DNA Pilot Study on Missing Identity Holocaust Children – 2013 IAJGS Conference


In August 2012, I was invited to give a lecture at the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies in Boston, MA, on our pilot project to identify two missing-identity child survivors of the Holocaust.  Please enjoy the video of my talk that describes our progress as of late 2013.   We have come some ways since and continue to work towards solving the mystery of their identities.

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Who Am I? What is My Name? Part V – Gertrude and Sonia’s Escape


Pawiak Prison

Gertrude and Sonia Preiss-Spiro’s names are listed on the transport to Auschwitz of 141 women from Pawiak prison in Warsaw on 24 August 1943.  Pawiak prison was originally used by the Polish judicial to incarcerate criminals, but after the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1969, is was converted into a German Gestapo prison.  Approximately 100,000 men and 200,000 women passed through the prison, mostly members of the Armia Krajowa, political prisoners and civilians taken as hostages in street round-ups. An estimated 37,000 were executed and 60,000 sent to German death and concentration camps.  There were few known escape attempts.  

Even if Gertrude survived Auschwitz, she would undoubtedly be dead by now, considering she was about the same age as her friend Charlotte Rebhun who was born in 1908.  There is a slim chance her daughter Sonia would still be alive, although she would probably be in her late-80s.

Auschwitz Birkenau Database

Auschwitz Birkenau Database
Click on thumbnail to search the database.

Hoping to find for more information on Gertrude and Sonia’s fate in Auschwitz, I searched the Auschwitz prisoner database for them by name, but nothing came up.  This was not surprising, as many Auschwitz records were destroyed by the Nazis in the final days before the camp was liberated.

According to the website Więźniów  Pawiaka and Danuta Czech’s Auschwitz Chronicles, the 141 women on the transport were assigned numbers 55778 – 55918.  Curious about whether I could find information on any of the women on the transport, I searched it by number and was surprised to discover that many of the women were listed, and that they were assigned numbers in more or less alphabetical order. The first number #55778 was assigned to Anaszkiewicz, Marianna; the last number #55918 was assigned to Zielińska, Zofia. (This was slightly out of order since the last woman alphabetically Złotnicka, Irena was given #55907).

The list yielded valuable information about Gertrude and Sonia, but what I found was was quite different from what I expected.  I was stunned to discover that although there were 141 numbers reserved for the group, there were only 138 women who  were assigned these numbers.  Three women were missing from the list, including Gertrude and Sonia Preiss-Spiro. Considering the Auschwitz Chronicles do not mention any deaths while the transport was en route, nor any executions that took place upon arrival, I concluded that Gertrude and Sonia were not on the transport.  Although they were included on the “passenger” manifest, they probably did not board the train. There was no further information on the third missing woman, Elizabeth Rudnik.

The Warsaw GhettoTwo of the most valued commodities during wartime are liquor and tobacco.  According to Barbara Engelking’s book The Warsaw Ghetto, in March 1942, a few months before the major transport from the Ghetto to Treblinka, a pack of cigarettes cost about 0.4 zlotys.  In September 1942, as the situation in the Ghetto worsened, a cigarette cost 3 zlotys.  By May 1943, a cigarette cost 250 zlotys. The price of liquor also skyrocketed.

Until she was arrested, probably in the spring or summer of 1943, Gertrude Spiro owned a liquor and cigarette shop at Nowiniarska St. No. 2 on the Aryan side of Warsaw.  She must have accumulated much wealth through her shop, and was likely active in the Black Market.  She would have made many of the right contacts among the higher-ups in Warsaw, who probably depended on her to maintain their stock of liquor and cigarettes. She would have had the money and the connections to save herself and her daughter from being transported to Auschwitz.

My guess is that when the transport arrived at the camp, the person assigning the numbers realized that three prisoners were missing.  Knowing that he might be executed for the shortage, he simply skipped three numbers as he went down the list, making sure that the first number was assigned to the first woman on the list, and the last number to the last woman.  No one noticed.

Gertrude and Sonia probably bribed their way off the transport and went into hiding in Warsaw.

Nothing more is known of their fate.  A search of the Yad Vashem, Karta, the Memorial Book on the website of the BundesArchiv in Berlin has yielded no further information.  We continue to search, hoping that if Gertrude and Sonia survived, they may have left behind some information about the baby they helped smuggle from the Warsaw Ghetto in the fall of 1942.

To be continued…

Who Am I? What is My Name? Part I – Pnina, Otwoc, and the Kaczmareks

Who Am I? What is My Name? Part II – Pnina, Wolfgang, and the Warsaw Ghetto

Who Am I? What is My Name? Part III - Gertrude and Sonia Spyra

Who Am I? What is My Name? Part IV – Wolfgang and Adele’s Eyewitness Account

Who Am I? What is My Name?  Part V – Gertrude and Sonia’s Escape

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Los Angeles Times Article “DNA Sequencer could give doctors wealth of genetic information”.


