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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An Adventure in International Unclaimed Property – Seeking The Von-Fiorellos

Hyatt Regency, Merida, Mexico

The Hyatt Regency, Merida, Mexico

About ten years ago, when Andy and I were in Merida, Mexico on business, I received an email from the international investment company I worked for.  They had been trying to find owners associated with unclaimed property, but without success.  They contacted me, as usual, for a last ditch effort in solving the case.  The names they gave were Ernest and Maria Von Fiorello* with an address in Innsbruck, Austria, dating back perhaps ten or more years.

From what I was told, the company had sent a Private Investigator to the old address of the Von Fiorello’s, hoping that the neighbors would be able to tell them where the couple had gone.  The PI had also gone to Innsbruck city hall to find out if there were any records relating to the couple’s residency there.  Unfortunately, he had come up empty-handed and there was a deadline to meet just a few days away.  They needed a specialist on the case so they called me.

Since Andy and I were in Mexico, I had to be creative in pulling together resources that I did not have that would otherwise have been available in the US. At the time, we did not have internet access at the Hyatt where we were staying, so my first stop was the internet cafe across the street, where I would be able to check the international phone books online.

Map of Innsbruck and Ortisei - Marked UpThinking about it for a moment, I realized that the name “Von Fiorello” sounded more Italian to me than Austrian.  Since Innsbruck is only about 30 miles from the Italian border, I wondered if the couple could have moved to Italy.  Searching the Italian phone book on www.numberway.com, I came up with an Ernest Von Fiorello living only about 70 miles away near a town called Ortisei*, in the province of Bolzano.  Hmmm… The name was not common.  What was the chance I had the right Ernest?

Of course, my cell phone would not work in Mexico.  So my second stop was Oxxo, a small convenience store across the street where I bought a Mexican phone card. We headed back to our hotel, where we squeezed into one of the hotel’s public phone cabins in the lobby.  Calling from our room would have been too expensive, and a public phone on the street would have been too noisy without any privacy.

Convenience Store across from the Hyatt Regency in Merida - LargerHaving to call Italy many times in the course of unclaimed property work and heir searching, I have since taught myself enough Italian to explain the reason for my call and who I was looking for.  But at the time, my vocabulary was rudimentary:  “Hello”, “Please”, “Thank You”, “Lasagna” and “Goodbye”.  For linguistic insurance and to make things a bit more friendly, I looked up how to say “My name is Colleen”.

I was a little nervous dialing the Von Fiorello’s phone number in Ortisei.  A man picked up the phone. “Il mio nome è Colleen” I said. “Ernest and Maria Von Fiorello, per fervore?”, I asked, curling my voice up on the end to make them understand it was a question – a trick to avoid needing to use more words I didn’t know.  I was prepared to add “Innsbruck” in a pinch, since it is probably pronounced the same way in Italian.

calling_cards_store displayThe man said something I didn’t understand, but it seemed that he agreed his name was Ernest.  Then he added “Maria Marta”.

Wow, I thought. I don’t know Maria’s middle name.  How can I know if she was Maria Marta or Maria Elizabeth or Maria anything else?

“Maria Marta”, the man repeated several times.  “Maria Marta”.

I froze for a moment, at an impasse.  This really could be the right Von Fiorellos, but how could I know without further research on Maria’s middle name?

In a much needed moment of inspiration, it struck me what he was trying to explain – “Maria marta” = “Maria died”.  I realized I probably had the right couple.

I quickly emailed the investment company the current address and phone number for Ernest and Maria Von Fiorello. Missione compiuta!

The search involved four countries – the US (international investment company), Mexico (me), Austria (old address of the Von Fiorello’s), and Italy (new address of the Von Fiorello’s).  Not too bad for a day’s work.  This was not my most challenging search for the company, but it stands out as one of the most clever and satisfying.  Bravo!

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

Das Bundesarchiv Trial Records

According to Widerstand in Berlin gegen das NS-Regime 1933 bis 1945 (Resistance in Berlin against the Nazi Regime 1933-1945), Leo and Gertrud Spiro were put on trial in Berlin in 1938.  Trying to locate their court records, I contacted the editor of the book Dr. Gunter Wehner, a scholar of the German resistance.  Dr. Wehner is 83 years old, and a well-known researcher at the Bundesarchivs (National Archives) in Berlin-Lichterfelde where the records are archived.

WiderstandinBerlin Leo and Gertrude Spiro_1 p1

Leo and Gertrud’s Trial Records

Dr. Wehner offered to help by locating trial records in the Bundesarchiv that mentioned Leo and Gertrud, including those included in his book. Although we would have to go through official channels to order copies of what he found, Dr. Wehner told me he would review the information included in each file he discovered. The Archives only copies whole files, even if the subjects of interest are a small part of what is available; having Dr. Wehner look at the files first would allow us to know which ones were worth copying.

