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 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, 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, 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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Who Was Joseph Smith?

The early life of Joseph Eugene Smith is a complete mystery.  Joseph’s son Morton and Morton’s daughter Karen have researched Joseph for over 20 years, yet they still don’t know who he was.  Hopefully by reading his story, someone may come forward with new insight into Joseph’s so far impenetrable history.

Joseph Smith's Death Certificate, 25 December 1973

Joseph Smith’s Death Certificate, 25 December 1973

Over the years, Karen has gathered an impressive collection of information about Joseph starting with his enlistment in the US Army in November 1913,  yet she has not been able to discover anything about him before that. Although Joseph Smith claimed he was born on 15 July 1896 in Philadelphia, his birth certificate has never been located.  His life prior to WWI is unknown; nothing has been found about his parents and family. Joseph died on 25 Dec 1973 in Los Angeles, taking with him the mystery of his identity.

The few pieces of the puzzle we do have lead us to believe that Joseph’s father’s name was Isaac, and that his mother was Anna Spivac and that she was from New York.  These names were on his death certificate in 1973, but Karen’s uncle (her father’s brother Irwin) filled it out. He knew as much as Karen and her father knew, although when Irwin’s last child was born, Joseph did ask that her middle name be Anna after his mother.

Apparently Joseph once mentioned he had a brother Jack who was in the
construction business and who had a son in WWII.  That son stayed for one night at Joseph’s home in Los Angeles while passing through from the East coast on his way to fight in the South Pacific. The Smith family never saw him again.

Joseph Smith and Kathryn Barkoff were married in Los Angeles on 20 Jun 1926.

Joseph Smith and Kathryn Barkoff were married in Los Angeles on 20 Jun 1926.

Joseph Smith married Kathryn Barkoff in Los Angeles on June 20, 1926.  The couple had been introduced by Kathryn’s cousin, who worked next door to Joseph in downtown LA. As silent as Joseph was, Kathryn was a warm and kind loving woman, upbeat and like an open book.  She could not keep a secret.

The Smiths have written several times to the National Records Center in St. Louis to request copies of Joseph’s military records, but they were destroyed in the archives fire in 1973.  Fortunately, they have Joseph’s personal copies of his two discharge records, dated 24 September 1926 and 25 September 1926, several years after he left the service. Joseph enlisted on 6 November 1913 at the age of 17 at Fort Slocum, NY for a seven year tour of duty. Sergeant Joseph Smith, No R50892, Company I, 28th Infantry was honorably discharged on 14 October 1919 by reason of reenlistment. He re-upped with a demotion to Private First Class and a cut in pay on 15 October 1919 at Fort Zachary Taylor, KY to serve 1 year.  He was honorably discharged on 14 October 1921 at Fort Zachary Taylor, and mustered out at Fort Lewis, Washington State.

Joseph’s First Discharge Certificates dated 24 Sept 1926 (two images to left), and 25 Sept 1926 (right).

Historically there is lot to say about his military career.  Joseph shipped out on June 14, 1917.  He fought in 4 campaigns and 4 battles.  One campaign was the hardest fighting in the Meuse Argonne Forrest. As a Sergeant he would have lead a 12 to to 24 man team, motivating his men time and again to go over the wall to certain death. He was gassed on October 2, 1918 and survived.  He fought along side famous people like Sergeant Alvin York, Black Jack Pershing, Future Generals MacArthur and Patton, US Marine Dan Daily, and Major Charles Whittlesey of the Lost Battalion. He was there during the Armistice 11th day, 11th month, at the 11th hour. He was part of the Big Red One, the oldest fighting force in America. His division returned to America September 5, 1919 and demobilized at Camp Zachary Taylor in Louisville, KY where he reenlisted.  Upon his second discharge in October 1921, when he mustered out at Fort Lewis, he took a bus down the coast to Los Angeles, where he found a job as a salesman at a shoe store in Huntington Park.

