Who Am I – What Is My Name – Part X – Gertrude’s Marriage and Divorce

By now, everyone who reads this should know Gertrude Priess-Spiro, the woman who arranged to have Pnina Gutman smuggled from the Warsaw Ghetto in August or September 1942.  New information about her has recently been discovered that provides details about her marriage to Leo Spiro.  It also explains why she was listed under her maiden name Gertrude Priess-Spiro on the Pawiak transport records to Auschwitz.


Location of 176 Brunnenstrasse, Berlin

During my recent trip to Berlin, I was able to visit the address at 176 Brunnenstrasse, where Gertrude grew up and lived for a while after she was married.  The building is about three blocks south of what was once the Berlin Wall running along Bernauer Str.  It is located at the intersection of Brunnenstrasse and Invalidenstrasse, across from the Volkspark am Weinbergsweg. Interestingly, the address is a few doors down from 186 Brunnenstrasse, where Alfred Roehrs lived in the 1930s and 1940s with his wife Martha Maria Priess, Gertrude’s sister and about two blocks away from the intersection of Brunnenstrasse with Anklamer Strasse, where Alfred Roehrs had his furniture store at Anklamer Str. 52 in the 1920s.


176 Brunnenstrasse, Berlin, where Gertrude Priess grew up.


186 Brunnenstrasse








1923 - p 39 - Marked Up1923 - p 39 - Excerpt



Thanks to the Standesamtsregister Landesarchiv Berlin, I recently discovered what I thought might be Gertrude and Leo’s marriage certificate on their website. According to their marriage index, they were wed 3 February 1923 in Bezirk No 6 (6th District) in Berlin.  However, I was not sure this was theirs.  Although the only other two Priess marriages I had seen in the index were those of Gertrude’s two sisters Bertha and Martha, I misinterpreted the second column to be the name of the bride, and the word did not seem to match the spelling of the name Priess.  As it was explained to me later by an archivist at the Berlin Landesarchiv, the column was actually the profession of the groom – in Leo’s case – “shoemaker”.

When I asked the Landeesarchiv for a search for Gertrude’s marriage record without mentioning what I had found online in the index, the Landesarchiv confirmed that the entry from 1923 was correct and send me the document.

It yielded some startling information about the couple.

Gertrude and Leo's Marriage Record_1 Gertrude and Leo's Marriage Record_2

The marriage record states that on 3 February 1923, a marriage license was granted to David Leib Spiro, a shoemaker, born 15 March 1897 in Garwolin, Kries Lublin, residing in Berlin at Bruckenstrasse 10, and Gertrude Anna Priess, milliner, born 24 February 1899 in Bladiau, Kreis Heilengebiel, East Prussia,  residing in Berlin, at Brunnenstrasse 176.  The license was witnessed by Friedrich Priess, wagon driver, 50 years old, residing at 175-177 Brunnenstrasse (presumably the father of the bride), and Otto Schade, (can’t read occupation), 45 years old, residing in Berlin at Bruckenstrasse 10 (presumably a friend of the groom).

gertrudes-signature-from-her-marriage-recordFor the first time, we have Gertrude’s signature.


gertrudes-marriage-record-stamp-in-upper-cornerAn interesting bit of information is the stamp in the upper right corner of the first page of the license.  It reads:


Nr. 59

Berlin, 4th March 1943. Through the court order issued by the German court in Warsaw on 20 August 1941, C 495/40, was the marriage between David Leib Spiro and Gertrude Anna Spiro nee Priess dissolved.

On behalf of the registry office:  Rütter

Nr. 59

Berlin, 4 March 1943

The undersigned, resident of Warsaw, Tamkastrasse 48, declared to the German notary Doctor Albrecht Cintner, in Warsaw, that she has adopted her former surname Priess.

Judging by the case number C 495/40, Gertrude must have filed her divorce papers in mid- to late 1940.  This would have been about the time, or somewhat after the date Leo was to be released from Brandenburg Prison on 20 April 1940.  It could be that when Leo was sent to the Berlin Police Prison instead of being released, that Gertrude realized that she would never see him again and decided to divorce Leo. It could also have been a mutual decision, perhaps over concern for the safety of their daughter Sonia.  In 1940, Sonia was 15 years old.  As half-Jewish, she was officially immune from deportation from Berlin, but the laws were different in Warsaw.

It is curious that Gertrude was still listed by her married name Spiro in the 1941 and 1942 Generalgouvernement telephone directories even though her divorce was finalized in August 1941.  The 1941 directory was probably already published and in use – it could be the information for the 1942 directory was published sometime in 1941 before her divorce became official.  Note that 4 March 1943 was only the date the Spiro’s marriage record was stamped in Berlin with the information about their divorce and Gertrude’s name change. Gertrude started using her maiden name again about the time of her divorce, and it took a while to have the divorce and her name change registered in Berlin.


Armed with the new information about Gertrude’s divorce, I contacted the Archiwum Panstwowe w Warszawie (Polish State Archives in Warsaw) for a search of the records of the German Court in Warsaw.  The USHMM has only some of the collection- the rest is at the Archives in Warsaw.  The response to my request was disappointing:  The letter reads:


The Polish National Archives in Warsaw

Your inquiry of 15 Jul 2016
Number:  0-1.634.410.2016
Date:  18 Aug 2016

In reply to your inquiry we kindly inform you that a search was carried out in the following surviving and incomplete collections for information about Gertrude Priess-Spiro and Soni Priess-Spiro, who were in Pawiak prison, and then transported to the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II:

Special Court in Warsaw 1939-1944, – 72/643/0,
German court in Warsaw 1940-1944, – 72/1207/0,
Higher German Court 1940-1944, – 72/3703/0,
The prosecution at the Special Court in Warsaw, – 72/1601/0,
The District Court in Warsaw 1917-1944, – 72/639/0,
Court Grodzki in Warsaw 1939-1944, – 72/1946/0,
Prosecutor of the Regional Court in Warsaw, 1917-1944, – 72/640/0,
Office of the Chief of the Warsaw District 1939-1945, – 72/482/0,
Off of the Chief of the Warsaw Dist SS and Police Leader in Warsaw 1939-1944, – 72/482/0,
The collection of documents from the period of World War II 1939-1945, – 72/1978/0.