A few weeks later, I was notified by Herr Andreas Grunwald, Archivist at the Bundesarchiv, that Leo and Gertrud were mentioned in quite a few of the Archive’s collections, but after some research by Dr. Wehner, it was discovered that this was incorrect. Only one collection included information relevant to the Spiros – the court proceedings of the resistance fighter Margarete Kaufmann who was arrested in 1936 for publishing and distributing illegal literature.  The Spiros were arrested on 20 June 1936 as her associates.

The Kaufmann court proceedings consisted of over a thousand pages. Fortunately Dr. Wehner discovered that only file R 3001/ 181466, dated 25 March 1937 – Berichtsakte des Generalstaatsanwalts bei dem Kammergericht in Berlin an das Reichsjustizministerium (Report of the Attorney General at the Court of Appeal in Berlin at the Ministry of Justice) – included information on Leo and Gertrud.

Scanned images of the court proceedings arrived in my mailbox the day I was leaving for a trip to the East Coast.  The folder was a goldmine of new information about the Spiros.



The date of the proceedings was 25 March 1937.  The individuals on trial were:

  1. Friedrich Cyrus, laborer, resident of Schulzendorf, Kries Teltow, Kieferweg 11, born 17 June 1896 in Berlin; married, no previous record.  Arrested 25 August 1936; on the basis of the arrest warrant issued by the District Court on 25 September 1936 -710 Ge.1362.36- in custody in the Berlin prison on Lehrterstrasse.
  2. Anna Reffert, investor, resident of Berlin-Schoenberg, Templehofer Strasse 11, born 26 Jul 1898 in Rottweil/Wurttemberg, single; no previous record; on the basis of the arrest warrant issued by the District Court on 25 September 1936 -710 Ge.1362.36- in custody in the women’s prison in Barimstrasse.
  3. Franz Vettorazzi, bellhop, resident of Berlin N. 64, Ruckerstrasse 3, born 9 February 1891 in Strehlen (Breslau), single; no previous record.  Arrested 25 August 1936; on the basis of the arrest warrant issued by the District Court on 25 September 1936 -710 Ge.1362.36- in custody in the Berlin-Tegel prison.
  4. David Leo Spiro, leatherworker, resident of Berlin SW. 19, Kommandantenstrasse 55, born 15 March 1897 in Garwolin, Kreis Lublin, Poland; married; no previous record. Arrested on 20 June 1936, released 24 June 1936, re-arrested 22 July 1936; on the basis of the arrest warrant issued by the District Court, on 25 September 1936 -710 Ge.1362.36- in custody in the Plotzensee Penetentiary.
  5. Gertrud Spiro nee Priess, milliner, resident of Berlin SW. 19, Kommandantenstrasse 55, married; no previous record.  Arrested on 20 June 1936, released 24 June 1936, re-arrested 22 July 1936; on the basis of the arrest warrant issued by the District Court on 25 September 1936 -710 Ge.1362.36- in custody in the women’s prison in Barimstrasse.
  6. Elise Benzin nee Bruggemann, tap dancer, resident of Berlin No. 43, Meyerbeerstrasse 5, born 25 September 1886 in Asslerfelde, Kreis Stade; divorced; no previous record.  Arrested 13 July 1936, released again 26 September 1936.
  7. Leo Haedke, driver, resident of Berlin No. 43, 5 Meyerbeerstrasse, born 27 February 1898 in Deutsch-Krone married, no previous record.
  8. Robert Hubner, locksmith, resident of Berlin No. 34, 11 Kochhannstrasse, born 22 October 1888 in Klein Herzberg, Kreis Neustettin, widowed, twice sentenced for theft. Arrested 13 July 1936, on the basis of the arrest warrant issued by the District Court on 25 September 1936 -710 Ge.1362.36- in custody in the Berlin prison on Lehrterstrasse.
  9. Georg Selbiger, salesman, resident of Berlin No. 43, Meyerbeerstrasse 5, born 21 January 1883 in Berent (West Prussia), married, no previous record. Arrested on 20 June 1936, released 24 June 1936, re-arrested 22 July 1936; on the basis of the arrest warrant issued by the District Court, on 25 September 1936 -710 Ge.1362.36- in custody in the Plotzensee Penetentiary.

According to the records, these nine defendants were accused of having prepared to commit high treason in Berlin against the Constitution from 1933 until Summer 1936, by influencing the masses by the distribution of written material.

There is biographical information given for Leo and Gertrud:

The defendant Leo Spiro, a Jew, attended a private school in Warsaw run by his father between the ages of 6 and 14 years old.  After that he worked as a leather worker. After the occupation of the Warsaw by the Germans during the war, he moved to Freiberg, Silesia where he worked in the defense industry.  After the end of the war, he worked in Berlin as a porter. Since 1922 he has worked as a leather worker again.  In 1932 he founded his own workshop.