Joseph Smith’s Final Pay Statements
Joseph Smith's Social Security Application

Joseph Smith’s Social Security Application

Granddaughter Karen has searched the Family History Library records on She hired an expert from, but all he could do was to condense and validate what she already had given him.  She purchased Joseph’s original wedding certificate, but he only supplied his parents’ first names.  She purchased a copy of his original application for his SSN from 1936, but he gave his eldest son’s first name Irwin as his father’s name.  According to the 1930 census, his parents are from Germany, on his wedding certificate he says they are from Russia.  The 1930 census also indicates his education only went through the 6th grade.  Karen has written to every county in Philadelphia for a birth record, but without success.

1930 Census, Los Angeles, CA, ED  19-138, Supervisors District No 13, Sheets 12B & 13A

Joseph never spoke one word of Yiddish, he never went to synagogue and he could not read Hebrew.  However he did marry a Jewish woman.

DNA testing has not been much help either.  His son Morton, who is in his 80s, has taken the Family Tree DNA Y-DNA test and found his haplogroup to be RM124 (R2a) which apparently represents only 1% of Ashkenazi men.  His autosomal tests from 23andMe and Family Tree DNA indicate that he is is 98% Ashkanazi.  He has only 2nd-3rd cousin autosomal DNA matches that do not shed light on his family pedigree.

Karen’s father always had a hunch that he could have been an orphan or in foster
care. She has the feeling that he changed his name in 1913 enlisting in the army.  Her father Morton has his own theories:

“Entered the Army in 1913 at age 17.  Why would he do that as the war in Europe hadn’t even started yet.  My guess is that he was in some sort of trouble at the time and had to get away.  The Army would be very convenient.  But because he was in trouble, possibly had a police record, he enlisted with a name like Smith which would be hard to track down.  So he enlisted in November 1913 at Fort Slocum and was discharged October 14, 1919.  He then immediately enlisted and stayed another two years and finally discharged in October 1921.  He must have had good reason for not wanting to leave the Army in 1919, especially having to take a cut in pay and a reduction in rank.  I can only think the police were after him. So he left the Army and wanted to get away from the East Coast as far as possible.  Mustering out was offered at Fort Lewis, Washington and served two reasons.  First, he was able to collect more travel pay and second got him away from Philadelphia or NY where he may have been wanted.  He then took a bus down the coast to LA.  

“There is still some ambiguity about his father’s name and place of birth.  Some say Russia and some say Germany.  Also, some records indicate that his father’s first name was Irwin and others say Isaac.   It could have been Irwin because his father had already passed away when my brother was born.

“The initials of my brother and I are correct.  My middle name begins with an “A” for Anna and my brother’s begins with an “M” for Miriam on my mother’s side.

“I believe his job in the LA area was Huntington Park before he went to work in downtown LA. ”

Karen and her father would love to solve the  mystery of Joseph Smith’s true identity.

Left to right: Irwin Smith, newlyweds Joyce and Morton Allan Smith, parents of the groom Joseph Eugene and Kitty Smith, Los Angeles, CA, 9 Jun 1957

Left to right: Irwin Smith, newlyweds Joyce and Morton Smith, parents of the groom Kitty and Joseph Eugene Smith, Los Angeles, CA, 9 June 1957.

Part II:  Who Was Joseph Smith?  Close Calls and Possible Candidates

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

Holocaust research requires a lot of patience.  It can take years for a new development to occur.  Sometimes it is the result of hard work, and other times, a product of good luck. Sometimes new information will lead you in the right direction, sometimes it will lead you in the wrong direction.  And sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

Last week we received surprising new information about a woman who may be Gertrude Priess-Spiro.  This came to us thanks to Vincent Slatt, Archivist at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM).  On my recent visits to the Museum, I have discussed Pnina’s story with him along with the role that Gertrude played in her rescue from the Warsaw Ghetto, so that he is always on the alert for material that might be helpful to us.