No documents were found that could be positively identified. In addition, we
did not find any evidence related to the divorce of Gertrude Priess-Spiro.

In addition, we note that we do not have in our collection any materials on the civil status of Jews from the Garwolin area, or notary acts of Albert Cintera, making it impossible to find a birth certificate for Leo Spiro or documents relating to the name change by Gertrude Priess-Spiro.

To continue the search, we must have the address (street and house number) in Warsaw of the persons you wish to research.  Please send this information.

Furthermore, we would like to point out that we do not have information on where you can find records on the civil status of Jews from Garwolin in 1897.

If you have interest in further research, we advise you to contact the Jewish Historical Institute, ul. Tłomackie 3/5, 00-090 Warsaw and Pawiak Prison Museum, Branch Museum of Independence Street, Dzielna 24/26, 00-162 Warsaw.


Of course, I wrote them immediately with Gertrude’s various addresses and dates:

Gertrude’s residence:

Waliców 7/21     June 1939
Długa 5                March 1941
Tamka 48            1941 – 11 May 1943

Gertrude’s liquor store:

Nowiniarska 2     1941-May 1943

answer-about-gertrudes-addresses-28-sep-2016Their response was that they don’t have books of residents for the street addresses: Waliców 7/21,  Długa 5 and Tamka 48.  They also state that Gertrude’s shop at 2 Nowiniarska St. is not registered in the Fond of District Court for Warsaw / Dept of Trade / Part A, but they don’t specify which years this Fond covers.

We will keep trying…

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

Who Am I? What is My Name? Part VI – Our Search for Gertrude Spiro

Who Am I? What is My Name?  Part VII – Gertrude’s Other Children?

Who Am I? What is My Name?  Part VIII – Gertrud and Leo’s Trial

Who Am I? What is My Name? – Part IX – Gertrude’s Sisters!

Who Am I? What is My Name? – Part X – Gertrude’s Marriage and Divorce

Who Am I? What is My Name? – Part XI – Berlin, Warsaw, and the German Soldier

Who Am I? What is My Name? – Part XII – Taking Stock

Posted in Finding Birth Parents, Historical Identifications, Holocaust Project, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Calendar of Upcoming Events

October 2016 through March 2017 

October 20, 2016

2:30 pm
Forensic Genealogy:  The Database Detective

6:30 pm
The Secrets of Abraham Lincoln’s DNA

The Polish Genealogical Society of Massachusetts & the Chicopee Public Library
Chicopee Public Library
449 Front Street, Chicopee, MA  01013

Barbara Kulig


October 22, 2016

1:45 – 3:00 pm
Six Degrees of Separation

3:30 – 4:45
A Different Kind of DNA Talk

The Polish Genealogical Society of Connecticut and the Northeast

Diane Sepanski
(860) 919-6333


October 24, 2016

Forensic Genealogy

West Virginia Department of Forensics and Investigative Science
208 Oglebay Hall
P.O. Box 6121
Morgantown, WV 26506-6121


January 18, 2017
7:00 pm Eastern Standard Time

Webinar:  You Will Never Look at Your Old Photos the Same Way Again

The Georgia Genealogical Society

Laura Carter


January 25, 2017

Forensic Genealogy

National Forensic Academy Forensic Symposium
1201 Oak Ridge Turnpike #101,
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

Daniel G. Anselment
Training Consultant
Law Enforcement Innovation Center


January 29, 2017
12:00 noon

Forensic Genealogy:  CSI Meets Roots

Czech Area Genealogical Society
Jagerhaus Restaurant
2525 E Ball Rd
Anaheim, CA 92806

Judy Broberg


February 8 – 11, 2017
Session Times TBD

Session 91203
Resources for International Searches

Session 91224
Hospital Records – An Untapped Goldmine 

Session 91485
Fun with Photos–The Sheboygan Dead Horse Picture

Session 92076
How to Find Living People using Global Technology

Salt Palace Convention Center
100 South West Temple
Salt Lake City, Utah 84101


February 13-18, 2017

The Mysterious Case of Lori Ruff – Solved!
The Tamam Shud Mystery – Old Case, Modern Forensics

The American Academy of Forensic Sciences
69th Annual Scientific Meeting
Hyatt Regency New Orleans
601 Loyola Ave
New Orleans, LA 70113


March 1, 2017
12:45 pm

Solving Mysteries through Forensic Genealogy

Philanthropic Educational Organization
Location TBD in Villa Park, CA

Jill Kuli


March 17, 2017

What is Forensic Genealogy Anyway?

South Orange County California Genealogical Society
Family History Library
27976 Marguerite Parkway
Mission Viejo, California  92692

Arlene O’Donnell


Spring Semester 2017

Holocaust Survival and Reunion Stories:  Separating Fact from Fiction Using Genealogical Research Techniques

Interactive workshop sponsored by the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies Jewish Cultural Endowment and Boston University Center for Professional Education

Boston University
Location and time TBD

Posted in About Me, Calendar, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

ISHI 27 – David O’Shea and the Grandmothers of the Plaza

logoThis year’s International Symposium on Human Identification (ISHI27) was amazing.  Top DNA researchers from the international community attended, along with forensic specialists and law enforcement personnel interested in advancements in DNA technology.  The topics ranged from DNA phenotyping with ever-more-accurate predictions of hair color, eye color, and ethnicity, to the sexual assault kit backlog, to Rapid DNA analysis for mass disasters and missing persons cases.  The Wednesday afternoon session on Interesting Cases was my favorite, featuring the identification of the remains found at the Dozier School for Boys and how the Grim Sleeper serial killer was identified through familial searching.

davidosheaThe keynote was given at the Tuesday opening session by internationally recognized video journalist David O’Shea. O’Shea is known for his tough journalism. He has traveled the world to interview warlords, smugglers, military leaders and politicians on both sides of international conflicts.

