Thursday, Feb 29, 2024

Back to Your Roots

In terms of reliability, the field is genealogy hovers somewhere between a used-car salesman and a Nigerian politician. The joke of the rabbi willing to grant someone kehunah in exchange for a donation is funny, but genealogy websites that can give you any number of yichus plums for a subscription fee are commonplace.

Then there is Stanley Diamond. The founder of — JRI standing for Jewish Records Indexing — has been a fount of knowledge about the ancestors of the millions of descendants of Polish Jews who are spread around the world today. I reached him just after he celebrated his 90th birthday with a virtual party thrown by the army of volunteers who power his non-profit organization.

JRI-Poland was founded in 1995 after Diamond, then a retired business executive living in Montreal, began researching his genetic makeup to the origins of the genetic trait he carries. He is married to the former Ruth Mirjam Peerlkamp of Amsterdam, a survivor of the Dutch Holocaust.

The group is funded by suggested donations from people who were helped by it. Records found in the JRI-Poland database, for example, helped confirm Polish-born Yisroel Kristal’s status as the world’s oldest living man in 2016.

The interview took a dramatic turn in the middle when we discovered that we were… Or just read it to find out.

Diamond’s Hebrew name is Sholem Mendel, a name combo of his two grandfathers.

“You know what they told me in cheder?” he said. “That there’s no such name as Sholem Mendel; you have to pick one or the other. So they called me Sholem.”

But you picked Stanley.

(Laughs) Yes.

Let me preface this interview by saying that I may not be as articulate as I’d like to be at this time of night, but I never go to bed before 12:30, or 1 o’clock because JRI-Poland is a 24/7 activity. There’s always something going on. There’s always something new — new messages, new people, new discoveries, new, new, new, new. So life is very busy for me.

Is there a certain time zone that you aim to be in sync with?

No. At 12:30 AM I could be getting emails from Israel, Australia, and already from Poland. The morning is not as critical. Plus, I have to get some sleep.

The field of genealogy has exploded in the past couple of years, since Covid. I guess people were stuck at home, and genealogy is something that is time intensive so people started researching their family history. How long have you been into this?

First of all, I’m going to send you an article that appeared in the Harvard Business School alumni magazine this month, in which I am featured with four other people. I’m a graduate of Harvard Business School, and that article talks about the business of genealogy.

But to answer your question, I was in Oman — I spent ten years traveling in the Arab world and no one knew I was Jewish, from 1975 to 1984 — when I learned from my wife that my nephew, who was also at Harvard Business School 20 years after me, learned that he carried a genetic trait called beta thalassemia. Unlike Tay-Sachs, Gaucher’s and familial dysautonomia, beta thalassemia was almost unknown in Ashkenazic populations.

This was a shock. The doctors in Montreal, when they heard this, did a complete work-up at the Jewish General Hospital on all my family. We discovered that all four of my father’s children carried the trait and that my father was the carrier. We didn’t know where it came from. Ultimately, we have been able to trace the trait back to 1760, but that’s not the important part. The important part was because Ashkenazim weren’t thinking of beta thalassemia as the cause for mild chronic anemia, there’s the danger of two carriers marrying. You know it in the Orthodox community, that’s why people are tested for Tay-Sachs.

But what was interesting from my point of view is that among Italians, one out of 25 people carry the trait. And you may not be aware of it, but in the non-Orthodox communities in the United States, the extent of marriage between Italians and Jews is amazing. There are Italians in every branch of my family. So since Italians carry the trait, it was very important for me to find and warn members of my family who I knew, and those I have yet to find, that if they are diagnosed as being mildly chronically anemic, then their future generations might be at risk.

This was the driving force behind why I became involved in genealogy.

Before you go back on a tangent, I want to ask you, are Jews genetically related to Italians, or are specifically Ashkenazi Jews related to Italians?

Ashkenazi Jews are not related to Italians. It has nothing to do with relationships. It is just that beta thalassemia was called Mediterranean anemia because of the frequency of carriers in  Greek, Italian, Iraqi, Iranian, and Persian populations. The trait is known to have some protection against malaria.

So how did I get into this? Basically, when I retired from business, I decided that, well, now is the time to find and warn members of my family. Now, in order to do that, I needed the records in Poland, because the records in Poland that had been microfilmed by the Mormons didn’t go far enough. So I was on the phone calling people with my family name all over the world. Not the name Diamond, but the name Widelitz (Widelec in Poland), which was my paternal grandmother’s name, and she was the carrier of the trait.

In order to do this, I needed the records. I needed to build a family tree. So I ended up going to Poland and indexing all the records for my town, Ostrów Mazowiecka. And when I was finished, I went back to Poland and presented the printout of the database to the director of the Polish State Archives. He was amazed, because in February 1996, when I was there the second time, the Polish State Archives did not have one computer and they had never seen a computerized database of their records. So it blew him away. And he said, “I wasn’t expecting this, Mr. Diamond, this is something.”