District Court Office – Guardianship, Foster Care, Curatorship for Zdislaus Gryczak Richard – geb. 17.3.1929 – geb. 31.5.1931

Vincent explained to me that when he was browsing the USHMM’s newly acquired collection of the records of the German Court in Warsaw, he noticed a case involving two young boys, Zdislaus Gryczak (b 17 March 1929) and Richard Gryczak (b 31 May 1931).  The children had been born in Chylice, Nowa Iwiczna, a suburb of Warsaw.  Their unmarried parents were named Stefan Gryczak and Gertrude Preiss.  Note that the spelling of this Gertrude’s last name is “Preiss” (sounds like Price) differs from our Gertrude’s last name “Priess” (sounds like Preece).  Even so, this Gertrude could be ours, as the chronology spelled out by the court records fits almost perfectly with what we know about our Gertrude’s activities.  There are also numerous typos and handwritten corrections in the documents so that our Gertrude’s family name Priess could possibly have been misspelled as the more common name Preiss. If the mother mentioned in the court records is who we hope she is, we could have answers to quite a few important questions about our Gertrude’s activities that hopefully could give us clues to identify Pnina’s parents.

Vincent’s new documents consist of a court order for Stefan Gryczak to pay child support for his sons Zdislaus and his younger brother Richard.  Some of the pages are typed, and some are forms that have been filled out.  Some contain boilerplate legalese with signatures and stamps approving the court decision. A couple are in illegible handwriting. The most important pages contain information about the two children, and on their father Stefan’s family background that establishes him as German.  The document also states that their mother Gertrude Preiss had already obtained a German identity card, thereby establishing the two boys were of German parentage. Unfortunately, the documents give almost no additional information on their mother.

72_1207_0_0_5876_5 - HalfWarsaw
24 Jul 1943

It has been presented to me that the unmarried Gertrude Preiss, of the Evangelical Augsburger religion, resident of Chylice, Nowa-Iwiczna, Warsaw County, on the 17 March 1929 in Warsaw, gave birth to a boy by the name of Zdislaus Grycak.  No. 96 in the 1937 birth register of the Evangelical Augsburg Church in Alt Iwiczna.

The father of the child is Stefan Gryczak, railroad worker, who has acknowledged paternity.

Under Section 48 of the Reichs Law of Non-contentious Proceedings of 17 May 1898 and Section 36 of the Reichs Law for Youth Welfare of 9 July 1922 I hereby order the court decision to be entered into the records.

A certified copy of the document of the obligation to pay child support is enclosed with this package. I ask for a declaration of enforceability.

The German Court for Guardianship Affairs


The next two pages give more information about Stefan and his son Zdislaus.  (A copy of a similar documentation for Richard is also included in the package).


Before the undersigned office of the Warsaw County district captain, authorized through the Office of the District in Warsaw Subdepartment of Population and Welfare – from June 24, 1943 – Reference number: InvIV. Tgb.3111 / 41 for authentication of declarations in accordance with the Civil Code in 1718, today appeared, sufficiently identified by his Polish identity card, Stefan Grycak, resident of Chylice, commune Nowa Iwiczna, Augsberg Evangelical Religion, presumably a Volksdeutscher with Polish affiliation, born on 15 June 1885 in Rozanka.

The declarant stated:

72_1207_0_0_5876_13On 11 May 1937, I acknowledged before the registrar of the Evangelical-Augsburg church Old Iwicna, in the manner prescribed by this Act pursuant to Article 100 of the Civil Code for the Kingdom of Poland from 1 / 06.13.1925, that I am the father of the illegitimate child recorded on civil birth certificate no. 96/1937 by Gertrude Preiss in the Evangelical-Ausburgischen Church in Warsaw, born on 17 Mar 1929, named Zdislaus Gryczak.  As such, I hereby acknowledge to be obligated by the act of law, to allocate support for the child appropriate to the income of the mother.

Accordingly, I agree, to pay child support of 30 (Thirty) Reichmark, or 60 (Sixty) Zlotys per month from the birth of the child until his 16th birthday. To fulfillment this commitment, I submit myself immediately to the enforcement of this decision.

Further claims related to Section 1708, paragraph BGB 2 remain unaffected.

About my parents I give the following information:

Father Maksym Grycak, born on 30 January 1844 in Rozanka, orthodox religion.
Mothers: Tatiana Grycak born 26/7 1845 in Rozanka. Maiden name: Mikulska.