O’Shea addressed the conference on his documentary on the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo (Asociación Civil Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo), a human rights organization formed in Argentina in 1977 in response to the disappearance of hundreds of children who were either kidnapped or born to mothers who were “disappeared” political dissidents during the country’s “Dirty War” in 1974-1983.  It was discovered that after giving birth, the captive mothers were executed, and their children were sold or given to families supporting the military government regime – sometimes the killers themselves.  By stealing the children of the disappeared, the junta believed that it would not only eliminate its political opponents, it would also eliminate their children.  They would not grow up with the political views of their parents.

As O’Shea explained, pregnant captives were fed better, and then kept alive for some time after the birth of their children so they could nurse them.  The mothers were then executed and the babies were take home by their killers or to childless couples who were politically aligned with the regime.  It is estimated that about 500 babies were either kidnapped or born in captivity.

plaza-de-mayo-692x300The Grandmothers started their marches in the Plaza de Mayo in 1977, at the height of the kidnapping and executions of left-wing activists.  They were fearless in their demands that Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla account for their grandchildren. Their efforts led to the creation of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team and the National DNA Databank. In 1984, the first child was identified by genetic testing with the assistance of Dr. Marie-Claire King, a geneticist at the University of California at Berkeley.

The President of the Grandmothers of the Plaza, Estela Barnes de Carlotto, 85, was nominated for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.


Estela Barnes de Carlotto

In November 1977, Estela was a school principal in Buenos Aires when her daughter Laura was abducted by a military death squad. In April 1978 she learned from one of Laura’s fellow prisoners that Laura was still alive and that she was pregnant with a baby that would be born in June. In August, Estela was called to the police station to retrieve Laura’s corpse.  She was told she was “privileged” to have the opportunity. Laura had been shot in the stomach and her face had been smashed with a rifle butt.

Realizing that there were many other grandmothers like herself who were searching for their lost grandchildren, she helped found the Association of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, named after the city square facing the presidential palace in downtown Buenos Aires.  Since the Grandmother’s first recovery in 1984, 119 stolen children have been identified.  In 1989, Estela became their president.

Quien soy yo? is a video on YouTube that documents a visit Estela made to an elementary school in 1985, shortly after Argentina’s return to democracy.  In the film, she explains to a class how the children came to be stolen, and how the Grandmothers were working to reunite them with their families. She explains that Tatiana and Mara, the first two children who were identified as stolen, were allowed to stay with their adoptive families. The children were secure and happy living with the only families they had ever known, and their biological parents were dead.

Along the way, there were stories that brought up policy issues.  Should parents of stolen children be sent to prison?  They were the only parents the stolen children had ever known.  Many were good parents, with no knowledge they had adopted a stolen child. Some parents did not want their children to give DNA to the Databank, and put pressure on them not to contact the Grandmothers. Some children ran away from the Grandmothers to Uruguay or Paraguay.

One of the case histories O’Shea presented was that of “Juan” who was born in a detention center.  His mother was killed, and he was taken home by a military police officer. He was the 77th child recovered.

Juan was 26 years old when he discovered his true identity.  He had had a lot of self doubts about himself, but he brushed them aside.  He felt so different from the family he had grown up with.  It was logical to him to find out that he was not their son.  He keeps in touch with his sister, but he does not see his father.  He cannot forgive his mother for not speaking out.

“Gustavo” grew up with his mother and her sister. His mother showered him with love, but he was wracked with self doubts.  Ever since he was 12 years old, he had asked about his father, but his mother was evasive and refused to answer his questions.  She said his father had been killed in an accident.  He asked what kind of accident.  Her answer was vague.  He asked where the accident happened.  She wouldn’t tell him.

He started looking for his father assuming his mother was his mother, and that he was the product of a one night stand.  His mother died when he was 14 years old, taking the secret to her grave.  After that, Gustavo had a mental breakdown and hit rock bottom.

When Gustavo finally took the DNA test, he was amazed to discover his mother was an impostor.  His name was really Marco and not Gustavo.  Finding his birth parents and his true identity was the incentive he needed to turn his life around. Marco was calm and at peace, but his alter ego Gustavo had been on drugs.

Marco had not gone to take the DNA earlier out of his innocent love and loyalty to the “mother” who had shaped his character.  He could not believe his birth grandmother had been looking for him.  He was deeply moved that she had never given up her search. He could not imagine the fear his adoptive mother experienced in keeping her secret – his picture was on the banner the Grandmother carried on their marches every week around the Plaza de Mayo.

There are now 18,000 samples in the National Genetic Databank at the Carlos Durand Hospital in Buenos Aires.  On the average, five to eight people a day donate samples to the databank or give samples in the provinces.  There is also a separate databank that contains DNA from mass graves with the hope of identifying the lost parents.

O’Shea commented that anyone can walk into an embassy anywhere in the world and give a sample, because some of the perpetrators fled overseas.  Last month, there was a case in Paraguay where DNA from bone samples was matched to surviving family members of stolen children in Argentina.  O’Shea himself came across a woman from Argentina who was living in Wellington, New Zealand. He encouraged her to donate a sample because she suspected she could be a stolen child.

ernestinaThe most controversial case has been that of Ernestina Herrera de Noble, a prominent Argentinian publisher and executive.  She is also the largest shareholder of the Grupo Clarín media conglomerate and director of the flagship publication Clarínthe Spanish language newspaper with the highest circulation in the world.  In 1976, Noble adopted two infants, Felipe and Marcella.  Suspecting they might be stolen children, the Grandmothers spent two years trying to obtain their adoption records.  The adoptions were unofficial and done through the church.  Ernestina claimed that she had found the children on her doorstep, but because the family lawyers fought so hard to prevent DNA testing, the Grandmothers became suspicious that the two children had been stolen.