The defendant was not formerly politically affiliated.  Before its political takeover, he belonged to the union of upholsterers and paperhangers.

The defendant Gertrud Spiro attended her village school in East Prussia.  In 1912, her parents moved to Berlin, where she continued her elementary school education.  After she graduated from the 2nd class, she went to work(?) until she was 18.  After that, she continued her education as a milliner, and later worked from home in this profession until she married in 1923.

The defendant was not formerly politically affiliated.

The two defendants were acquainted with the Communist leader Margarete Kaufmann for some time. Their friendship resulted in many mutual visits, especially since in 1933 Leo and Margarete were found to be distant relatives.  When Margarete Kaufmann stayed at their home, she often discussed political questions with them. During this time, she hinted that she was active with the illegal KDP (Communist Party).  She tried to convince the defendants that Communism was the only right way.

In 1935, as “Emi”-Frau of the Berlin Central District, Margarete Kaufmann had to provide for the accommodation of Communist fugitives. She was assigned to a certain “Anton” by the Emi-Leader of the area, who also went by the alias “Kurt Lewinski”, and who for a while had been in the Berlin Central District.  Margaret Kaufmann brought this man to the two defendants and told them that he was a Pole who was a fugitive who could not register with the police.  The defendants were ready to take him into their house.  That they didn’t know that this was a politically illegal activity is hard to believe, considering their close relationship to Margarete Kaufmann.

In the fall of 1935, an official meeting took place illegally in the apartment of the defendants, during which Anton described a number of allegations against the then Organization Leader Urbschat that had to be discussed. Besides Urbschat and “Anton”, Margarete Kaufmann appeared at the meeting with a man known as “Hans” who served at a higher level in the area. The meeting led to the result that Urbschat quit his position and was replaced by Margarete Kaufmann. Although the defendants did not take part in the meeting, they were aware of it. The defendant Leo Spiro opened the door himself for Hans, and chatted with him in a way that Urbschat had the impression that the defendant was well known to Hans.

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 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. She handed the defendant jewelry and a pawn ticket for a watch, and asked them to keep them safe for her. The reason she gave was that she was afraid of her Aryan boyfriend, by which they assumed that he had betrayed her.

The defendants have confessed to only part of this.

So far, they deny that they were won over by the statements of Margarete Kaufmann and Gustav Urbschat.


There are similar passages that describe the crimes of the other defendants. Later pages in the records give more details about Leo and Gertrud.

In the Name of the German People!

In the criminal matter against:

  1. The leatherworker David Leo Spiro from Berlin SW 19, Kommandentenstrasse 55, born 15 March 1897 in Garwolin, Kreis Lublin, Poland, now in the Plötzensee penetentiary.
  2. The milliner Gertrud Spiro nee Priess from Berlin SW 19, Kommandentenstrasse 55, born 24 February 1899 in Bladiau, East Prussia, now in the Barimstrasse women’s prison,

for preparing to commit high treason.

The following took part in the Fourth Criminal Division of the Appeals Court session of 26 April 1938 in Berlin:

Chariman: Senate President Ministerial Director Jager
Appeals Court Judge Eilers
Appeals Court Judge Halledt
Appeals Court Judge Strecker
Appeals Court Judge von Spoenle

As Associate Judges:

Court Assessor Kaster as the public prosecutor
Court clerk Boeck as recorder

The accused are sentenced for preparing to commit high treason:

David Leo Spiro to three years six months in prison
Gertrud Spiro to two years in prison.

Their civil rights are suspended:

David Leo Spiro for a period of four years
Gertrud Spiro for a period of three years.

This time period shall take into account time already served:

David Leo Spiro – one year six months
Gertrud Spiro – one year nine months

This trial, divided into several indictments, has dealt with the illegal KDP in the subdistrict Berlin Cental. The Communists Margarete Kaufmann, Gustav Urbschat and Willi Riencke have been condemned by the people’s court. Here we address two more defendants, the Spiros, who in 1935/36 were allegedly used by the illegal KDP.

They have given the following information about themselves:

The accused Leo Spiro is a Jew. He attended a private school run by his father in Warsaw between the ages of 6 and 14 years old. After that he worked as a leather worker. After the occupation of the Warsaw by the Germans during the war, he moved to Freiberg in Silesia where he worked in the defense industry. After the end of the war, he worked in Berlin as a porter. Since 1922  he has worked as a leather worker again.  In 1932 he founded his own workshop.  The defendant was not formerly politically affiliated.  Before its political takeover, he belonged to the union of upholsterers and paperhangers for a short time – five or six weeks.

The defendant Gertrud Spiro attended her village school in East Prussia. In 1912, her parents moved to Berlin, where she continued her elementary school education. After she graduated from the 2nd class, she went to work(?) until she was 18. After that, she continued her education as a milliner, and later worked from home in this profession until she married in 1923. Out of this marriage a child was born in 1925. The defendant was not formerly politically affiliated.