I have applied for a German identity card from the district captain of Warsaw county.

The children’s mother obtained Volksdeutsch identity card No. 4965 from the same office on 10 Jul 1940.

The transcript of the above has been read to the declarant, approved by him, and signed by the officer named below.


Is the Gertrude Preiss mentioned in these documents the Gertrude Priess we are searching for?  If the records indicate that the two women appeared at the same time in different places, they cannot possibly be the same person.  Unfortunately, it’s a little more complicated than that.

To avoid confusion with the names, I will call Gertrude Priess (our Gertrude), Gertrude Spiro, Gertrude Priess-Spiro, our Gertrude, or Gertrude No 1.  Gertrude Preiss, mother of the two children, will be designated Gertrude Preiss-Gryczak (even though she was not married to Stefan Gryczak), or as Gertrude No 2.

Gertrude Priess-Spiro’s Timeline:

1899 February 24 – Our Gertrude is born to Frederick and Maris Priess, location unknown but presumably Berlin, Germany.

1928 – “A” Gertrude Priess (possibly our Gertrude) is on the list of Communist Party Members. She remains a member even after the party is outlawed in 1933.

1931 – Leo David and Gertrude Spiro are listed in the 1931 Jewish City Directory for Berlin at Brunnerstrasse 175/177 (Same address as that of our Gertrude’s father through the mid 1940s).

1935 – The Gertrude Priess (mentioned above in 1928) lives at  64 Kottbusser Damm St., Neukolln, Berlin. She is involved in housing a KPD subversive named Ludwig Marmulla after he is released from criminal prison on 19 Jul 1935.

1938 April 26 – Gertrude Spiro is sentenced to two years in the Berlin Police Prison for preparing to commit treason.  Her husband David Spiro is sentenced to 3-1/2 years.

1940 April 26 – Gertrude Spiro presumably completes her sentence and is released from the Berlin Police Prison.

1941 – Gertrude Spiro appears in the General Government Directory as the manager of a liquor and cigarette shop at No. 2 Nowiniarska St. in Warsaw.

1942 – Gertrude Spiro appears in the General Government Directory as the manager of a liquor and cigarette shop at No. 2 Nowiniarska St., and as residing at 28 Tamka St. in Warsaw.

1943 May 11 – Gertrude Priess-Spiro and her daughter Sonia are arrested and put into Pawiak Prison.

1943 August 24 – Gertrude Priess-Spiro and her daughter Sonia appear on the passenger manifest of a train from Pawiak Prison to Auschwitz.

1943 August 25 – Gertrude Priess-Spiro and her daughter Sonia are not listed among the arrivals at Auschwitz.

There are a lot of gaps in the timeline leaving many unanswered questions about Gertrude Priess-Spiro’s activities, but the new court records might fill in some of these voids, if the two Gertrudes are the same person.


Partitioned Poland in 1940

The most important question we have had about our Gertrude’s activities is why she went to Warsaw after she was released from the Berlin Police Prison, presumably in April 1940 when her sentence was completed.  Western Poland had been invaded by Germany on 1 September 1939; the Soviets had invaded from the east two weeks later on 17 September 1939 through a secret non-aggression pact they made with the Nazis in October 1939.  The Nazis had already designated the central part of the country as the Generalgouvernement (General Governate), a separate Nazis-controlled administrative region formed with the assumption that the country of Poland had ceased to exist.

Nazi-occupied territory was not a safe place for a Communist who had just completed a prison sentence in Berlin for preparing to commit treason. Gertrude Spiro may have been a member of the resistance, or she may have been coerced to go to Warsaw by the Nazis in return for better treatment for her husband Leo, who was still in prison.  Either way, if our Gertrude had two children living in Warsaw, she may have been willing to risk her life to ensure their safety.

The new court documents provided by the USHMM give us information about Gertrude Preiss-Gryczak’s whereabouts during the same time interval.