An article appeared in the Los Angeles Times last Saturday January 4, 2014 that is of interest to the genetic genealogy community:

DNA Sequencer could give doctors wealth of genetic information.
www.pressdisplay.com/pressdisplay/viewer.aspx

The article was prompted by the recent FDA approval of the Illumina MiSeqDX DNA sequencer that can sequence a human genome in a couple of hours for about $5,000. Also approved last fall were two Illumina assays that can sequence for 139 genetic variations associated with cystic fibrosis, one of the most common inherited diseases.

The rapid turn-around, low cost, and more accurate sequencing of genetic data prompts the question:  Now that we can sequence a genome faster, cheaper, and better, what do we do with all that data?  The 2008 Genetic Information Disclosure Act (GINA) made it illegal for insurance companies or potential employers to discriminate against anyone because of his DNA.  But this was just the first of many issues that must be dealt with as we have increasing ability to access our own genomes.

If an individual gets his entire genome sequenced, who knows what he will discover?  And even if he is only interested in sequencing those parts of his genome containing information  specific to a genetic disease such as cystic fibrosis, what other unexpected markers might be discovered?

As an aside, in 2007, Nobel Prize Laureate James Watson, recognized along with Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin for the discovery of the DNA double helix structure, was the first person to receive his personal genome, in a ceremony at Baylor College of Medicine (see www.bcm.edu/news/publications/fromthelabs/vol06/is5/0607-1.html).  It cost $1M and took two months to sequence. 

Because Watson has a family history of cystic fibrosis, he requested that the segments of DNA containing the cystic fibrosis genes be omitted from his data. However, a few months later at a conference, someone commented that although segments specific to CF were omitted from the data presented to Watson,  because of the phenomenon of linkage disequilibrium, the data still contained information sufficient to tell him whether he carried the markers for the disease.  (Linkage disequilibrium describes the non-random inheritance of genetic markers, so that they appear together in the population more or less frequently than if they were inherited independently).  His data were immediately edited to delete the linked segments.

The article assumes that physicians are needed as intermediaries in genomic testing and evaluation - “[should] physicians ordering such tests – and the patients receiving their results….decide in advance how much of that incidental information they want to know”. However, the article also states that it might take a while for physicians to become proficient in conveying such information. Dr. Robert Green, a medical geneticist at Harvard University comments that,”We know that people get state-of-the-art genetic counseling and still walk out of that office confused”.

The direct-to-consumer (DTC) issue is addressed only as a muscle-flexing action on the part of the FDA, whose recent cease and desist order to 23andMe centered on the accuracy and reliability of the information provided by 23andMe’s personal genomic testing services. The a discussion on the nature of 23andMe’s claims about its product versus the FDA’s approval of its DTC testing is outside the scope of my comments.  But these claims aside, if physicians are not proficient in interpreting and conveying genomic information, why can’t I do that on my own?

What is not explicitly discussed in the article is the enormous market that is being created for genomic-information services. United Health Services Inc, the largest publicly-traded health insurer, estimates the market will increase to about $25 billion annually within a decade [1].

The public debate is about the accuracy and reliability of the genomic information conveyed to a patient.  But hidden below that is the real question of whether the medical industry can control that $25 billion annual market now that off-the-shelf technology enables genomic information to be made available direct-to-consumer.

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Who Am I? What is My Name? Part IV – Wolfgang and Adele’s Eyewitness Account


Charlotte Rebhun with Her Mother and Sibs

Margarete & Emil Schoessow Family (About 1922). From left to right, Erna, Herbert, Margarete (mother), Margarete (daughter),and Charlotte. Their father Emil is not pictured because he was killed in 1917 during World War I.

Charlotte Schössow Rebhun was the oldest of four children of Emil and Margarete Schössow from Berlin.  Charlotte, like her friend Gertrude Spiro, was a Christian woman who had married a Jew.  Charlotte’s husband Max Rebhun had moved from Poland to Germany and settled in Berlin, probably right after WWI.  Max was arrested on Kristalnacht in 1938, and sent to Poland. His wife Charlotte followed him in 1939 with their two children Wolfgang and Adele, where, after the outbreak of the War, the family lived in the Warsaw Ghetto.

On August 20, 1942, Max Rebhun was arrested on the street in Warsaw and sent to Treblinka.  Charlotte and the children fled to the Aryan side. They were living at 33 Krochmalna St. when later that year, she was approached about rescuing a nine-month-old Jewish infant.

The testimony given by Wolfgang and Adele Rebhun to the Yad Vashem upon their reunion with Pnina in March 1997, offers an eyewitness account of events surrounding her rescue from the point of view of adults who, as children, may have been told some things, and who may have assumed others.   The account is short with many gaps, but their testimony is the best description we have of Pnina’s parents. As Wolfgang and Adele related to the Yad Vashem:

wolfgangs_story-_to_yad_Vashem

Wolfgang and Adele’s testimony to the Yad Vashem, p1

“Such was our life.  So began and ended our common but also separate lives, our time of sorrow, years of humiliation, disempowerment, deprivation, torture, fear and cruelty – camp, ghetto, concentration camp, and death.

The two of us, our family’s survivors, are my brother Wolfgang, born on 27 November 1927 in Berlin, prisoner number 95864 from the Mauthausen concentration camp, and I, his sister Adele, born on October 10, 1930, in Berlin. We are survivors of the Warsaw ghetto.