The accused, as both have stated, are familiar with the aforementioned Margarete Kaufmann, a Jew. This acquaintance developed in 1933 when Kaufmann visited Leo Spiro’s workshop and asked to have a purse repaired. She came often, and befriended Mrs. Spiro. She used this excuse to visit once or twice a week, although there were times she did not visit at all. Kaufmann was, as she testified, the “Emi”-Frau of the subdistrict Berlin Central. In 1935, she was the head of the organization in this subdistrict, and in the end of September 1935, certainly the Agit-Prop-Leader. She resigned from her post in Berlin Central in November 1935, and in the beginning of 1936 was active with the organization’s publications.  Later she became a field consultant.  She has testified that the accused were not informed about her illegal activities.

The defendants have also declared in the main hearing that they did not know that Kaufmann was an operative for the illegal KDP. This is impossible to believe. While they may not have been individually informed about Kaufmann’s activities, in the course of their acquaintance with her, they must have recognized that she was operating illegally, along with the others she brought to their house. From the beginning of their acquaintance, Kaufmann made the defendants understand that she disagreed with everything that was happening in the Third Reich. She often discussed Jewish issues and she spoke in general about Communism; she was always trying to influence the defendants with these discussions. At the end of 1934 or the beginning of 1935, Kaufmann introduced both defendants to the aforementioned Reinke as her boyfriend under the name “Hans”.  The defendants admitted to all of this in the main trial.

As all the witnesses have testified, Reinke, who was known as “the blonde Hans”, was until the middle of June 1935 the Pol-Leader in the subdistrict Berlin Central, and from the beginning of 1936, Org-Leader in the subdistrict Stettin. He had meetings with a Communist operative known as the “dark Hans” who was a landscaper. In the beginning of January 1935, the dark Hans was brought to the defendants’ house by Kaufmann to drop in at the end of a meeting. Kaufmann explained to him that the defendants were KPD sympathizers. He understood that Kaufmann had informed the defendants about her illegal activities.

During Kaufmann’s activities in subdistrict Berlin Central, the witness was on the average at the defendants’ residence once a week or once every other week. While he was there, he occasionally wrote reports for the illegal newspaper in pencil, while the defendants stayed in the kitchen. In April or May 1935 the witness brought his foreman, the landscaper Hans, to the defendants’ residence. This happened when the witness took Hans with him to the residence of the accused because he was tired of the meetings. The witness agreed with his foreman that in case the meetings failed, they would seek out the apartment of the defendants and come together there. That never happened, however; their two meetings never failed to take place.

The witness had only met Hans once accidentally at the home of the accused. In June 1935 the witness’ activity in the subdistrict Berlin Central came to an end. His successor was at that time a woman named “Grete”. The witness assumed that the landscaper Hans had brought Grete to the residence of the accused. In June 1935, shortly before his departure for Pomerania, he visited the accused to say goodbye. On this occasion, Frau Spiro said that the “tall Grete” had been at their home. From the middle of June 1935, the witness was in Pomerania to visit his relatives. From there he wrote the defendants a letter, in which he told them he was in the hospital. He also told them about the arrests that had happened in his small neighborhood in Berlin. The witness assumed that the letter would be read to Grete or to the landscaper Hans; the purpose of this false information was to be spared from other illegal co-workers. The witness had at that time no desire to continue with illegal activities, but was afraid to say that openly.  After his return from Pomerania, the witness visited the defendants a couple of times, as he says, to chat, once in October 1935 and then again in November 1935.  In November 1935 he accidentally ran into the landscaper Hans at the home of the defendants.  In February the witness visited the defendants to buy a pocketbook for his daughter.  During this visit, he accidentally ran into the landscaper Hans again.  They left the residence of the defendants together. In the street, the witness was brought up to date by Hans about further illegal activities.  The witness finally visited the defendants in March or April 1936, to pick up the pocketbook he had ordered; on this occasion he accidentally ran into Kaufmann.

It follows that from the beginning of 1935 until the year 1936, there was a constant flow of Communists at the residence of the defendants.

The narrative continues for several more pages, but the most important part at the end describes their sentencing:

In determining the sentence it has to be taken into account that Ms. Spiro obviously acted under the influence of Margarete Kaufmann and her husband. Therefore she is given only the most lenient sentence of two years in prison.

The penalty against Mr. Spiro must be much more severe. For him, it should be considered that he is a Jew and foreigner who has carried out extensive activities to the gross detriment of the host nation. Therefore a sentence of three years six months is ruled necessary and sufficient.

The nature of the offense requires the suspension of the civil and political rights of the defendants.

The defendant Mrs. Spiro, who has spoken openly during the main trial, is given full credit for time served since her arrest. In contrast, Mr. Spiro who was very restrained in his testimony, will be credited with only part of the time he served pre-trial.