Gertrude Preiss-Gryszak’s Timeline:

1929 March 17 – Gertrude No 2’s son Zdislaus Gryczak is born in Warsaw.

1931 May 11 – Gertrude No 2’s son Richard Gryczak is born in Warsaw.

1937 May 11 – Gertrude No 2 registers the birth of her two sons with the office of the Evangelical Augsburg Church in Alt Iwiczna, District of Warsaw. Stefan Gryczak acknowledges he is their father.

1940 July 10 – Gertrude Preiss-Gryzcak obtains a German identity card from the District of Warsaw.

1943 June 28 – Stefan Gryczak comes before the German Court for Guardianship, Foster Care, and Curatorship in Warsaw to guarantee child support for his two sons.

1943 July 24 – Gertrude Preiss-Gryczak is said to be living in Chylice, Nowa-Iwiczina, District of Warsaw.

1943 November 3 – Child support documents gain final approval by the German Court in Warsaw.

The two timelines are surprisingly consistent, with only a few conflicts that may be resolvable.  When interleaved, they fit together as follows.  Gertrude Priess-Spiro’s whereabouts are indicated in black; Gertrude Preiss-Gryczak’s whereabouts are indicated in blue:

1899 February 24 – Gertrude Priess (Gertrude No 1) is born to Frederick and Maris Priess, location unknown but presumably Berlin, Germany.

1928 – “A” Gertrude Priess (possibly our Gertrude No 1) is on the list of Communist Party Members. She remains a member even after the party is outlawed in 1933.

1929 March 17 – Gertrude Preiss-Gryczak’s ‘s son Zdislaus Gryczak is born in Warsaw.

1931 May 11 – Gertrude Preiss-Gryczak’s son Richard Gryczak is born in Warsaw.

1931 – Leo David and Gertrude Spiro are listed in the 1931 Jewish City Directory for Berlin at Brunnerstrasse 175/177 (Same address as that listed for our Gertrude’s father through the mid 1940s).

1935 – The Gertrude Priess (mentioned above in 1928) lives at  64 Kottbusser Damm St., Neukolln, Berlin. She is involved with housing a KPD subversive named Ludwig Marmulla after he is released from criminal prison on 19 Jul 1935.

1937 May 11 – Gertrude Preiss-Gryczak registers the birth of her two sons with the office of the Evangelical Augsburg Church in Alt Iwiczna, District of Warsaw.

1938 April 26 – Gertrude Spiro is sentenced to two years in the Berlin Police Prison for preparing to commit treason.  Her husband David Spiro is sentenced to 3-1/2 years.

1940 April 26 – Gertrude Spiro presumably completes her sentence and is released from the Berlin Police Prison.

1940 July 10 – Gertrude Preiss-Gryczak obtains a German identity card from the District of Warsaw.

1941 – Gertrude Spiro appears in the General Government Directory as the manager of a liquor and cigarette shop at No. 2 Nowiniarska St. in Warsaw.

1942 – Gertrude Spiro appears in the General Government Directory as the manager of a liquor and cigarette shop at No. 2 Nowiniarska St., while residing at 28 Tamka St. in Warsaw.

1943 May 11 – Gertrude Priess-Spiro and her daughter Sonia are arrested and put into Pawiak Prison.

1943 June 28 – Stefan Gryczak comes before the German Court for Guardianship, Foster Care, and Curatorship in Warsaw to guarantee child support for his two sons.

1943 July 24 – Gertrude Preiss-Gryczak is said to be living in Chylice, Nowa-Iwiczina, District of Warsaw.

1943 August 24 – Gertrude Priess-Spiro and her daughter Sonia appear on the passenger manifest of a train from Pawiak Prison to Auschwitz

1943 August 25 – Gertrude Priess-Spiro and her daughter Sonia are not listed among the arrivals at Auschwitz

1943 November 3 – Child support documents gain final approval by the German Court in Warsaw.

The combination of the two timelines includes much travel between Warsaw and Berlin, but the two cities are only 5 to 6 hours apart by train.  Both before and during the war, this route must have been heavily used by both the military and civilians. If the two Gertrudes were the same person, the timeline indicates she moved between the two cities several times from 1928 (when she appeared on the list of Communist Party Members in Germany) and 1938 (when she was sentenced to prison in Berlin). This would have been before the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 when the rail lines between the two countries were still intact.  Note also that Stefan Gryczak worked for the railroad, which probably facilitated our Gertrude’s movements between the two cities, if she were his partner.