After following many dangerous detours and perilous escape routes, the two of us, both survivors of the Holocaust, were reunited at my bedside in the Paulinen House at No. 28-30 Eschenallee 28-30, Berlin-Charlottenburg, on 22 June 1945.

wolfgangs_life_story-_to_Yd_Vashem_-_2

Wolfgang and Adele’s testimony to the Yad Vashem, p2

We were very lucky – I had my brother and my brother had me.  When I was recovering from a serious injury on my hospital bed, we were given the terrible news :

Father was gassed in the Treblinka concentration camp, Uncle Karl was murdered in a concentration camp, Mother was shot.

We were both are orphans, with no one left.  We were survivors of the Holocaust.

wolfgangs_life_story-_to_Yad_Vashem_-__3

Wolfgang and Adele’s testimony to the Yad Vashem, p3

Our reunion cannot be described – a human tragedy. We vowed never to be separated from each other again, no matter what may come.

From birth up through the time we went to school, we had shared a life nestled in our family, well protected and much cared for, without emotional stress, protected by our parents, as was so common in every other well-functioning family. We were a satisfied, happy family, with a modest income, and provided for by both parents through their initiative, connectedness, prudence and diligence. Our parents were, and remain for us children, without doubt, true role models in terms of their deeds especially in times of persecution, successfully using their personal lives to assist others persecuted by the Nazi regime. Until 1938 we lived in Lembachstrasse 6 in Berlin-Lichtenberg .

Our family members were:

Our Father – Max Rebhun – Trade Merchant – born  29 January 1906
Our Mother – Charlotte Rebhun born Schössow, Saleswoman – born 5 September 1908
Son – Wolfgang – born 27 November 1927
Daughter – Adele – born 10 October 1930

Uncle Karl (Kiwa), my father’s brother who was a regular guest with us, lived up to his arrest at No. 1 Gormannstr. in Berlin. Uncle Charles was born on 13 May 1892.

On Kristallnacht, November 8, 1938, at 4:30 am, our father was arrested as a Jew, taken from our apartment in Berlin at 6 Lembachstrasse, and transported with a group to Poland.

Two policemen from the police station in the Boxhagenerstrasse, demanded official entry [to our apartment].  Mother was asked to bring along warm things for Father, because he would be most likely be away for a long time.

From the police station he went with the group to the train station.

My mother followed the transport at a careful distance.

As a result of the arrest, our mother searched for Uncle Karl, who immediately hid himself in our apartment so that he was initially able to avoided arrest.

Pages_of_testimony-_Yad_Vashem_(Rebhun_Mair-Max)

Max Rebhun’s Page of Testimony given by his son Wolfgang, 1997.

The arrest and detention of our father was a completely new situation for those of us who had remained behind.

We were in shock, felt despair, and at the same time, anger and anxiety, but were powerless. Our situation was then and is still now an intolerable mental burden.

As we have aged, our condition has become more and more unbearable.  Irritability, lack of concentration, poor sleep, headaches, and stomach problems, dizziness, restlessness, sensitivities are the consequences today of what we have lived through, an expression of our nervous constitution.

Today’s flight into memory harbors still a greater grief about those who have not survived. We feel that we can no longer escape this sorrow.

Pages_of_testimony-_Yad_Vashem_(Rebhun_Kiva-_brother_of_Max_)

Kiwa Rebhun’s Page of Testimony given by his nephew Wolfgang, 1997.

The forced separation of our Father from our family was followed by psychological terror. Constant interrogation of my mother by the Gestapo resulted in significant health problems for both our mother and us children.

During the period of absolute separation from our Father, our mother’s interrogations were orchestrated by the secret police, and after she returned to our apartment, always ended with her absolute collapse, with unbearable headaches, migraines, even a temporary loss of consciousness.

The steadfastness and courage of our mother during her harassment by the Secret State Police was not without serious consequences to her health. Our mother sought more and more medicine from the hospital.

We children began to fear we would lose our mother.

In addition, up to that time, we had such a good, friendly relationship with our school friends.  My brother attended the 15th and I attended the 16th elementary school in Market Street, Berlin-Lichtenberg.  Suddenly things were so different, conditions changed. We had to leave school – there was no more room for Jewish children.

For us children it was all the more painful because it was no longer safe to play together outside in the street in our immediate neighborhood.

It all started with a conversation between Mrs. Gertrude Spyra, wife of a Jew from Berlin, and my mother, Charlotte Rebhun born Schössow.

The conversation involved the adoption of a small child of a Jewish family from the Warsaw ghetto – the safekeeping and the survival of the child until its retrieval after surviving threats to life and limb. The birth parents were organized resistance fighters in the Warsaw ghetto.

The handover of Baschke by the birth mother took place in our former apartment in Warsaw Krochmalna No. 33, and included a baby stroller with baby clothing.

The intention was presented to my mother, that after taking care of their responsibilities in the Ghetto, the parents would return for the child after not too long a period of time.

After that, in the fall of 1942 – the exact time unfortunately, does not come to mind – there was no sign of the parents.

Barbara’s parents were Polish Jews.