Berlin, May 24th 1938
Rinarer, Secretary of Justice
As registrar of the office of the Superior Court


Summing up, the narrative of Leo and Gertrud’s trial from the BundesArchiv offers a few more clues about Leo and Gertrud and their activities, including:

  1. Gertrud as born in Bladiau in East Prussia.
  2. Gertrud had a sister who was married to a man named Röhrs.
  3. Leo and Gertrud were married in 1923 in Berlin.
  4. Their child (presumably daughter Sonia) was born in 1925 in Berlin.
  5. They were arrested on 22 July 1936 and sent to prison 25 September 1936.
  6. Their trial took place on 26 April 1938, with sentencing on 24 May 1938.
  7. Gertrud’s release date would be 25 September 1938; Leo’s would be 26 April 1940, based on their arrest date, the sentences they were given, and the credit they were given for time already served.

International Traing Service Trial Records

The records from the Berlin Archives had just arrived as I was leaving for a trip to the East Coast, where I was planning to visit the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington DC. I am well-known there by the archivists and staff of the International Tracing Service (ITS).

While searching for information in the ITS, I came across more trial records for Leo Spiro, dating from his arrest in September 1936, his sentencing through his release on 26 April 1940. The ITS documents also include Leo’s vital information, in addition to relevant information about Gertrud.

According to these new documents, Leo Spiro was the son of Abraham Leiser Spiro and Lea nee Graf. As of 31 May 1938, the day Leo signed his personnel form, Leo and Gertrud had a 13-year-old daughter (presumably Sonia) who was living with his in-laws at 176 Brunnerstrasse, Berlin. This was the address of Gertrude’s parents, Friedrich and Maria Priess. This also checks out as the address of an Alfred Röhrs, presumably the husband of Gertrude’s unnamed sister.

It is poignant to see Leo’s signature at the bottom of the form.

david Leo Spiro's Signature

The most important part of this new collection, however, is a response by the Attorney General of the Court of Appeal to a request from Gertrud for clemency for her husband Leo. It reads:

12119813_0_18 12119813_0_19

The Board of the Prison and Detention Center
Brandenburg (Havel) – Görden

Subject:  Clemency for the Penitentiary Prisoner Leo Spiro

Reference:  Request of 27 Jun 1939

To the Attorney General of the Appeals Court

3 July 1939

The Jewish penitentiary prisoner Leo Spiro is serving a prison sentence of 3 years 6 months, less 1 year 6 months time served, for preparing to commit a treasonable act under the above referenced case number. His release date is set at 04/26/1936. In the accompanying petition his wife requests a pardon for Leo Spiro, who is to be expelled from the Reich at the completion of his sentence. His wife was also convicted of preparing to commit treason to 2 years in prison in the same criminal case. In the accompanying petition she asks for a pardon for Leo Spiro, who is to be expelled from the Reich after his sentence is complete.

Spiro has, in obedience to his responsibilities during his present imprisonment, behaved in an orderly manner and performed satisfactorily. Through his offense, he has abused the hospitality granted to him by the German Empire, by supporting the illegal KDP in 1935-1936 with his actions aimed at its violent overthrow. In this respect, any requirement for the granting of a pardon is negated. I therefore reject the request.

Senior Administrative Officer


18 Jul 1939

The Attorney General of the Appeals Court
Berlin W 35, the 18 Jun 1939

Gertrud Spiro nee Priess
in Warsaw
Walicow 7/21

At the request of 23 Jun 1939, I have, after examination of the facts, found no reason to favor a pardon for your husband Leo Spiro. On the basis of my authority, I deny your request.

On behalf of
Dr. Weyermann
Attorney General

There is another letter that describes Leo’s fate once he was released on 26 April 1940:

12119813_0_17Secret Police (Gestapo)
Control Center, Berlin

To the management of the prison and the detention center
Brandenburg (Havel) = Görden

Berlin, 26 February 1940

Subject:  The political prisoner David Leo Israel Spiro
                 b. 15 March 1897, Gorwolin (sic), Kreis Lublin
                 Last residence:  Berlin, Kommandenstrasse 55

According to the communication of 12 February 1940, David Leo Spiro is to be released on 26 April 1940.  

I request that Spiro be sent here to be questioned as against Spiro there are additional charges pending.

The pieces of the puzzle are now falling into place. Earlier, through the ITS, we discovered the records of Leo’s imprisonment in the Berlin Plotzensee Prison:

Brandenburg Prison Records _1 Brandenburg Prison Records _2

Inhaltverzeichnis:  Namenliste uber Gefängene des Strafgefängnisses Berlin-Plotensee 1933-1945.  
(Table of Contents: Name list of prisoners of the prison Berlin-Plotensee 1933-1945). Collection of the International Tracing Service, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC. Leo David Spiro’s name is the first on the list.