In 2001, Felipe and Marcela agreed to be DNA tested and their results were compared to the two families who were suing them over the matter.  However, the tests indicated there was no relationship.

In 2009 Ernestina agreed that the children could be tested through the Forensic Medical Court, but the Grandmothers believed the court to be corrupt. They insisted the children be tested by the National Databank since it had the only regulated laboratory available.

Instead, Felipe and Marcella’s homes were raided, and DNA samples obtained from the children’s clothing and other personal items were submitted to the National Databank. Unfortunately, the samples were contaminated, so that the results were inconclusive. DNA of two men and a woman was obtained from Felipe’s shirt; his socks yielded no DNA at all. Marcella’s socks produced a mixture of DNA from three individuals.

In April 2010, Marcella Noble told the Associated Press:

FILE - This June 3, 2010 file photo, shows Marcela Noble, left, and her brother Felipe Noble, posing for pictures after an interview with The Associated Press in Buenos Aires. The adopted children of Ernestina Herrera de Noble, the owner of Grupo Clarin, one of Latin America's largest media companies, decided June 17, 2011 to voluntarily undergo DNA tests, in order to determine their identities, comparing their samples with such left by relatives of political dissidents who were killed after giving birth in captivity during the 1976-1983 dictatorship. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko, file)

Marcela and Felipe Noble

Our identity is ours. It’s a private thing and I don’t think it’s up to the state or the Grandmothers to come and tell us what is ours.

Her statement did not go down well with the public. Shortly after this, the government passed a law authorizing DNA testing for cases relating to crimes against humanity, including kidnapping children.

A court ruling in 2011 forced the collection of saliva, to which the Noble children surprisingly agreed. Yet a comparison of Felipe and Marcella’s DNA was not permitted against the entire databank; a comparison was permitted with only about 50 families who were thought to be related. Although a relationship with the majority of the families was ruled out, there were a few results that were inconclusive.  While the Noble family was satisfied that this indicated Felipe and Marcela were not stolen children, the Grandmothers insisted that a DNA match might be found in the future to families who have not yet come forward to donate samples to the databank.

The case created a debate about the ethics of forced testing. For the Grandmothers, it was never a moral dilemma.  It was a crime to steal babies – so many people were affected. Estela had decided that Ernestina was guilty, and most people agreed.  However, Estela realized that DNA testing was an invasive process – scenes at the Noble house had made her feel uncomfortable.  In the future,  she realized that individual compulsory testing must be done with more sensitivity.

Marco believes that if Felipe and Marcella are children of the disappeared, having them tested will bring peace for everyone.  Marco’s kids knew him as Gustavo; they had to adjust to living with Marcos, a new guy.  He was the same person, but a new person at the same time.


Francisco Madariaga and his father Abel.

Reunion #101 was that of Francisco, a street performer who proved to be the son of Estela’s secretary Abel, whose pregnant wife had disappeared 30 years earlier. Francisco had been adopted by an intelligence officer who worked at Campo de Mayo hospital where he was born in 1977.  Abel and Francisco were reunited at the Grandmother’s office.  Because of his adoptive father’s cruelty, Francisco had left home when he was 16 years old and since then had lived on the street.  His father had been was one of the kidnappers and torturers.  Francisco has testified against him in court.

In 2014, Francisco’s story was eclipsed by that of Ignacio Hurban, Child #114, who proved to be Estela’s missing grandson.  After 36 years, at the age of 85 years old, she was finally reunited with him.  Ignacio had just discovered that he had been adopted, and shortly thereafter, found himself sitting next to his grandmother, the most respected woman in Argentina and one of the most famous women in the world.  Shortly after his reunion with Estela, he changed his name to Ignacio Guido Montoya Carlotto.  Guido was the name his mother had given him at birth, after his grandfather, Estela’s husband.

There are about 380 more children to be found.  When President Obama visited Buenos Aires in March 2016 for the 40th anniversary anniversary of the coup that began the military crackdown of labor unions and leftist opponents, he remarked:

We’ll cannot forget the past.  But when we find the courage to confront it, when we find the courage to change that past, that’s when we build a better future.  


Estela Barnes de Carlotto with her newly found grandson Ignacio

Posted in DNA Testing, Finding Birth Parents, Historical Identifications, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Extreme Genealogy – Arrival in Berlin and First Visit to the Berlin Bundesarchiv

Flight to Berlin and Arrival
Thursday, August 11, 2016

My trip from Los Angeles to Berlin went smoothly with a layover in Keflavik Interntional Airport.  It is the cleanest airport in the world. It felt more like an igloo than an airport – snug from the elements.  Yet it was a beehive of activity – with people snacking in one of several cozy cafes, or browsing the stores which naturally offer beautiful Icelandic sweaters and other products. The sandwiches are the most beautiful sandwiches I have ever seen. I was tempted to exchange $10 for Icelandic krona at the money exchange, but thriftiness got the better of me.

The gates are small- there is no waiting area.  When it is time to board, you just queue up in front of the door leading to the gateway.


Keflavik Airport has the most beautiful sandwiches in the world!

There were people sleeping here and there on the benches along the concourse, but it didn’t seem to disturb anyone.  They were obviously tired travelers needing some shuteye during their layovers.

I finally arrived in Berlin Schoenefeld Airport near 11:30 am.  I didn’t have to pass through customs – I guess that happened in Keflavik without me realizing it.  It was all so painless.

Berlin Schoenefeld Airport is a relatively small airport, easy to navigate.  Many people speak English.  There are ATM machines in the lobby and it’s easy to buy a bus ticket or get a cab.  Public transportation is abundant and everyone is very helpful.

Berlin Schoenefeld Airport

Berlin Shoenefeld Airport

Berlin is an amazing city – so open and so easy to get around.  Berlin’s BVG public transportation system is wonderful.  You can get anywhere.  In preparing for my trip, I chose to stay at the Best Western Steglitz because it is nested in a tangle of bus routes and near both S-Bahn (light rail) and an U-Bahn (subway) stops.  There is a supermarket next to the hotel, and a small plaza in front surrounded by a number of cafes, restaurants, and bakeries. There is also a shopping mall and at least two banks across the street.