In 1940, we know that our Gertrude was released from prison and shortly after that traveled to Warsaw. Although much damage had been inflicted on Polish railroads in the meantime during the German invasion in September 1939, by mid October, the Deutsche Reichsbahn Gesellschaft (German State Railroad Co) had reinstated full rail service between the two cities, facilitating our Gertrude’s return east.

There are apparently only two conflicts between the timelines.  The first is that Gertrude Preiss-Gryczak (Gertrude No 2) had to be in Warsaw in May 1931 for the birth of her son Richard, but our Gertrude is listed as Gertrude Spiro in the Berlin Jewish City Directory in 1931. This inconsistency could be resolved depending on when the Berlin directory was compiled. If the directory was created later in the year, Gertrude No. 2 may have had as much as six months to leave Warsaw after the birth of her son to return to Berlin in time to marry Leo Spiro and be listed with him on Brunnerstrasse.  (This is a tight fit, but we can’t rule out the possibility).

The other conflict is the statement that according to the court records, Gertrude Preiss-Gryzcak, the mother of the two boys, was living in Chalice in July 1943, while according to the prison records, our Gertrude was in Pawiak Prison.

Note however, that our Gertrude is only listed on 48 Tamka St. in the 1942 General Gouvernment directory. She may not have been living there when she was arrested in May 1943.  She could have been living in Chylice near her children and only 10 miles from Warsaw.  Even though she had been sent to prison, her legal address could still have been in Chylice, or else the guardianship court may have been unaware that she had been arrested and was no longer living at her former address.


It is not just the way the dates fit together that is of interest, it’s also the way the combination of events seems to create a plausible description of a known member of the KPD (Gertrude No 1) who was also a caring mother (Gertrude No 2) working to ensure the safety of her children in wartime.  In May 1937, Gertrude Spiro could have sensed her upcoming arrest in Berlin, so traveled to Warsaw to register the births of the two children that she had had with Stefan Gryczak for the sake of child support, and to establish their German parentage.  In spite of her concerns about being arrested, she could have returned to Berlin, not only to distance herself from the children, but also out of her duty to the Communist party.  Shortly after she was released from prison in 1940, she could have returned to Warsaw to make sure they were safe and well cared for.

There is an interesting coincidence to consider.

Richard Gryczak was born on 11 May 1931.  Gertrude No 2 registered his birth (along with that of his older brother Zdislaus) in Warsaw on 11 May 1937. Our Gertrude No 1 was arrested and put into Pawiak Prison on 11 May 1943.  Could the date of her arrest have been related to some activity related to her younger son’s birthday? Was her visit to her son on his birthday the “clue” the authorities needed to identify Gertrude Spiro, owner of the liquor store, as Gertrude Priess (Preiss, Gryczak), the mother of the children?

There are a few questions that could be answered if the subversive Gertrude No 1 was the same person as caring mother Gertrude No 2:

1.  Why did Gertrude No 1 go to Warsaw after she got out of prison in Berlin in April 1940?  She could have escaped to somewhere much safer.

– To ensure the safety of her two sons.

2.  Why was Gertrude No 1 going under the name Gertrude Spiro when she ran the cigarette and liquor shop?  Spiro is a Jewish name and could have attracted the wrong kind of attention in a hostile environment.

– To disguise her identity as Gertrude Priess, the woman with the prison record from Berlin.  This would also help to protect her two sons from her past.

3.  Why was Gertrude No 1 sent to prison?

– Because someone discovered Gertrude Spiro = Gertrude Priess.

4.  Why was Sonia sent to Prison with Gertrude while the two boys were spared?

– Because Sonia had a Jewish father.  The two boys had a German father.

5.  Why was Gertrude’s name listed in the Pawiak arrest records as a double, hyphenated name (Priess-Spiro)?

– To make it clear that Gertrude Priess = Gertrude Spiro.