We now know for certain that Leo Spiro never left the prison system. As stated above in the letter from the Gestapo dated 26 February 1940, and also noted in the Brandenburg Prison records (see below) when Leo Spiro had completed his sentence in Brandenburg Prison on 26 April 1940, he was transferred to the Polizeigefängnis (Police Prison) in Berlin. As we found earlier, he was then sent to Sachenhausen and after that on 7 August 1941 to Ravensbruck. He final transport was on on 25 March 1942 when he was brought to the Bernberg Euthanasia Camp outside of Berlin, and executed the same day.

Alphabetical list of prisoners serving their sentences at Brandenburg Prison, 1933-1944, Deutsche Dienstelle in Berlin. Collection of the International Tracing Service, US Holocaust Memorial Museum Washington DC. 

Gertrude’s Fate

Thanks to the ITS trial records, we know a lot more about Gertrud’s activities before she appears in the 1941 and 1942 Generalgouvernment directories for Warsaw. We now have her chronology as:

24 February 1899              Born in Bladiau, East Prussia
1911                                       Moves to Berlin with her parents
1923                                      Marries Leo Spiro
1925                                      Gives birth to her daughter Sonia
1929-1931                            Listed with husband Leo in Jewish city directory of Berlin
22 Jul 1936                          Arrested with Leo for preparing to commit treason
25 Sep 1936                         Sent to the women’s prison on Barimstrasse, Berlin
26 Apr 1938                         Sentenced to 2 years in prison, with credit for time served
26 Jul 1938                          Presumably released from prison
23 Jun 1939                         Lives in Warsaw; requests clemency for Leo, still in prison
26 Jul 1939                          Presumed end of three years probation period
1941-1942                            Manages liquor and cigarette shop at 2 Nowiniarska St, Warsaw
1942                                      Lives at 48 Tamka St., Warsaw
11 May 1943                         Arrested with daughter Sonia; taken to Pawiak Prison
24 Aug 1943                        Listed on manifest for transport of 141 women to Auschwitz
25 Aug 1943                        Absent from list of arrivals at Auschwitz

We also have to rule out the Gertrud Preiss (note spelling of last name) who married Stephan Gryczak, as being the same person as our Gertrud. We don’t yet know where our Gertrud was in 1929-1931, but considering she married Leo in 1923, and her daughter Sonia was born in 1925, it would have been hard for her to go to Berlin to have given birth to two sons in 1929 and 1931 with another man. According to the records of the German Court in Warsaw, Gertrud Preiss-Gryczak registered her two boys Zdislaus and Richard in 1937, at the same time our Gertrud was in the women’s prison in Berlin.  The two women cannot be the same person.

Our aim in researching Gertrud Priess-Spiro is to discover the networks she belonged to, who she knew and who she worked with, hoping that somewhere in that network we can find a German soldier who had the courage to try to save a Jewish baby from the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto. Who knows?  Maybe his name was Wenglinski.

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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Calendar for May – August 2016

My calendar will be updated on an ongoing basis

May 18, 2016

7:00 pm
You Will Never Look at Your Old Photos the Same Way Again!

South Bay Genealogical Society
Katy Geissert Civic Center Library
Community Meeting Room
3301 Torrance Boulevard
Torrance, CA  90503

Donna Braly


28 May – June 4, 2016

Lectures at the FHL TBD

Hooked on Genealogy Tour
Salt Lake City, UT


9 June 2016

1:00 pm
The Secrets of Abraham Lincoln’s DNA

Orange County Rotary Club
Grand Catering Events
300 S. Flower St.
Orange, CA  92866

Warren Parchan


August 12, 2016

10 am
Topic TBD

Sunshine Club
Leisure World
12501 Seal Beach Blvd.
Seal Beach, CA  90740

Anna Derby


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Who Was Joseph Smith – Close Calls and Possible Candidates

Joseph Smith, c 1945

Joseph Smith

We have just a few scraps of information to go on in searching for Joseph Smith’s original identity, many of which are questionable. But we have to make the most of what we have, since that’s all we have.

Joseph always said his birth date was 15 July 1896.  My experience has been that if someone changes his name, he usually keeps his original date of birth, but if he steals someone else’s identity, he is forced to use the date of birth of his victim. In Joseph’s case, we have to assume that he changed his name but not his date of birth; without a birth date, we lack a key search criterion, making the potential pool of candidates nearly limitless.

Another clue is that Joseph’s mother’s name may have been Anna Spivack, the name that Joseph’s son Irwin supplied for her on Joseph’s death certificate.  Her first name Anna is the most reliable information we have, because Joseph requested that his youngest granddaughter be named after his mother.  Of course, we have to take into account variations on the name – she could have been called Anne, Annie, Fannie, or something similar.  And her last name may have only been close to Spivack, perhaps even Litvak; it is common for a capital S to be confused with a capital L.

Joseph gave his father’s first name as either Isaac or Irwin.  Well, what do you think?