Best Western Ssteglitz Hotel International

Best Western Steglitz International

I arrived at my hotel at about 1:00.  After I got settled in my room, I headed directly for the Bundesarchiv Lichterfeld– the branch of the German National Archives in Berlin.  The Bundesarchiv is only a 15 minute bus ride on Bus 85 or Bus 285 (plus a 10 minute walk) from the hotel- or a 25 minute trip on the S1 with a transfer to Bus X11 bus that leaves you just about at the main gate.

The Bundesarchiv is divided into seven branches, each  responsible for a different aspect of the preservation of documents, film, and photographs relating to German history.  The branch in Lichterfeld is the repository for documents from the German Reich, the DDR (German Democratic Republic) and SAPMO (Foundation Archives of Parties and Mass Organisations of the GDR).  It also holds 1.7 million books, newspapers and periodicals are kept here for research into recent German history.

I have been interested in visiting the Bundearchiv Lichterfeld because of my research into Gertrude Spiro, the woman who smuggled my friend Pnina from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942.  If you don’t know who Gertrude is by now, pleaae read the first couple of articles I have written about her.


On the way to the Lesesaal at the Bundesarchiv, Berlin Lichterfeld

In getting set for my visit to the archives, I ordered files over several weeks before my arrival. Note that the Archives requires at least five days’ notice to retrieve files for you if you want them to be available when you arrive. After that, you can request them for the following day.

My initial contact was Herr Günter Wehner, the editor of the book Widerstand in Berlin gegen das Nazi Regime.  Herr Wehner is a scholar of the German resistance during WWII, and visits the Archives three times a week.  Over the last twenty years or so, has compiled an index of about 20k names and short biographies of members of the resistance in Berlin during the war.  It was in those indexes that Cate Bloomquist discovered that Leo and Gertrude Spiro had been arrested in 1936 and put on trial for “preparing to commit treason”.

Widerstand in BerlinHerr Wehner was kind enough to contact the archives about the actual trial records- his book is mainly an index. He quickly came up with a list of possible records, but on further inquiry, he focused on only one record describing Gertrude and Leo’s indictment and sentencing.  It was an amazing account of their activities during the period leading to and during their trial. They were actually in prison for 18 months before they were even sentenced.  Other records were available, but as far as I could understand, they were part of an extensive transcript of the trial of the resistance leaders Margarete Kaufmann and Gustav Urbschat.  The Archives obviously did not have the resources to comb the thousand-page transcript for mentions of the Spiros.


Herr Gunnar Wehner, author of Widerstand in Berlin gegen das Nazi Regime.

In preparing for my trip, I had placed a stream of requests for all the documents that were on Herr Wehner’s original list, plus several others pertaining to the Roehrs and Gerlachs.  I wanted to make sure I would have a continuous supply of reading material aMargarete Kaufmannvailable and would not have to waste time waiting for a file to be pulled.

The archivists in the reading room seemed to be expecting me, as they had a large stack of folders waiting for me when I walked in. Unfortunately it only took me a few minutes to realize that most of them were not the files I had ordered.

There were a number of mistakes. For example, instead of files from signature R2018, they had pulled files from signature R2017.  There were also two other files from RY55 on microfiche that had nothing to do with Gestapo indictments and sentencing, but rather with international bank loans made to Germany.  These were on the original list, and had been discounted as being relevant, but the Archives wanted me to see them for myself. Considering two other references (R 58/3687, Blatt 112 and R 58/3688, Blatt 186) were so detailed – down to the “blatt” or page number- I was suspicious.  Surely there must be something there that perhaps was badly referenced. It was only later that the mistake was corrected, and I was able to collect a list of resistance workers who had been indicted from 1936 that included Alfred Roehrs and his wife Martha Maria Priess.

Leo and Gertude's trial records p1

Leo and Gertude’s indictment p1

Leo and Gertrude's trial records p2

Leo and Gertrude’s indictment p2

However there was one file that made up for all of the confusion – the original trial records of Leo and Gertrude Spiro.  Herr Grunwald had sent me electronic copies weeks ago, but there was something so thrilling about actually holding the original fragile yellow pages in my own hands. They were probably typed by a Gestapo clerk in 1936 from some raw transcript – someone who had been at the trial, and perhaps had even seen Leo and Gertrude in person.  Although this intermediate was unfortunately anonymous and present only through a piece of paper 80 years later, this was still one step closer to the pair themselves.  Hopefully all this will lead to a known family member who can tell me about them from first-hand experience.

Holding HandsThis brought the couple to life for me.  When I saw a young man and woman holding hands in a cafe or with their heads together on the train, I imagine them as Gertrude and Leo during the better times of their lives, as newlyweds or as a young couple with their young daughter Sonia, perhaps proudly pushing her through the street in a baby carriage, showing her off to the neighbors. I looked at the apartment buildings I passed and thought – that’s where they could have lived.  I could imagine the meetings described by the trial records having taken place in any of them.  I could imagine the comings and goings of the cast of characters described in the records taking place in any of the entrance ways I passed on the street.

I would normally post a photograph of myself holding those trial records, but alas! –cameras and cell phones cannot be used in the research areas. You are also forbidden to use pens – everything must be in pencil.  Everything except laptops, research notes, paper, and pencils must be stored in the lockers.  On September 1, the Archives is going to start a program to allow visitors to photograph documents, but that was not possible during my visit.

Everyone at the Archives was very nice and tried to straighten the files out for me the best way they could.  But Herr Grunwald, my point of contact, was on vacation, to return on Monday.  The only new information I found on my first visit consisted of index cards with abstracted information about Gertrude and Leo’s imprisonment (the arrest cards of Association of Victims of the Nazi Regime, or Vereinigung der Verfolgten des Naziregimes, VVN-Haftkartei).  I already had most of that already, but I still requested the Archives copy them for completeness.  The Archives does not permit anyone to make copies of paper documents from their stacks.  You must order them through Selke, their contractor.  The copies will arrive typically within three to four weeks.