In daily life Barbara was our child and our sister, with the name Barbara Rebhun.

In August 1944, we were rounded up for a scheduled, yet for us, unexpected transport. We went through a selection on the outskirts of Warsaw during which we were forcibly separated from Baschka.

As a result of earlier correspondence initiated by the German Red Cross in Munich, including faxes, personal telephone calls, and letters, on March 30, 1997 the anticipated reunion occurred with Wolfgang Rebhun in Oberhausen, in the presence of his sister Adele.  We are both strongly convinced, based on the evidence, that Mrs. Pnina Gutman is our long-sought Barbara Rebhun.

In the fall of 1942, our mother took Baschka in under life-threatening conditions. For our mother it was an additional important responsibility, considering her hope that we would survive together.  Our father was at this time no longer with us.

We would like to add that Mother and Wolfgang were organized members of PAL and had the responsibility for perilous tasks for the Underground during the Ghetto uprising.

It was such a responsibility for her to take Baschka, to do everything imaginable to keep the child alive.

Wolfgang Rebhun                                      Adele Bogner
Oberhausen                                                  geb. Rebhun
1.4.1997                                                          Potsdam Ebraestr.

Charlotte Rebhun was executed by the SS in 1945 after returning to Berlin.  On November 10, 1997, Yad Vashem recognized her as Righteous Among the Nations.

Wolfgang died in 2007; Adele died in 2010.

To be continued.

Part I:  Who Am I?  What is My Name? Part I – Pnina, Otwoc, and the Kaczmareks

Part II: Who Am I? What is My Name? Part II – Pnina, Wolfgang, and the Warsaw Ghetto

Part III:  Who Am I? What is My Name?  Part III – Gertrude and Sonia Spyra

Part IV:  Who Am I, What is My Name? Part Wolfgang & Adele’s Eyewitness Account

Part V:  Who Am I, What is My Name? Gertrude and Sonia’s Escape

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Who Am I, What is My Name? Part III – Gertrude and Sonia Spyra


Gertrude Spyra and Charlotte Rebhun, Warsaw, about 1942

Gertrude Spyra and Charlotte Rebhun, Warsaw, about 1942

A mystery within the mystery of Pnina’s identity is the fate of Gertrude Spyra and her daughter Sonia. As the parties responsible for smuggling Pnina from the Warsaw Ghetto, Gertrude and Sonia may have left behind clues about Pnina’s parents. Perhaps the Spyras wrote letters to their family members, as did their friend Charlotte Rebhun. Perhaps a co-worker overheard something they said about how they saved a baby during the last days before the Ghetto Uprising.

According to “the story”, Pnina’s parents approached a German soldier about smuggling their daughter out of the Warsaw Ghetto in late 1942-early 1943.  The soldier was the sweetheart of Sonia Spyra, Gertrude’s daughter.  The story relates that Gertrude was already hiding Jews, and that she did not have the resources to help anyone else, so she asked her friend Charlotte Rebun if she could take the baby in as her own.  Gertrude and Charlotte were Christian women who had been married to Jewish husbands. Both couples had been deported to Warsaw, the Rebhuns from Berlin, and the Spyras presumably from somewhere in Germany. Both husbands were arrested or “disappeared” in the early 1940s.  Charlotte agreed to take in the child, and sometime later Pnina was delivered to her apartment in a white baby carriage with a note indicating her name was Barbara Wenglinski.

Over the last year, we have discovered much about Gertrude Spyra and Pnina’s parents that has answered some questions. But so many others have been raised.

missing_identity_homepage

Missing Identity Homepage

Our team of researchers now includes Pnina Gutman, Eva Floresheim, owner of the www.missing-identity.net website, myself, and two new members:

Cate Bloomquist – Forensic genealogist, colleague, and friend whom I have known through my Forensic Genealogy website and Facebook page, and

Hania Allen – Researcher and friend of Polish background living in Scotland. After the war, Hania’s parents immigrated to Scotland, where she was born.  I became friends with Hania when I helped her find long lost cousins George and Betty, whose family had gone to America before the War.

*****

Our much-needed breakthrough came when Cate discovered Gertrude and Sonia Preiss- Spiro on a transport from Pawiak Prison in Warsaw to Auschwitz on 24 August 1943.  This was just a few months after the Ghetto had been destroyed during the Uprising in April and May of that year.  Approximately 100,000 men and 200,000 women passed through the prison, mostly members of the Armia Krajowa (the Polish resistance movement), political prisoners, and civilians taken as hostages in street round-ups.  An estimated 37,000 were executed and 60,000 sent to German death and concentration camps.

According to the list found on the prison’s website www.stankiewicze.com/pawiak/

Name                                                               Date                                            Prisoner Nos.
Piss-Spiro (Preiss-Spiro), Gertrude             24-8-1943                                  55778-55918
Piss-Spiro (Preiss-Spiro), Sonia                    24-8-1943                                  55778-55918

IMG_1418_Gertrude_and_Sonia_Transport_Arrives_at_Auschwitz_Marked

In Danuta Czech’s Auschwitz Chronicles, there is a mention of the transport arriving at Auschwitz the next day, 25-8-1943.  There is no mention of prisoners dying during transport, or a selection upon arrival, giving us hope that Gertrude and Sonia arrived alive and may have survived, at least for a while.