And what about his brother Jack who was supposedly in the construction industry?  If Joseph was Jewish, as Morton’s DNA test results indicate, was Joseph’s brother’s real name Jack, or was his real name Jacob and his nickname Jack?  The information about his brother came from Joseph himself as part of the story of the unidentified cousin, Jack’s son, who passed through Los Angeles on his way to serve in the South Pacific in WWII.  Someone surely did pass through Los Angeles, but was he really Joseph’s nephew?  If so, how did this nephew know how to contact Joseph several decades after Joseph had “disappeared”?  Was Joseph still in touch with his family?

Living in the era of “big data”, it is great to have access to so much information online, and to be able to connect with other researchers who can retrieve records for us that are thousands of miles away from where we sit at our computers.  The downside to this, however, is that the amount of data available is so large that we are bound to come across coincidences.  Sometimes it can be simple to recognize one for what it is worth, but in Joseph’s case, how can we distinguish a coincidence from the truth when we are not so sure what that truth is?

Along the way, I’ve confirmed some close calls for Joseph in the 1900 and 1910 census records.  I know they are close calls and not the real thing because I’ve been able to track the “calls” past 1913 using later censuses and military records.

Ancestry family tree of John Joseph Spisak

Ancestry family tree of John Joseph Spisak

One of the most interesting near misses is John Joseph Spisak, born 7 April 1897 in Suterville, a tiny community about 30 miles southwest of Pittsburgh in western Pennsylvania.   His parents were Istvan (Stephen) Spisak and Anna Stefanocski, who emigrated from Hungary in about 1895. Despite the obvious parallels – the initials or first names of his parents, his Eastern European ethnicity, and his middle name – John Joseph can’t be the same person as Joseph Smith. John J appears in the 1920, 1930, and 1940 censuses in Suterville.  In 1920, he is living with his parents; in 1930, John and his wife Florence live next door to his parents. By 1940, John and Florence have already had four of their five children and Anna is listed as a widow. Stephen had died earlier that year; Anna died in February 1941. John J and Florence are buried along with Stephen and Anna and a few other Spisak family members in the West Newton Cemetery in Westmoreland Co., PA.

1920-1940 census records listing John and Florence Spisak, Suterville, Westmoreland Co., PA

Istvan and Anna Spisak Tombstone, Find-a-Grave

A second close call involved another John Spisak.  According to his death certificate, this John Spisak was born 15 Jul 1894 in Pittsburgh, PA.  He was the son of Michael Spisak and Annie Timchak.  There are a few John Spisaks in the census records, but I have not been able to locate this one. I’ve also discovered a few couples named Michael and Ann Spisak from Pennsylvania or Upstate New York, but none who match the parents given on John’s death certificate.

John Spisak’s death certificate.

John Spisack, b 15 Jul 1894, d 6 Jun1949, son of Michael Spisak and Anna Timchak

Fortunately, John’s birth date is confirmed as 15 Jul 1894 by the image of his tombstone on FindaGrave.com. He and his wife Mary are buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery in McKees Rocks, Allegheny Co., PA.  The fact that they are buried in a Catholic cemetery probably also rules him out.  We don’t know if Joseph’s family practiced any religion, but Morton’s DNA test results indicate that Joseph’s parents were Ashkenazi Jewish from somewhere in Eastern Europe.

Still a third interesting possibility was discovered by Flynn Clarke Kennedy.  As she explains:

1900 Census Joseph Smith (line 74) and Irwin Smith (line 84), NY Foundling Hospital

1900 Census Kate Smith and her nephew Joseph, Phildadelphia, PA

I found a possibility: a 15-year old Joseph Smith is listed in the 1910 census living with his Aunt Kate on Nicholas Street in Philadelphia. This would fit if he was orphaned in 1908. She worked as a janitress at the Police Dept. and her nephew Joseph worked as a stock boy at a shoe factory. This Joseph Smith was exactly the right age. His census info was recorded on April 27, 1910, and it listed his age at last birthday as 15, which would be correct because he wouldn’t be 16 until July. Our Joseph married a woman whose nickname is Kate (at least that’s how she’s listed in the 1930 census), he worked at a shoe store, and he would have been 15 years old on April 27, 1910. The Joseph Smith in the 1910 census had an Aunt named Kate, worked in a shoe factory and is exactly the right age. Wow, how interesting. If we could look at the Guardianship records in the Philadelphia County Orphan’s Court, which I’m told is a division of the Court of Common Pleas, under the names Joseph Smith or Kate Smith, we might be able to find more info about Aunt Kate or Joseph, and would be able to eliminate him/them or confirm that this is our Joseph.

Aunt Kate’s Joseph is listed as having been born in Phila., but his parents are also listed as having been born in Phila. If they wanted to hide the fact that they were Jewish, this might be why the places were listed incorrectly. It might be that Aunt Kate wasn’t really an Aunt, just a friend of the family, and didn’t know or that Aunt Kate wasn’t the informant and the informant didn’t know.

