trusted agencies and service providers that may be able to help them find family whenever a request is beyond the Red Cross’ scope of work.

Tracing a loved one missing in Second World War

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement ensures humanitarian protection and assistance for victims of war and other situations of violence, migration or disaster.
“The Movement has a worldwide Family Links Network that consists of the International Committee of the Red Cross’ Central Tracing Agency, its delegations and 192 National Societies,” Radmila explains.
“This worldwide network applies the same principles and working methods in every country where need arise, regardless of the legal status of those concerned,” she adds. “Through this single network, the Canadian Red Cross can assist people in need, which includes carrying out Restoring Family Links activities.”
A black and white photo of a man clipped to a file folder
Historical files with photo of Klaus Schumacher provided by the German Red Cross Central Archives.

Waiting for news from the past

Radmila helpfully connected Cristina with the Family Links Network, noting, “People have the right to know what has happened to their missing relatives. Many people go missing in war, causing anguish and uncertainty for their families and the Red Cross, through its Family Links Network, can attempt to obtain documents related to deportation, detention, internment or forced labour, to help clarify a person’s fate.”
Then, on an early October day, when the report was received from the German Red Cross, she immediately sent the details to the eager family.

Reading the details over and over, Cristina focused on this excerpt as she processed the news:

“Klaus Schumacher was almost certainly killed between June 20 and 30, 1944 near Witebsk. Unfortunately, there are still no recent reports available concerning the whereabouts of Klaus Schumacher. Re-evaluations of our databases and documents were negative. Those prisoners of war files we have received from Russian central archives since the 1990s hold no information about Klaus Schumacher, either, although we considered all possible spellings of his name. He belongs to those people who are still unaccounted for.”

Cristina explains, “While the day of his death couldn’t be specified, a 10-day range was given as well as a location, in Belarus. He fell at the Eastern Front. Since the last search in the late 60s, the Red Cross had new databases to query, in partnership with Russia. This database access was a development that became available only in the last 30 years. It was the missing piece we had searched so long for.”

But that wasn’t the last chapter of discovery.
A handwritten note on the back on a photo
Klaus’ signature on the back of his wartime photo was a poignant gift to his family, over 75 years later.

“Early last February, I received a follow-up correspondence from Radmila, with more to share with my family,” Cristina notes. “It was an original document including the file photograph kept by the authorities – with my grandfather's own signature on the back.”
She continues, “While our family already had a copy of that same photo, we were stunned to receive the one with his own signature on it, as well as the details of where he fell, marked on it posthumously.”
“It was especially moving to receive a document he had touched with his own hands before his disappearance,” Cristina says.

A family’s closure

A young woman leans her head towards an older woman
Cristina and Patricia have found closure thanks to Restoring Family Links tracing.
When first setting on out this quest, Cristina had dearly hoped her efforts and those of the Red Cross would bring healing to her mother, Klaus's only surviving child.

The impact that the Red Cross’ findings have had was powerful, she says.

“I had the privilege of presenting my 81-year-old mother with the fate of her beloved father. My mom was so moved when I shared the news with her. For 18 years, she has slept with her father's war time diary in a bedside drawer. She was finally able to read it for the first time. It's brought her such closure, and as a result, to me too.”

Cristina adds, “I can only hope others taking this journey to find lost loved ones will find out about this incredible service, offered for free by the Red Cross. Their findings have been life changing for our family – it’s brought us peace.”

If you are trying to locate a missing loved one and want to initiate a tracing request, or want to learn more about the Restoring Family Links Program and its services, please contact us.
Related stories:

See your impact in action.

Sign up to receive impact updates from the Canadian Red Cross, inspirational stories from the field and be the first to hear about emergency relief efforts.

The Canadian Red Cross takes your privacy seriously. We do not distribute or sell your email address to anyone. View our privacy policy.

Blog Archives