To be continued…


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Who Am I? What is My Name? – Part IX – Gertrude’s Sisters!

Gertrude Spyra and Charlotte Rebhun, Warsaw, about 1942

Gertrude Spiro and Charlotte Rebhun, Warsaw c. 1942

Since 2012 we have been trying to discover the birth identity of Pnina Gutman, who as an infant was smuggled from the Warsaw Ghetto with the assistance of a woman named Gertrud Spiro.  We realized from the beginning that our best chance at solving the mystery was to find out as much as we could about Gertrude and her daughter Sonia, hoping they left some record behind of their activities.  We have faced many challenges; when we started out, we did not even know the correct spelling of their last name.  Thanks to our persistence, we can now account for most of Gertrud’s whereabouts from the time she was born in Bladiau, East Prussia on 24 February 1899, until the day Gertrud and her daughter Sonia disappeared from a transport to Auschwitz on 24 August 1943.

Our recent discovery that Gertrud had two sisters has eclipsed all of our other accomplishments. They are without doubt dead by now, but if her sisters had children, Gertrude may have nieces and nephews who are still alive who might be able to give us information about their mysterious baby-smuggling Aunt.  It’s even possible their nieces and nephews knew Gertrud and Sonia well if they survived the war and returned to Berlin to be near their family.

The recently discovered trial records from the Bundesarchiv in Berlin have added some valuable information to what we already knew about Gertrud. Most importantly, the trial records of another insurgent Margarete Kaufmann mention Gertrude’s brother-in-law Alfred Roehrs, who along with Gertrude and her husband Leo David Spiro, was involved in the illegal KDP (Communist Party) in the mid 1930s.

According to p 12 of the records:

012 Marked Up

Page 12 from the Bundesarchiv trial records 

In early 1936, Margarete Kaufmann feared that the State Police would organize a search of her house. She entrusted her typewriter to the defendants, who were aware that the machine was used to produce illegal and inflammatory publications. At first, the defendants kept the machine at their house, until they were asked by Margarete Kaufmann on 6 June 1936 to bring the machine immediately to the home of the co-defendant Röhrs (Prosecution B). Gertrud Spiro carried out the transfer at noon the same day.  Margarete Kaufmann arrived while she was still at the home of her in-laws the Röhrs.

This told us that Gertrude must have had a sister.  But where to find her?

Sometimes even with difficult projects, the tried-and-true works best.  When Cate Bloomquist searched Ancestry.com for a woman named Pries(s) from Berlin who married a man named Roehrs or Röhrs, she came up with Martha Maria Pries, b 20 Nov 1901 in Bladiau, East Prussia, the daughter of Friedrich and Maria Pries. Martha was unemployed.  Her address was given as N 54 Brunnenstrasse 175/177, the same as Gertrud’s family address in Berlin.  Martha must certainly have been Gertrud’s sister.

Martha Maria Marriage Record, p1 Martha Maria Marriage Record, p2Martha married Albert Alfred Roehrs on 17 Jun 1920.  Had they married just a few months later, their marriage record might not have appeared online.  Ancestry has only posted the marriage records from Berlin through 1920.

Alfred was born 15 September 1895 in Neu Weisensee near Berlin, the son of the late Heinrich Karl Roehrs, a furniture maker most recently from Berlin, and Wilhelmina Augusta Roehrs nee Boehm. Alfred varnished furniture for a living. The witnesses to the marriage were Friedrich Pries, 47, a wagondriver, Brunnenstrasse 175/177, Berlin, presumably the father of the bride, and August Pries, 44, a coachman, Zehdenicker Strasse 15, Berlin, presumably the uncle of the bride. Both Friedrich and August provided their military IDs as identification.

Martha Maria Marriage Record, p1 Martha Maria Marriage Record, p2Searching Ancestry for additional marriage records in the same district Berlin Xa, I discovered a second sister, Berta Johanna Priess, b 19 June 1895 in Quilitten, Kreis Heiligenbeil.  She was the daughter of Friedrich and Maria Priess. She was a cook and lived at the Priess family residence N 54, 175/177 Brunnenstrasse, Berlin.

Berta married Ernst Otto Gerlach on 20 July 1918 in Berlin.  Ernst was born 24 Jul 1891 in Paplauken, Kreis Heiligenbeil.  He was a farmer, the son of the late Kristfer(?) Karl Gerlach of Paplauken, and Maria nee Schirmacher. He was a resident of Gross Lindenau, Kreis Konigsburg, Prussia. The witnesses were August Priess, 42, a coachman, Zehdenicker Strasse 15, presumably the uncle of the bride, and Maria Priess, 46, the wife of a wagon driver, Brunnenstrasse 175/177, presumably the mother of the bride.

If there is still any doubt whether Berta and Martha were related, the signatures of the witness August Priess on their two marriage documents are very similar.

Unfortunately, since Leo Spiro and Gertrude Priess were married in 1923, their marriage record does not appear in the Berlin marriage database on Ancestry.com, since it only goes as far as 1920.

The Berlin marriage indexes are online on the website of the Berlin Landesarchiv. They cover some city districts through 1933.  Searching District Xa for the years 1918 and 1920, I was able to find a reference to the marriage of Gertrud’s two sisters, but not to Gertrud’s marriage to Leo Spiro.  In fact, I could not find a reference to Gertrude and Leo’s marriage in any district in Berlin.  This was a surprise; in the case of a mixed Jewish-German marriage, it was probably mandatory that the marriage be registered with the civil authorities.

The sisters’ marriage records produced more information than expected about the Roehrs and Gerlach families.  In the top right hand corner of Berta’s marriage license there is a stamp dated 5 Jul 1967 indicating that Berta died on 3 March 1963 in Leipzig, death certificate No. 498/1963.  It is not known why the stamp is dated four years after her death. Perhaps that is when her husband Ernst died.