You have to know my business career to know that when somebody opens up the door, as the director did, I jump in. There was recently a tribute to me for my 90th birthday, and Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, spoke. He said, “Stanley would never take no for an answer. If one door was closed, he would go through the other door. And if both doors were closed, Stanley would go through the window.”

You seem to have quite a nice Yiddish.

I don’t speak Yiddish, but I grew up with two Yiddish-speaking parents, both born in North America — my mother in New York, my father in Montreal — and their first language was Yiddish. So when they didn’t want the kinder to understand they spoke Yiddish. But we picked up ah bissel here and ah bissel there.

Once we had indexed my town, the head of the archive said, “Well, let’s start small and see what happens.” So what did I do? I picked the next town over where I knew from my research that I had relatives, in Wyszków (pronounced in Yiddish as Vishkova). We started in February 1996; by July 1997, I signed a 10-year agreement with the Polish State Archives.

Being a businessman by training, I ran JRI-Poland like a business. Today, we’ve got close to 7 million records in our database with 6.5 million searchable online. We have a board of 15. We have an executive committee of eight. We have a couple hundred volunteers, and these are volunteers, I must tell you, who wear JRI-Poland on their lapel. It’s in their heart. It’s in their kishkes, the importance of what we do.

I’ll give you an example that will speak to you particularly. Two months ago, I got an email from a lady in Paris, and she says, “I’m getting married, and in order to get married in the synagogue, the rabbi says I have to prove that my mother was Jewish.” She was an assimilated lady in Paris marrying an Orthodox man. She said she needed her mother’s birth record.

We were able to provide it like that (snaps his fingers). But here’s the important thing. That record is not online because we’ve done massive scanning and indexing of records that we can’t put online because they are not funded. So we tell people, you want your family records from Lublin? Then you have to make a qualifying contribution to help us pay for the work that we’ve already done.

You will say to me, why do you spend the money in advance? The answer is that the only way we can create a list of surnames of families that lived in that town is by doing the work in advance. So, if you write me and say, “Sholem, my family came from Kalisz, and I want the records from Kalisz. What do you have?” I say, “Well, the records up to 1903 are on our website but they’re not fully extracted — it only gives the name of the boy or the girl, but it doesn’t have the mother and father.”

But we’ve already spent $8,000 adding the mothers and fathers, and now we need to collect the money. So if you make a $200 donation, we’ll send you a file with all this information. Why do we need to spend so much money, you might ask. It’s very simple. The records in Poland from 1868 to 1915 are in Russian, written in Cyrillic. We can’t use Russians to work on those records because Russians don’t know the Polish spelling. They will write Goldstein instead of Goldsztejn, the way it’s written in Polish.

Another reason is they don’t know Polish geography. They don’t know the way you spell Działoszyce (pronounced dgalo-sheetsa). And if you look at the way it is spelled, transliterated from Russian to English, you can’t even recognize the town name. So that’s why we need to pay Polish people who know Russian and who’ve become experts. These are contractors; we pay them between 40 and 50 cents per line of information — or a birth and a death. But a marriage, as you may know, takes two people, right? So there are two lines and it costs 80 cents to a dollar per name.

This is the model that we use. We also have a motto. And that motto is that every record counts. Let me give you an example. I got an email from a man by the name of Harvey. He says, “My family came from the same town as yours. I see that on JRI-Poland, you’re the town leader.” I’ve basically retained management over the records for my town and the nearby towns, since I know them so well. And I work with a group of colleagues who share the same roots.

He said, “I need my mother’s birth record and my grandparents’ marriage record to apply for a Polish passport. I’m very worried about what’s happening in the United States, in politics, etc.” And I must tell you, he ran for the political office in his area. He wasn’t nominated but he ran, so he knows something about it. So I said, “Okay, I will look at our data. We have 30,000 vital records — birth, marriage, and death — and we have the house-by-house census records, with all the family on one page. I found your grandparents’ birth records in my town, in our town, Ostrów Mazowiecka. But I don’t find their…”

Ostrów Mazowiecka? That’s my grandparents’ town.

Hamdolillah! Boruch Hashem!

My grandfather was born in Ostrów Mazowiecka.

What’s his name?

Yerachmiel Donn, but his original name was Domb.

Guess what? I have Domb family.

I can’t believe this. Don’t tell me that we’re cousins.

My great-aunt married Avram Itzhak Domb. They ended up in Savannah and Atlanta, Georgia.

But Domb is an adjectival name meaning oak; it’s like Smith. You know what? If you’re lucky, I’ll give you your ancestry back to 1725.