Gertrude’s name was recorded as both Piss-Spiro and Preiss-Spiro.  We have concluded that the name was probably Preiss-Spiro, with Preiss being the German part of her name, and Spiro being the Jewish part. There is still a question about why her name was hyphenated and which name was her married name and which was her maiden name.

Cate’s initial discovery led us to many others that have allowed us to fill in more of the story of Gertrude Preiss-Spiro. The General Government Telephone Directories for Poland from 1941 and 1942 list Gertrude Spiro, Verk. v. Spirit. und Zigaretten (liquor and cigarette saleswoman), with her shop located at 2 Nowinarska St.,  and her residence in 1942 listed as 48 Tamka St, Warsaw.  This is the address that Pnina remembers for “her” Gertrude Spiro.

Researching other Polish directories has led us to further revelations.  In the 1938 Polish Companies, Industry, and Trade, Cate discovered a Gertruda Spyra who was a partner in Poniecki, Meisner & Co., a wine and spirits manufacturing company in Chorzów near Katowice in southeast Poland.  This must certainly be the same Gertrud, as the chances are slim that there were two different women with the same name (although with different spellings), who were both in wine and liquor sales.

reklamalikieryponiecki4a(2)

Poniecki, Meisner & Co. Poster, c 1935

A further clue is provided by the 1934 and 1936 directories, where the partner in the Poniecki company is listed as Dr. Jan Spyra, also listed as a medical doctor residing at 4th of May St. No. 3.  The change in the name of the town from Krolewska Huta in 1934 to Chorzów in 1936 occurred as a result of one of several political reorganizations of the area between the early 1920s and the mid-1940s.   

Following several uprisings, the eastern part of Silesia, including Chorzów and Królewska Huta, was separated from Germany and awarded to Poland in 1922. In 1934 the industrial communities of Chorzów, Królewska Huta and Nowe Hajduki were merged into one municipality with 81,000 inhabitants. The name of the oldest settlement Chorzów  was given to the whole city.  On the day of the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, Chorzów was annexed by Nazi Germany and promptly re-incorporated into German Silesia.  At the end of World War II, Chorzów, along with the rest of Silesia, was re-incorporated into Poland. 

The change in hands of Chorzów between Poland and Germany could account for much more than the change in name of the town. It could also explain why the Rebhuns referred to Gertrude as German, and why she apparently left Chorzów for Warsaw in 1939-1940. Beginning in October 1939, as part of their “Germanization” plan, the SS began to expel Poles and Jews from the Polish Corridor (including Chorzów).  If Gertrude’s husband was Jewish, he may have been deported to Warsaw, which was a part of the General Government district, and she would have undoubtedly accompanied him. Although he was apparently taken away or disappeared not too long after they arrived there, Gertrude may have been allowed to remain and to live on the Aryan side of town because of her German heritage. 

So who was Dr. Jan Spyra?

According to the Polish medical directories from the 1920s and 1930s, Jan Spyra was a medical doctor born in 1869, who received his medical degree in 1896.  He appeared in the city directories as early as 1906, when he was listed as Hans Spyra, the town was known as Königshütte, and 4th May St. was called Kronprinzen St.:

Koenigshutte 1906_07

         

          1906/1907 through 1913
          Spyra, Dr. Hans, Arzt (doctor),                        Kronprinzenstr. 4, tel #1095



Jan Spyra’s obituary appeared in the Polonia newspaper, 22 July 1934, p. 6. Roughly translated, it reads:

Polonia 24 July 1934 - Jan Spyra Death NoticeIn Chorzów died on 22 July 1934, a member of the local medical community, Jan Spyra, doctor, physician of Chorzów.  The medical community of Chorzów has lost a diligent employee and a good doctor.  May he rest in peace!  Chorzów, 22 July 1934

Gertrude is subsequently listed in the 1938 Polish Directory (excluding Warsaw) as Gertrude Spirowa, wdowa po lekarzu, (widow of a doctor), Mikolow, Jamny 13.  Note the name Spirowa is a variation on the name Spiro that indicates a widow.

1938_Poland_Dir._(excl._Warsaw)_-_- Spyras - d756 - Gertrude is Listed as a Widow Cropped

Dr. Jan’s death in 1935 explains why his widow Gertruda assumed his position as a partner in the liquor company in late 1935-early 1936.  If she is “our” Gertrude Spiro, she married a man who was much older than she was, who died before she left for Warsaw in about 1940.  Other possibilities are that the Gertrude listed with the liquor company was the mother or the mother-in-law of the Gertrude who had the liquor and tobacco shop in Warsaw.  It is hard to believe that there could be two unrelated Gertrude Spyras in the liquor business at the same time. 