On the bottom left corner of the back of Berta’s marriage record there is a second stamp that indicates Berta gave birth to a daughter in Ottenhagen in 1927.  No name is given.  The birth certificate of the daughter is No. 27/1927.

Martha’s marriage record also carries a stamp in the upper right hand corner, dated 18 August 1978. It indicates that her husband Alfred Roehrs died on 24 June 1978 in Wandlitz, Kreis Bernau.  His death certificate number is given as 52/1978.

According to the German Personal Status Law Reform Bill (Personenstandsrechtreformgesetz) of February 2007, as of 1 January 2009, Germany privacy laws restrict birth records for 110 years, marriage records for 80 years, and death records for 30 years.  While recent birth records may be hard to get, marriage records beyond 1936, and death records beyond 1986 should be publicly available.

Since Berta died in 1963, my next step was to write to the Leipzig Stadtarchiv (city archive) to ask for a search for Berta’s obituary and to obtain a copy of her death certificate.  German obituaries as different from ours here in the US.  They do not appear on alphabetical lists of people who have died that day or the day before.  Instead, German families usually submit announcements that look like calling cards of various sizes that tile the page of a newspaper.  The announcement can appear as long as a month or more after the family member dies.

Unfortunately, the search for Berta’s obit in the Leipziger Volkszeitung from 4 March through 23 March 1963 was unsuccessful.  It could be that the family published her obit later, or that they did not publish an obit at all.

Berta's Sterbeurkunde_498_1963 from the Leipzig Archives

Berta Priess Gerlach’s death certificate obtained from the Leipzig City Archives

The search for Berta’s death certificate was more successful.  It was not difficult to locate, as I was able to supply the archives with her exact date of death and the certificate number.  The certificate confirms much of what we already knew about Berta, that she was born on 19 Jun 1895 in Quilitten, Kreis Heilingenbeil, that she married Ernst Otto Gerlach on 20 Jul 1918 in Berlin District Xa, and that she died in Leipzig 6 March 1963 at 11:25 am.  Her address at the time of her death was Leipzig-Neusellerhausen, Erich-Ferl-Str. 26.  She died at Karl Marx University Surgical Clinic, Liebigstrasse 20, Leipzig.

Berta’s death certificate does not give us much more information than we had, however, it does tell us her address in 1963. If we can find the Leipzig city directories from that year, we can determine what Ernst Gerlach did for a living.  Since he had a common name, this will help us distinguish him from others by that name.  We may also find other Gerlach relatives living at the same address.

Berta’s marriage certificate offers the additional information that she had a daughter in 1927 in Ottenhagen.  On instructions from the archivist at the Leipzig Stadtarchiv, I wrote to the city hall in Uckerland, the municipality where Ottenhagen is located about 1-1/2 hours northeast of Berlin. I providing the number of the birth certificate for Berta’s daughter.  Unfortunately, they told me they did not have any such record in their archives.

Oserki, Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia

Oserki (formerly Gross Lindenau), Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia

Acting on a hunch, I discovered there was a second town called Ottenhagen (now Berjosowka) in East Prussia. Until 1939 the local administrative district of Ottenhagen also included the town of Gross Lindenau (now known as Oserki).  Both towns are now a part of the Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia.  It would make sense that this Ottenhagen was the one referred to by the stamp on Berta’s daughter’s birth certificate, as Ernst Gerlach was a resident of Gross Lindenau when he married Berta in 1918.  The Kaliningrad Oblast is a Russian enclave surrounded by Latvia and Poland.  To get to Russia from Kaliningrad, you must travel east through Belarus.

Kaliningrad Map Marked Up 2

The former towns of Paplauken, Quilitten, Bladiau, Oserki, and Gross Lindenau, East Prussia

It seems that the Priess family had roots in East Prussia. Gertrude and her younger sister Martha were born in Bladiau (now Pjatidoroschnoje), East Prussia. Her older sister Berta was born in Quilitten (now Schukowka), just 2 km south of Bladiau along what is now Hwy A194. Berta’s husband Ernst Gerlach was born in Paplauken (now Timirjasewo), a tiny village of 42 people in 1910, only 1 km south of Quilitten along Hwy A194.  Since Ernst and Berta were born about 1 km apart, it is possible that they had known each other since childhood.

I’ve contacted Susan Gaupp, the administrator of the Kirschspiel-Bladiau site to ask about obtaining birth records from the area.  She replied that there were very few.  She knew nothing about the genealogy of the area.

Hopefully some of these new leads to will still help us locate the descendants of Gertrude’s two sisters Berta Priess Gerlach and Martha Maria Pries Roehrs.  Hopefully those descendants will have some knowledge of what happened to their Aunt Gertrude and Cousin Sonia. Did they survive the transport to Auschwitz?  Did they survive the war?  Did they return to Berlin or even East Prussia and live near their family?

Stay tuned…

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

Who Am I? What is My Name? Part VI – Our Search for Gertrude Spiro

Who Am I? What is My Name?  Part VII – Gertrude’s Other Children?

Who Am I? What is My Name?  Part VIII – Gertrud and Leo’s Trial

Who Am I? What is My Name? – Part IX – Gertrude’s Sisters!

Who Am I? What is My Name? – Part X – Gertrude’s Marriage and Divorce

Who Am I? What is My Name? – Part XI – Berlin, Warsaw, and the German Soldier

Who Am I? What is My Name? – Part XII – Taking Stock

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Claude and the Geography Lesson


The départements and overseas territories of France.

By the time I was asked to find Claude and Marie Dexter* in France, I had pulled a few unclaimed property rabbits out of unclaimed property hats so that I had become the company’s patron saint of hopeless cases. Typically, when they finally got around to assigning me a case like Claude’s, they had exhausted all their own resources yet had not been able to find their man.