Researching my family has been a brick wall for me.

Not anymore, my friend. You know what? This is bashert.

I heard you say Wysków before, and I was thinking, “Wysków, I’m familiar with that city.”

Of course. Wysków is halfway between Warsaw and Ostrów Mazowiecka.

My grandfather’s mother had a sister who lived there.

(It took a while, but Stanley was able to add another generation of ancestors of mine, though it stopped over there. So call this a rewarding interview.)

Anyways, back to Harvey. He says, “My grandparents were in Warsaw when they got married, and my mother was born in Warsaw.” I said, “Oy gevalt, not good.” Why? Because none of the records from Warsaw survived after 1918. But then I started thinking. I said, “They may have been living in Warsaw, but they may still have been permanent residents in Ostrów Mazowiecka. And Polish law says that you could live someplace, but still be a permanent resident of another place. You could get your permanent residence changed, but it’s a little bit of tzuris. Let’s look at the books of residence.”

There are two sets of books of residents in Ostrów Mazowiecka. One is from 1885 to 1931, and the other is from 1932 to 1939. So I looked at the first set — I don’t want to divert, but we were the first ones ever to index these books. The head of the Polish State Archives said in 2000, “For your genetic research, Mr. Diamond, we will microfilm those records for you.”

I found his mother’s parents family pages, but only with their years of birth. There’s no separate page with them being married. So I look at the second group, and it was a miracle. I told Harvey, “I pulled a rabbit out of a hat.” All we had was the index to these books; we were not allowed to scan them because there were still many records covered by Polish privacy laws —births less than 100-years old. But the archives allowed us to sit there with a team of five people and to write out the index. And lo and behold, I see his grandmother, his grandfather, and his mother, but just the index.

So I called our representative, Krzysztof Malczewski, and asked him to call the director of the Pulltusk Archives — that’s where the books are – and ask to take a photograph with his phone. I don’t need anything official. What did it show? His mother and his grandparents had moved back from Warsaw to Ostrów Mazowiecka in 1932. It showed that they were married in Warsaw and it showed that his mother was born in Warsaw and her date of birth.

This replaced the vital records that he needed to get a Polish passport. So I introduced him to an expert in Melbourne, Australia, who does these applications. Three months ago, he got his Polish passport, and he donated $20,000 to JRI-Poland. That’s a mentsch.

There are the mitzvos we are able to do.

I’ll give you another one. Robert Lebowitz in New York has been volunteering for an organization that is giving face to the fallen — the men and women who died in Israel’s war of 1948. All they have is the name of the person; they don’t know who the father is, the mother is, and they want to put on the matzeivahben who” or “bas who.”

Robert came to JRI-Poland about two months ago, and said that he is also helping people who were in Polish ghettos get restitution from the Polish government. He says, “We have not been able to find any information on where this 99-year-old woman was in a ghetto.” I provided it like that (snaps his fingers).

This is a database that’s not on the Internet, and only two copies of that database exist. It was a miracle for them. So, if you start adding up these mitzvos that we are able to do with our data, aside from the fact of somebody like yourself saying, “Oh my G-d, I’m going to learn my ancestry.” So you’re a witness.

We began the interview discussing how the field of genealogy has exploded in the past couple of years. Do you see this in your work too? Do you see a greater interest over the past year or two?

You have to understand the different reasons why. First of all, why do people get involved? Well, obviously, during the pandemic it was something that enabled people to fill their time. That was very key. The other thing is the fact that the big aggregators, such as Ancestry and MyHeritage, realized that this was a business and that they could make money by scanning and providing records.

The whole field goes back to the Mormons. It is important for Mormons to trace their ancestry since they believe that they take their ancestors to heaven with them, so you’ll have to find out who your ancestors were. That was a key factor that opened up the door for widespread genealogical research.

What we see in business is that everything is incremental, that everything starts someplace. And when it came to Poland, there was this meshugene Stanley Diamond in Montreal who had a reason to create a database. We were the first indexing project to record Jewish records of Eastern Europe, the first global project to do this. Then others said, “Hey, if JRI-Poland can do it, why can’t we?”

You have to remember, not everybody is interested in their family history. There has to be a reason why. One is to keep busy in retirement. We always wanted to be a detective when we were kids. And this is a way of living out your dream of being a detective because you’re constantly putting clues together to come up with answers and to come up with alternative ways of searching. And the good genealogists, the professionals, have learned to tap into everything.

Another very important reason is a spark — a photograph. Who is in this photograph? Who are these people? I want to know. This man looks like me. Or there is an old letter that somebody finds.