The directories also provide information on other members of the Spyra family. Herman Lotar Spyra first appears in the 1936 Polish Medical Yearbook listed twice – once in Myslowice (another name for Mikolow) near Katowice, and a second time with an office at the address on 4th May St. in Chorzów  He was born in 1905, and received his medical degree in 1932:

1936 Directory of Doctors, Herman Lotar Spyra, (1905, 1932), og., ul. 3 Maja 4, tel. 411-01


1936 Polish Medical Yearbook
Spyra, Herman Lotar (1905-1932) og., ul. 3 Maya 4, tel 410-95 


Note that the last four digits of Herman Lotar’s telephone number are the same as Dr. Jan’s.  Undoubtedly, he worked as his father’s assistant until his father died in 1935, at which time he took over his practice.

Two other Jan Spyras with medical backgrounds appear in various directories:

- Jan Spyra, b 1906, received his degree in dentistry in 1934; his office was located at 3 Kopernika St., Katowice, and

- Jan Albin Spyra, b 1907, received his degree in medicine on 19 Mar 1937; his office was located in Bielszowice, Katowice.

We have not been able to link these two Jans to Gertrude’s family, although we believe they may be related.

*****

While we are researching the fate of Gertrude and her daughter Sonia after they arrived at Auschwitz, we have discovered what happened to Herman Lotar Spyra, giving us hope that we will be able to locate surviving Spyra family members.

Lotar Spyra m Maria Focjik in late 1947

Lotar Spyra m Maria Focjik in late 1947

Their daughter Gloria was born in late 1947.

Their daughter Gloria was born in late 1947.

After the war, Lotar moved to the UK, where he married Maria Focjik in late 1946 in Romsey, Hampshire, England. They had a daughter Gloria, born in mid-1947.

Three months later, the family were listed on the passenger manifest for the ship Empire Bure, sailing from Liverpool to Tobago, with an ultimate destination of British Guyana.  There were quite a few Polish refugees on board the vessel who were sent out by the British War Office, but the Spyras seem to have been traveling separately from the group.  It is doubtful that they traveled on the ship, since their names are struck through and they appear two weeks later on November 15, 1947, on the passenger manifest for the Almanzora, traveling from Southampton to Bermuda via Jamaica and Trinidad.   Their ultimate destination was again listed as British Guyana.

Whether the family arrived in British Guyana or whether they disembarked in Tobago and sailed for another destination is not known.  They do not appear in the passenger arrivals for New York.  The last known record of Lotar, Maria, and Gloria is a US Department of Justice notice stating that the family was detained and deported from the US on 2 January 1951. They departed from New York on Pan American Flight 2o5 bound for Georgetown, British Guyana via Puerto Rico.

Lotar, Maria, and Gloria, Spyra dep'd to Georgetown after being detained in NY, 2 Jan 1951We have contacted the Guyana Archives in Georgetown, hoping there may be records of what happened to the Spyra family. Perhaps Gloria is still alive and she can relate to us what she was told about her aunt(?) Gertrud Spyra.  Perhaps she has letters that she has kept for decades as a remembrance of her family who were killed in the war. I’ve also written posts on the Guyana Then and Now blog that is popular among English-speaking people who grew up there, and who might remember a middle-aged Polish doctor with his young Polish wife and daughter.  Perhaps someone on the blog went to school with little Gloria.  But so far, no one has responded to my queries and nothing more is known about the whereabouts of Dr. Lotar Spyra and his family.

*****

Perhaps the most important clue to how Pnina was smuggled from the Ghetto is quietly hidden in all the facts we have unearthed in our pursuit of the fate of Gertrude Spyra.

There is a significance of alcohol and tobacco in war time.  They are the primary currency of the Black Market.

Our search for the fate of Gertrude Spyra and her daughter Sonia has led us from Warsaw to Chorzów, to the UK, to New York, and finally to British Guyana via San Juan, Puerto Rico.  We must now return to where we started in the Warsaw Ghetto.

To be continued…

Part I:   Who Am I, What Is My Name? Pnina, Otwoc, and the Kazcmareks

Part II:  Who Am I? What is My Name? Pnina, Wolfgang, and the Warsaw Ghetto

Part III: Who Am I, What is My Name? Gertrude and Sonia Spyra

Part IV:  Who Am I, What is My Name? Wolfgang & Adele’s Eyewitness Account

Part V:  Who Am I? What is My Name?  Gertrude and Sonia’s Escape

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Who Am I? What is My Name? Part II – Pnina, Wolfgang, and the Warsaw Ghetto


Barbara Rebhun?

Barbara Rebhun?

Convinced that my surname was Rebhun, I contacted Rebhuns around the world. Though the BBC, CNN, and the international press featured my quest, I initially received no responses. Finally in March 1997, the Munich Red Cross relayed a reply from a German named Wolfgang Rebhun, who was searching for his little sister, Baschka (Barbara in German).

After receiving the Red Cross letter I began a correspondence with Wolfgang Rebhun. Then after a very short time we went to Germany, to meet Wolfgang and his (and my) sister Adela and some other members of the family.

The meeting was very warm and exciting. To them it was a miracle to find their baby sister – “our little Bacshka” as they called me.

Wolfgang and Adela told me more of my history.

Just before the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Wolfgang recalled, a young Jewish couple, possibly freedom fighters, had convinced a German soldier to smuggle their daughter out of the ghetto. The nine-month-old had arrived in a white baby carriage, with a note draped around her neck reading Barbara Wenglinski. The soldier’s girlfriend, Sonia Spyra, passed the baby on to Charlotta Rebhun, Wolfgang’s mother, to be hidden in the Arian part of Warsaw.

