05/05/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT
After his grandmother Emily Ahearn died in 1976, Bob Linehan discovered among her belongings a packet of letters, postcards and photographs tied with a blue satin ribbon. The papers told a heart-wrenching tale: the quest of Emily and her sister Blanche—both of whom left Prague for America at the outset of World War II—to find their third sister, Lebuse, who had disappeared during the war. "I knew there was a story in there," says Linehan, 38, a Bethesda, Md., computer programmer. Nearly two decades later, while studying for a graduate degree in art, he decided to tell it—on CD-ROM. Lebuse's Letters, which Linehan submitted as his thesis in 1994, won a slew of software-industry awards, but he couldn't find a publisher. In January he began selling the disc via a Web site (www.coremax.com). The CD-ROM reproduces messages to and from diplomats, Linehan's family members, the Red Cross—and, more than a decade after the war, a few smuggled messages from Lebuse herself, who had been taken to a work camp in Siberia by the Soviet liberating forces. Despite the American sisters' efforts to secure permission for Lebuse to leave Russia, the Iron Curtain proved impenetrable, and she died in 1970 without seeing them again. Mixed in with the letters are an evocative assortment of family memories: photos, drawings, home movies, even Lebuse's wedding announcement and Emily's recipe for knaydl. The events unfold gradually as users browse through the documents, none in chronological order. "You're reading these letters as I read them," says Linehan. "This is a real story."