My first stop was my favorite website www.numberway.com, with links to telephone directories worldwide. France’s online Pages Blanches were tedious to navigate back then. You had to individually search each of the 96 “départements” (France’s equivalent of US states) and overseas départements and territories.  These included  island territories in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, and French Guiana on the South American continent. France also has overseas collectivities and minor territories, a handful of uninhabited islands worldwide, as well as a claim in Antarctica – which I decided to leave until later (much later).

You can imagine how long it took me to discover there were only six Claude Dexters in all of France.  I tried to call each of them, but managed to speak with only two. Either no one answered at the other numbers, or they were out of service.  (Sacré bleu!) In desperation I expanded my search to include Jean Claude Dexters, thinking that maybe Claude might be his nickname.

Pages Blanches de FranceI eventually noticed that something was wrong with Claude’s last known address. What appeared to be a street number and name, followed by a town and postal code, was actually two towns and two postal codes.  This gave me a hint on where to narrow my search for Mr. Dexter.

In one of these two towns, let’s call it Antheor, I discovered a Claude Dexter who was married to a Marie. This turned out to be a coincidence and not the Claude-Marie combination of interest.  However, there was a Jean Claude in town who looked promising.  I gave him a ring.

Non,” he said.  He wasn’t the right Claude Dexter, but he did recall a Claude who had passed through Antheor some time back.  He offered to ask around to see if he could find anyone who remembered him and might be able to give me more information about him. I emailed Jean Claude the address for Claude I had been given by the investment company, advising him about the other Claude-Marie combination I had run into.  Then I prepared to wait.

two-people-eating-dinner-clipart-1The next day, there was an email in my box from Jean Claude.  I was surprised to hear from him so quickly.  He explained that after we spoke, his neighbor dropped in for a visit. Of course, Jean Claude told him the news about the woman from America calling him asking for Claude and Marie Dexter.  After all, this isn’t something that happens every day.

The neighbor was shocked – Claude Dexter was his cousin.  He had only met him once when he was in town several years earlier.  Claude had visited Antheor because he was working on the Dexter genealogy and wanted the discuss the cousin’s branch of the family. Sometime after that, the cousin explained, Claude had moved to Morocco. The neighbor added that Claude used to travel a couple of times a year between Paris and and Morocco, but that in recent years Claude had opted to spend more time in Morocco.  I discovered that one of the Claude-phone numbers I had tried without getting an answer had been Claude’s apartment in Paris, and one of the Claudes who had failed to answer his phone was Claude Jr., my Claude’s adopted son.

Incroyable!  I had initially done a Google search for 800px-Morocco_location_mapClaude Dexter, but, without more detailed information, I could not tell if any of the links led to the right person. Looking back I realized that one Claude Dexter who appeared at the top of the Google list had written at least a half dozen books on the Asian philosophy of Zen – and also lived in Morocco.  Voila!

Back to Numberway and the “Maroc Annuaire“.  There he was, living
in M’Diq, a town on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco. Without the information from his cousin, I don’t know if I would have found him in this obscure corner of the world.

I quickly called Claude to confirm he was the right one.  Of course he was.  We shared a few fascinating minutes talking author-to-author about the importance of continuing to write and sharing one’s expeM'Diq Welcome Signrience, wisdom, and knowledge with others. And that was it.

I turned in his contact information to the investment company.  They were impressed -Morocco was the last place they would have looked for Claude Dexter.

Although Claude is probably long gone by now, I hope to visit M’Diq one day.  I think I would enjoy it.

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They Never Thought I’d Find Them but I Did!

When people ask what I do for a living, I tell them “I read minds”.  This is not far from the truth.

The case of the Chedidi’s* stands out in this regard.

In about 2007, the international investment company I worked for gave me an assignment to find a couple named Jack and Lily Chedidi* who were owners of unclaimed property in the US. Their last known address was in London. My only responsibility was to return the phone number of the couple or their next of kin, leaving the business end of things to the investment company.

Easy enough.  I searched the UK phone books on www.numberway.com, to discover there was only one listing for a Chedidi in the UK.  So I called him. Unfortunately, he knew nothing about Jack and Lily.  Rats!

Since the property was in the US, I searched the US white pages and public record websites for Chedidi.  There were three, and even though they were never listed all together at the same time, pairs of Chedidi’s shared either a phone number or an address with each other at one time.  I figured that they must be relatives.

But alas! All the phone numbers were either disconnected or belonged to a non-Chedidi. Doing a Google search, however, I found a work number for a Chedidi who owned a computer company in Arlington, VA.  I dialed the number.  A young man answered the phone.

programmer-working-on-the-computer-free-vector-3734“Hello,” I said.  “May I speak to Michael Chedidi?”

“Speaking,” he replied.

I told him my name and that I was searching for Jack and Lily Chedidi.  Would that be his family?

“I don’t talk about my family,” he replied.  I was stunned.

“Oh, I am sorry to disturb you,” I said.  “It’s just that your name is so unusual that I thought you might be related.”

“It’s not unusual where I come from,” he said.  “But I don’t talk about my family.”

“Have a good day, ” I said.  A bit rattled, I hung up.  I had exhausted all my Chedidi’s.  Now what?

“Hmmm,” I thought to myself.  “Not unusual where I come from… I wondered where he comes from?”

Numberway LebanonSo I Googled Chedidi to find it is a common name in Lebanon.  Back to www.numberway.com for a lookup in the Lebanese phone book.

Bingo.  There was only one Jack Chedidi listed in the book.  I got my self together and took a deep breath, not knowing what a phone call to Lebanon would be like.

I dialed the number, mentally tuning my mind to French, just in case.  I don’t speak Arabic, so nothing could be done about that.  No problem with English.

“Hello,” a woman answered.

[Strategy kicked in here].  “May I speak to Lily?”, I said in English, figuring that if I could identify her as part of a Jack and Lily combination, I’d have it.

“Speaking,” she said.

Chocolate Layer CakeDouble Bingo!

I explained that I was calling because there was property in the US that someone wanted to speak to them about.  Then I rang off.  I turned the Chedidi phone number into the investment company and that was it.

As the say in Arabic “قطعة من كعكة” – a piece of cake!


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