Charlotta was a Christian woman married to a Jewish man named Max Rebhun. They lived in Berlin and were expelled after Krystalnacht. Charlotta had two children: Wolfgang, 17 and Adela, 14. I lived with Carlotta and her children as their baby.

In September 1944, during a Polish uprising, Charlotta, her children, and I were separated by force – Charlotta and Adela were sent to a labor camp, Wolfgang was sent to Mathausen, and I was left at the railway station. At this time Charlotta’s Jewish husband had already been killed in Treblinka. At the end of the war, Charlotta went back to Berlin and was shot by the SS.  Adela was wounded.

I had retrieved two more years of my life.

Charlotte Rebhun and Pnina

Charlotta Rebhun and Pnina
Warsaw c 1942

Then Wolfgang offered me two priceless gifts. The first was a photograph of Baby Baschka in Mama “Lotta’s” loving arms. The second was my parents’ parting words. “If we do not return, contact our relatives in America.” For the first time, I had met someone who could describe my parents. But only Charlotta, who had been killed in 1945, had known their names.

I’m in touch with both families. Charlotta and the Kazcmareks have been named as Righteous Among the Nations.

Charlotte Rebhun and the White Baby Carriage

Charlotta Rebhun and Pnina
Warsaw c 1942

Following a special Israeli Television series about Holocaust children with missing identities, I joined Missing Identity at www.missing-identity.net. This site seeks information about children who were hidden during the Holocaust in orphanages or monasteries, with friends or strangers, who survived ghettoes, concentration camps, or on their own, who lost not only their entire families, but also their original identities. Guided by Missing Identity researcher Eva Floersheim, I began exploring a variety of online sources.

Pnina with Wolfgang

Wolfgang Rebhun and baby Baschka
Warsaw c 1946
We found the fountain.
It was not destroyed during the war.

First we sought more information about my parents. Because Jews from a very wide area were herded into the Warsaw Ghetto, however, it was impossible to guess their origins. In addition, without knowing their names, there was no way to search ancestry.com, familysearch.org, or any other surname-based genealogical Internet sites

Nor was it possible to search The Central Database of Shoah (Holocaust) Victims’ Names, the world’s single largest computerized database of Holocaust victims, located at http://www.yadvashem.org . Even my request to the International Tracing Service (ITS), an organization that documents the fate of victims of Nazi persecution, proved disappointing. Regarding my mother, for example, they replied, “In order for us to be able to make a check of our records …. we need her name and first name as well as her exact place of birth.”

In lieu of hard facts, I also wondered about other possibilities. If the German soldier had married his sweetheart Sonia Spyra and they were still alive, might either remember my parents’ names? Might one of the few Warsaw Ghetto survivors remember the handsome young couple with the baby daughter? To find out, I not only met with survivors personally, but also pored over their testimonies, memoirs, photographs, documents, and memorial volumes both at the Yad Vashem Library and at Israel’s Ghetto Fighter’s Museum.

All these efforts have been in vain.

In 2009, I discovered that Charlotte Rebhun’s brother who was living in the US, had saved letters she had written to him during the 1940s. However, they didn’t describe Charlotta’s courageous wartime activities, or mention Sonia Spyra, a German soldier, a Jewish couple, or a baby.

On the chance that my birth name was actually Barbara Wenglinski, I also explored the massive Jewish Records Indexing- Poland (JRI Poland) database hosted by www.jewishgen.org  that contains microfilmed Latter Day Saints, Polish State Archives, and census records, military and passport lists, cemetery files, and legal announcements. There I came across a Polish man named Wenglinski whose young daughters had disappeared at the beginning of the war. Did he will their identity papers to Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto? Is this how I became Barbara Wenglinski?

me_and_my_daughters

Pnina and Her Daughters

I have hopes centered on the photos I have found, especially those given to me by Wolfgang – showing me as a baby with his mother and the white wooden marriage that I was brought to her in. My parents said they had relatives in the U.S.A. It might be they sent this photo to them. Maybe one of those relatives has this photo, or maybe one of the Ghetto survivors will recognize the baby.

Believe me, this long story I have told you is much lengthier and exciting. There are so many coincidences, “miracles” as I call them,that it’s hard to believe. My life seems much more like a science fiction movie.

Part I:   Who Am I, What Is My Name? Pnina, Otwoc, and the Kazcmareks

Part II:  Who Am I? What is My Name? Pnina, Wolfgang, and the Warsaw Ghetto

Part III: Who Am I, What is My Name? Gertrude and Sonia Spyra

Part IV:  Who Am I, What is My Name? Wolfgang & Adele’s Eyewitness Account

Part V:  Who Am I, What is My Name? Gertrude and Sonia’s Escape

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Who Am I, What Is My Name? Part I – Pnina, Otwoc, and the Kazcmareks


My name is Pnina Gutman. I am 70 years old. I began the search for my biological identity in April 1996. I called this project “Who am I what’s my name?”