Or, as in the case of Amy Degan in Massachusetts. She and my daughter arrived at my house 15 years ago, and she said, “I know you’re into genealogy, maybe you can help me. I have seven postcards that were written from Bialystok to my family at the start of the war, before the Americans entered the war. But they’re all in Yiddish. What do they say?”

I told her to post them online. The translated the postcards were like magic — she found relatives in Australia, in Mexico, because they mentioned names. And we had the data from Bialystok to be able to help her create a family tree.

What was even more remarkable is that Amy’s husband, Josh, is a landscape contractor in Massachusetts. You may not remember, but something like 10 years ago there was a massive snowstorm in Massachusetts. The snow was piled a mile high and it kept on coming for days. When you’re a landscape contractor and you charge by the load, he likely made more money in one year than he normally made in five.

He and his wife used the opportunity to go to Bialystok, and they started fixing the cemetery, turning up the stones. They now go every year and do this mitzvah of keeping up the Bialystok cemetery.

So it starts with postcards, and then it explodes into something so much more. Just like it started with me finding out that I’m anemic and bingo, all of a sudden something else happened. It’s a journey, and it starts for many people in many different ways. We talk about photographs, we talk about old letters, and old letters are really important. People say, “You know, there’s a whole pile of letters that I inherited from my mother that are written in Polish; I don’t know what they are.”

They may also come across records in their mother’s safety deposit box, such an old kesubah. Who did it belong to? The kesubah that I have for my parents is the only place that I’ve seen showing that my grandfather Sholem had a middle name Yitzchok; it’s not even on his matzeivah.

We say in JRI-Poland, “Every record counts.” Every record is a piece of your family history. So putting all these records together helps you figure stuff out.

These are all the challenges that come to a genealogist’s desk. As my wife says, “Genealogy is the most fun you can have sitting down.” She’s a very funny lady.

Another reason why we do genealogy is that we make new friends and acquaintances. I mean, I traveled around the world on business to 45 or 50 different countries. Yes, it was nice to see something in Hong Kong, Malaysia or South Africa, but making friends with people is much more meaningful. So if you ask who my friends are, they are our volunteers and supporters around the world. It becomes a family of researchers.

Between you and me, there are people who are schnorrers, there are people who are nasty, there are people whom you love, and others you would prefer not to communicate with again. But it’s all part of this genealogical experience.

For Jews, there’s this defining urge to know who was my family, did anybody perish? I want to know. This is particularly true of children of survivors whose parents would not say anything. Why? Because they knew the moment they started talking about their fathers and mothers and siblings, they would start losing sleep at night. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t slept at night thinking of what’s going on in Israel now. It’s horrible. It’s hard to sleep. Can you imagine if you were in a camp and you survived four years in Auschwitz and you saw all these people dying? How it gets into your head and you thank G-d when you’re able to forget about it, and then you get reminded because your granddaughter innocently says, “Who was your father?”

These are all part of the genealogical equation, if you will. What makes a good leader for JRI-Poland is somebody who is even more passionate than the casual researcher; who spends the time to learn about the records.

Jews have a unique source of information — the matzeivah. It has the father’s name. That is such a key for research. It’s how I made a major breakthrough at the Waldheim cemetery in Chicago. These are the kinds of sources that make Jewish genealogy different.

There are also the bris records, particularly here in Montreal where we got the mohel records from Rabbi Colton, Rabbi Shapiro and others.

Depending on which town and which country, there are unique records in each town, such as school records and army draft records. There are a variety of records that helped to create the genealogical research picture. In order to model that, you have to ask questions to the right people.

I want to ask you another question but this might be a different field than yours. You deal with more recent genealogy, but a lot of people are fascinated by ancient genealogy, what we call yichus. People like to say, “I am descended from Rashi or the Maharal.” I assume that’s a totally different field than what you deal with.

No, not at all. It’s a continuum. It starts in one place and it just keeps going.

One of the topics I didn’t mention is the nachas you get from meeting relatives — second cousins, third cousins, fourth cousins — that you never knew and bonding with them. I’ve got a second cousin in New Jersey whom I never knew existed. My grandfather was 30 years older than his younger sister, my cousin’s grandmother — 30 years! As a result, our families were a generation apart. His mother is more like my cousin. He comes up to Montreal at the drop of a hat with his wife and his kids.

Another thing that I think is very important: Jews like to talk to Jews. Jews like Jews.

I was in Tehran in 1978, before the ayatollahs came in, and I was driving with my distributor’s salesman whom I had only met that day. And I said, “You have a family?” He says, “Yeah, my children are married and my wife is out of town.” Where is she? Israel. I said, “You’re Jewish?” He says yes. I said, “So am I.” He went crazy.

As Jews, we get a certain level of joy in making connections with people that are much more meaningful, perhaps, than in the non-Jewish world.



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