Zdislaus Gryczak was born in 1929; his brother Richard was born in 1931.  Sonia must have been born after our Gertrude returned to Berlin and married Leo Spiro. Sonia was probably a younger child born in the 1930s.

Sonia could still be alive, but we’ve searched for her for a long time without success. There is a good chance she did not survive the war considering she was half Jewish and put into Pawiak Prison with her mother. Even if Gertrude and Sonia escaped the transport to Auschwitz in August 1943, the fact that their names appear on the passenger manifest indicates the kind of world they lived in and the challenges they had to face to survive.

Gertrude Spyra and Charlotte Rebhun, Warsaw, about 1942

Gertrude Spiro and Charlotte Rebhun, Warsaw, about 1942

The interesting news is that the two Gryczak boys may still be alive.  I’ve already started searching for them.  They may have information about what happened to their mother. More importantly, they may be able to tell us whether they had a younger Jewish half-sister Sonia, and whether their mother Gertrude Preiss-Gryczak was really Gertrude Priess-Spiro, the woman who helped smuggle Pnina from the Warsaw Ghetto.  If she was, we will have a lot to talk about.

Fingers crossed!

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? Pari 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?  Park 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 Historical Identifications, Holocaust Project | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Benjaman Kyle

Has the Genetic Genealogy community lost its GPS?

In recent weeks, there have been false statements posted about me on Benjaman Kyle’s personal Facebook page.

I cannot prove Mr. Kyle posted these statements himself—but let’s suppose he did.

On March 29, 2015, the following was posted:

FB Post

I normally would not respond to such nonsense, but judging by the comments below his post, there are members of the genetic genealogy community who have a blatant disregard for the Genealogical Proof Standards (GPS) required of professional genealogists.

A few sample comments:

Fitzpatrick may be able to muscle her way through a letter or on the Media because she is obviously feeling denied her rights to your DNA. This woman is a joke!”

“This should be about you and your well being, Ben, not a greedy “scientist”. She should be reprimanded and feel ashamed.”

Regardless, we will not give up or let her and her attorney(s) scare us off your case.”

All of this would be funny, except for the way in which the community has embraced Kyle’s statements as true without review.

If Mr. Kyle is an amnesiac, he has a mental problem. If he is only pretending to be an amnesiac, he has a psychological condition. Why are so many genealogists jumping on Kyle’s bandwagon without questioning what he is saying?

To quote Judy Russell in a recent blog article, “Facts Matter”.

The wise genealogist should insist Mr. Kyle produce the name of the law firm he alleges I hired. A wise genealogist should also request a copy of the letter I supposedly sent to DNA volunteers to deter them from working on his case.

Kyle has not produced either of these items, nor have any DNA volunteers come forward claiming to have received such a letter.

A denial of service attack is a grave offense. In the US, a denial-of-service attack may be considered a federal crime under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act with penalties that include years of imprisonment. A denial of service attack occurs when a website is bombarded with so many incoming service requests, the site crashes. It describes an attack on a website, not a personal DNA account that is accessible only through login credentials.

When closely examined, Mr. Kyle’s claims of a denial of service attack on his DNA accounts are nonsense, but unfortunately those sympathetic to his alleged misfortunes have swallowed his technological gibberish.

Does Mr. Kyle have evidence a denial of service attack occurred, much less that it occurred from California, or do we simply take his word for it? Does Family Tree DNA and 23andMe support his claim?

Regarding Mr. Kyle’s statements about me changing the contact info on his DNA accounts to my own personal contact information—this did not happen, nor is it relevant.

  • To log into a Family Tree DNA account, you must provide a kit number and password, not your contact information. In early March 2011, BK changed his password, after which I had no further access to his account.
  • For 23andMe, an email address and password is required, but the email address is impossible to change in a practical sense. Changing the login email requires the user to reissue his sharing invitations and rebuild the information he has gathered from those contacts. BK has a large number of shares – has any of them heard from him during the alleged rebuild of his account?
  • His account is not an issue, because Ancestry did not offer autosomal DNA testing until after I was no longer actively involved in the research.