I came to Israel from Poland at the age of eight with a couple whom I thought to be my parents, Mania and Mendel Himel.

As a child, I remembered living with the Himels in the town of Lodz, but it was a short time, about two years that I recall as a year in the kindergarten and a year in school. What I remembered before was an orphanage and the day the Himels were introduced to me as my parents who came to take me after the war.

This situation seemed strange to me. Why did I have to be introduced to my parents? I also remembered a Polish family and their handsome son named Bogdan. I remembered a beautiful church that appeared decorated with gold. We used to pray there.

When I asked my parents about the Otwock orphanage, they told me I was very sick and Otwock was a sort of a children hospital.  I also wondered about having photos starting at the age of 6. They replied that it wasn’t common to take photos, and the photos I had were made for my passport.  In those days, children weren’t told they were  adopted and my parents were not an exception.

I kept all those memories in a secret drawer of my heart and mind.

At the age of 16, I had a stupid argument with my father.  When I shouted at him in anger, “You are not my father!” he admitted that I was adopted. He added that I was found close to a railway station but that nothing else was known about me.  My parents didn’t have a clue who I was or where I came from.

In those days looking for your family roots wasn’t as popular and easy as it is today.  I also wasn’t interested in searching for my biological identity.  But the most important reason I did nothing was that I loved the Himels very much and was beloved by them. I simply didn’t want to hurt them.

My life continued. I studied, got married, became a mother, then a grandmother.

Meanwhile the Himels passed away in 1988 at the age of 82.

On Holocaust Anniversary Day 1996, I read about the orphanage, Otwock. I  remembered being there. The article described a woman named Lea Balint who had  lists of the Otwock children.

I met Lea.  When she allowed me to see the list of orphans, the name Barbara jumped out at me. Beside it, in parentheses, appeared two surnames, Kaczmarek and Rebhun, and the address of the Kaczmarek family in Sierakow were I lived during the war.

To me, all was clear. My real parents, the Rebhuns, had obviously entrusted me to the Kaczmareks, who brought me to the orphanage. Note that Rebhun is a Jewish name.

In pre-Internet days, genealogical searches were often slow and costly. I first wrote the Warsaw Jewish Historical Institute, Poland’s largest collection of Jewish documents, books, and objects. (See www.jewishinstitute.org.pl). Archivists found the receipt for a letter from F. Kaczmarek of Sierakow, Poland to the Warsaw Jewish Committee regarding Barbara Rebhun—but not the letter itself. By a miracle, the first of many, I later uncovered it myself in a dusty JHI cardboard carton.

Kaczmareks Cropped

The Himels

Kaczmarek wrote that in 1944, a Red Cross worker found a two-and-a-half year old Jewish girl abandoned in a train station in Milanowek, near Warsaw. She called herself Barbara Rebhun. Kaczmarek, a devout Catholic, reported raising the child ever since. He asked if he could get financial help to continue to raise the child.

My husband and I went immediately to the small town of Sierakow, Poland, to the Kaczmareks’ address found in the Otwock lists from 1948.

Standing in front of the house I could remember for sure I had lived there. The Kaczmareks had passed away but although so many years had passed, I located my stepbrother, the Kaczmareks’ son Bogdan.

Pnina outside the Kaczmarek home in Sierakow, Poland c. 1948

Pnina outside the Kaczmarek home in Sierakow, Poland c. 1948

Bogdan told us about the way I came to his family. He told us I said in German I was two-and-a half years old and that my name was Barbara Rebhun. I lived as a member of the family from September – October 1944 until March 1948.

When the Kaczmareks  wanted to adopt  me officially, they wrote to the Jewish Central Committee to ask if anyone in my family had survived. Instead of sending a reply, an emissary from  the Jewish Central Committee came and took me away by force.  To the  grief and sorrow of Kaczmarek family, they put me in the Otwock Jewish orphanage.

We also went to the church I remembered.  There it was, wide, high, and decorated with gold. I could even recall the bench we set on and prayed.

Pnina with the KazcmareksSierakow, Poland c. 1948

Pnina with the Kazcmareks
Sierakow, Poland c. 1948

At our emotional reunion, Bogdan gave me photographs he took of me before the age of 6. This was the first time I saw myself so young. I had retrieved about four years of my life.

Thinking Rebhun was my biological surname, I began a long and intensive search for my identity. I wrote to people and institutes around the world. I published the story in many papers. Television programs also told my story.

Convinced that my surname was Rebhun, I contacted Rebhuns around the world. Though the BBC, CNN, and the international press featured my quest, I initially received no responses. Finally in March 1997, the Munich Red Cross relayed a reply from a German named Wolfgang Rebhun, who was searching for his little sister, Baschka (Barbara in German).

Part I:   Who Am I, What Is My Name? Pnina, Otwoc, and the Kazcmareks

Part II: Who Am I? What is My Name? Pnina, Wolfgang, and the Warsaw Ghetto

Part III:  Who Am I, What is My Name? Gertrude and Sonia Spyra

Part IV:  Who Am I, What is My Name? Wolfgang & Adele’s Eyewitness Account

Part V:  Who Am I, What is My Name? Gertrude and Sonia’s Escape

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