William D, Vernon Williams, and Joseph D Smith, sons of William Deets and Alice Smith - Ancestry TreeBased on Flynn’s discovery, I’ve located a Kate Smith in the 1900 census who fits the description of the Kate in 1910.  This Kate was born in August 1865.  She was living with her mother Mary Flynn, Mary’s three grandsons (Kate’s nephews) William D (b Jun 1892), Vernon D (b May 1893), and Joseph D (b Sep 1895).  They were all born in Pennsylvania. Also in the household are Mary’s married daughter Annie D. Anderson, and Annie’s two children John W and Mary S.   This family can be traced back first to the 1880 census through Kate’s mother Mary (and her father W. D. Smith), and her married sister Annie Anderson, and then back to the 1860 census through Mary’s mother-in-law Susan (married to Jos T Smith).  The parents of the three boys are listed on an Ancestry tree as William Deets Smith Jr and his wife Alice.

It’s likely that this Joseph Smith who worked in the shoe factory was not Karen’s grandfather.

There is one additional possibility worth mentioning.  In the 1900 census for the New York Foundling Asylum in Manhattan, there is a Joseph Smith, b June 1896, listed on line 74.  This Joseph would not necessarily be a serious consideration, except that there is an Irwin Smith, b Jan 1897 listed on line 84.

Our Joseph Smith named his oldest son Irwin.

1900 Census Joseph Smith (line 74) and Irwin Smith (line 84), NY Foundling Hospital

1900 Census New York Foundling Hospital in Manhattan, NY

I’ve tried to find a Joseph Smith with this birth date in later census and military draft records, but to no avail.  It is impossible to know if he is the right one.


Finding the candidates listed above depended on searching on names similar to Spivak for Joseph’s mother, or by assuming that Joseph’s name really was Joseph Smith.  Since the 1900 census gives birth months and years, another way to search for Joseph would be to include in the search his assumed birth date of July 1896, and to assume his mother’s first name was Ann (and variations), while leaving his first and last name out.

Unfortunately, this produces tens of thousands of possible candidates, but the number can be drastically reduced to 167 by entering the place of birth for his parents as Russia, Poland or another Eastern Bloc country.  When the search parameters are changed to allow his parents to be born anywhere, but limiting the number of hits by introducing a brother named Jack or Jacob, only 24 possibilities come up, including six with parents from Russia or an Eastern European country who also appear in the first search.

One of the most puzzling of these is Henry Mitzmon, who appears in the 1900 census for Manhattan.  His parents are listed as Barnett and Anna. They stated they had been married for 20 years, yet they only had six children, all under the age of eight, and all of whom appear in the household with them:  Dave (b Feb 1892),  Jack (b Mar 1893), Max (b Sep 1894), Henry (b Jul 1896), Benjamin (b Jul 1898), and Polie (b Sep 1899).

When the family appears again in then 1910 census, their story is different.  Barneth (sic) and Annie now state that they only have three children, all of whom are living with them – and Dave (18), Jack (16), and Max (14).  There is no mention of their three youngest children Heny, Benjamin, and Polie (perhaps Pauline).

There are several other records for Barnett and Annie and their three oldest sons.  In the 1915 New York city directory, David appears living with Barnett at 116 Eldridge St in Manhattan.  In the 1920 census, both Jack and David are living with their parents at 88 Attorney St. in Manhattan. The WWI draft registration cards are available for Dave, Jack, and Max. Although their birth dates are not the same as those recorded in the 1900 census, they are identifiable because all three gave their address as 88 Attorney St. and reported that they had to support their father and mother.  According to FindaGrave and Italiangen.org, Barnett died 21 Jan 1920 and Annie died 14 Jun 1930.  They are buried in Mount Judah Cemetery, Ridgewood, Queens County, New York.

Draft registration records for David, Jacob J, and Max Mitzman

Although these and other records give us the history of Barnett, Annie, and their three oldest sons, their three youngest children Henry, Benjamin, and Polie seem to vanish after 1900.  How could the couple have reported that they had six children, all of whom were living with them on 6 April 1900, and then have changed their story in 1910 to having only three?  What happened to their youngest children, and most importantly, what happened to their son Henry, b July 1896?  Could he have left the family by 1910, only to reappear as Joseph Smith at Fort Slocum on 4 November 1913?

One last effort I will mention is that I’ve also contacted the webmasters at www.italiangen.org, to ask for a search of the New York birth records for possible Joseph candidates.  They were kind enough to send me the list of 255 male and female births they had transcribed for 15 July 1896 for all the boroughs in New York City, but there were no Joseph Smiths on the list and nothing to call out one birth over another.  It will take some time to go through the list, but we will keep trying.

Part I – Who Was Joseph Smith?


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