Susan looks at old family photographs in her home

© Sam Whitwham/British Red Cross

Susan knew very little about her dad, who disappeared at the end of the Second World War. When she started to look for him, over 50 years later, she found more than she could have ever imagined.

When Susan was a little girl, her favourite possession was a small sepia photograph of her father. The last time she’d seen him, she was just five months old.

Susan treasured this photo and the few facts she knew – but, as she got older, it wasn’t enough.

In the years that followed, terrible and traumatic life events would push Susan to look for the dad she’d never known.

She had no idea that the search would end up with her finding a whole new family.

Love in wartime

When Susan Grunwald-Barton, 68, tells us what she did know about her dad, it doesn’t sound like a lot.

Alfred Grunwald had met her mother, Olive, in London during the Second World War. Olive was a nurse and he was a driver with the Polish Free Army. They soon fell in love.

But when the war ended, the Polish Free Army disbanded. Alfred was sent back to Europe, with just 24 hours’ notice.

Topic off-limits

Growing up, Olive rarely spoke of Alfred. In fact, the subject was so taboo that Susan even suspected something sinister in her father’s past.

When Susan was ten, her mother remarried and then the subject became completely off-limits. Olive never spoke about him to anyone.

Meanwhile, Susan was beginning to doubt even the facts she knew. She craved more information – feeling a crucial piece of her identity was missing – but she didn’t feel she could ask any questions.

She tells us: “In the end I just put it to the back of my mind and got on with my life.”

‘Terrified of what I might find’

It was only in 1999, when Susan was 51 and grieving the death of her son Paul that she began to seriously consider tracking down her father.

Within months of Paul’s death, Susan’s husband, Dave, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He encouraged her to begin the search.

Susan explains: “I was terrified of what I might find, but I think Dave saw how important it was to me. He gave me the support I needed to start the process of learning about my family history.”

After carrying out their own unfruitful research, sifting through microfiche films at the library, Susan and Dave were finally put in touch with the British Red Cross.

No trace in Poland

Susan found out that the Red Cross’ international family tracing service helps restore contact between families separated by conflict, disaster or migration.

Susan thought that her own case would end up unresolved.

“I knew very little about my Dad – only a handful of facts – so my expectations of finding him were low,” she recalls.

“I told the Red Cross my father’s name, the town in Poland he was from, and his religion. That was all I had. After a while, I received a letter to say they had found no trace of my father in Poland – but they would begin a search in Germany.”

Emotional road trip

In the summer of 2001, as Dave’s health deteriorated, the couple decided to take a final holiday together.

They booked a coach trip to explore Poland – a way for Susan to accept her past and finally put the thought of finding her father to rest.

“Literally days before we were due to begin our holiday, I received a phone call from a person at the British Red Cross,” says Susan. “They said, ‘I just want to warn you that your brother is going to call’. I was shocked! I didn’t even know I had a brother.

“It was very emotional, but we arranged to meet in Germany when we passed through on our coach trip. A week later – coincidentally, on what would have been my father’s birthday – I sat in a lovely restaurant near Dresden with my half-brother Bruno and his family. They told me all about my dad.”

Uncertain times

Susan finally found out exactly what had happened all those years ago.

Alfred was separated from the family he already had in Poland, when Nazis occupied their hometown during the Second World War.

Alfred was forced to join the German army, while his family were sent to Germany.

After just a few months, the Allies captured Alfred. Able to prove his Polish nationality, he joined the Polish Free Army and was stationed in London – where he met Olive.

“My mother and father were living in uncertain times,” says Susan. “Alfred left Poland in ruins and had lost contact with his wife and children there. Then, later on, he was given 24 hours to leave Britain, with no idea where he would end up.

“It took Alfred six years to finally track down his Polish family in Germany, and I believe he did this with the help of the Red Cross.

“I found out that, sadly, he died in 1969.”

Strong connections

Ever since discovering these initial facts, Susan has found out so much more about her father.

“It’s little things, like how he liked to dance and play the accordion – those details are so important. I now have a family history that I can be proud of and pass onto my daughters.”

Susan also comments on the strong family resemblance, and many coincidences between their lives.

She says: “Both Bruno and I lived in yellow bungalows with similar carpets and sofas. My daughter, Lara, is a midwife and ballet dancer; Tanya – Elfriede’s granddaughter – is also a midwife and ballet dancer.

“There are so many examples that connect us.”

Susan: "I am now a whole person." © Sam Whitwham/British Red Cross

Susan: “I am now a whole person.” © Sam Whitwham/British Red Cross

‘Everything I ever wanted’

Since that first meeting, 14 years ago, the two families have been in regular contact. And it has changed Susan’s life in so many ways.

She tells us that she is now more confident and outspoken. After Dave’s death, she travelled alone to Germany to see her family – something she would never have dreamed of doing before.

Her half-brother and sister also came over for Dave’s funeral. She says that having this contact helped her cope with losing her first husband.

Susan says: “I am in touch with 17 relatives now. I’m so grateful to the Red Cross for finding my family.

“The doubt that I always felt growing up has gone. Meeting Bruno and Elfriede has laid a lot of ghosts to rest. I have grown in confidence and am now a whole person. And those connections are there for my children, Lara and Janina.

“I feel for those people who are still searching for their loved ones. My advice is to not give up. Keep trying. I feel like I’ve won a million pounds. I now have everything I ever wanted.”