Does either Family Tree DNA or 23andMe have evidence Mr. Kyle’s DNA accounts were compromised?

Lastly, does Mr. Kyle or anyone else have evidence that I am writing a book on him, or that I am even interested in writing such a book? Note that I have not made any money on my research into BK’s identity.  I have in fact lost money, through the countless pro bono hours I spent trying to help Mr Kyle recover his identity.

An individual’s DNA does not provide insight into his character

After five years of trying to discover BK’s identity using autosomal DNA from all three DNA testing companies, the genetic genealogy community has produced no epiphanies about his identity. The fact that BK has ancestry in the Carolinas was a discovery I made in 2010.

Do any volunteers have relevant information about BK’s identity other than he might be the great-great grandson of Archibald Aiken from North Carolina, or perhaps a descendant of Archibald’s father Ezekiel? Archibald had about 24 children from four known wives.

I am apparently the only person who has actively researched non-DNA aspects of BK’s identity. I tracked down and interviewed the owner of the Burger King and his wife who discovered BK nearly dead in their dumpster area. I have spoken extensively with the Georgia nurse with whom he lived for three years. I have spoken with law enforcement, including a former FBI agent who has worked on his case. I have interviewed the victim of a massive stroke who described how his brain healed itself. This stroke victim also had extensive experience with the homeless community. I learned a lot from this individual that educated me about the habits of the homeless. These factors and others led me to believe BK might have been homeless prior to his discovery in 2004.

In February, I expressed my opinion on 11Alive Atlanta. I stated:
“I am not sure whether Benjaman is interested in finding his identity or not.”

Thousands of hours of non-DNA research contributed to my point of view, yet it has led to a hostile reaction from the genetic genealogy community. They should instead be grateful that I expressed my opinion about the “big picture” and did not restrict my comments to an analysis of who shares segments with him on Chromosome 10.

The BK search angels automatically assume BK wants to return to his former life because he has been so cooperative with their requests. Have they considered BK may have other motives for cooperating?

These angels have produced very little, if anything, about BK’s identity over the last three years; add to that the two years of 23andMe autosomal results they inherited from me. Yet after years of fruitless sharing requests and “In-Common-With” reports, these angels are continuing on the same track. If BK is interested in returning to his former life, why does he continue to work with a group who has been unable to produce viable leads to who he is?

Frankly, if BK is truly interested in finding his identify, why hasn’t he asked a friend to drive him to North Carolina, so he can walk down Main St. in Rosman to see if anyone recognizes him?

On the other hand, after this blog post, let’s suppose something significant about BK is discovered by these angels for the first time. Will the wise genealogist applaud the find without digging into the suspicious coincidence?

Step back and look at the facts

Eleven years ago, BK appeared out of nowhere, apparently the victim of an attempted homicide.  Since 2004 no one has come forward to identify him.

The FBI has no record of his DNA or his fingerprints. Attempts at facial recognition through various DMVs have failed. He has received national media attention through Dr. Phil. Nothing has come of numerous articles in major newspapers. He has been interviewed by NPR at least twice. Subscribers of Facebook, Reddit, Twitter and other social networks have also failed to identify BK.

As of 2015, we know nothing more about this man other than the clues I have uncovered.

So why take Mr. Benjaman Kyle’s word for anything? He could be in the witness protection program, or he could be a member of the Mafia. He could be the father of five children avoiding child support. He could have been beat up while on his “Meal on Wheels” delivery route, or could he possibly have been a member of a traveling circus? Or maybe he was involved in a drug cartel, and his associates are dead?

Of all the possibilities, should we assume the benign without ruling out the sinister?

Should we assume Kyle was a loving husband and father, who would feel happy to return to his family, but disregard the possibility he was a child molester? Mr. Benjaman Kyle could have been anyone. Isn’t it therefore wise to look beyond what DNA can reveal?

Should it be a concern to our community that someone who is such a blank slate is controlling the emotions of so many genetic genealogists at the expense of critical thinking?  Have they become a rabid crowd, cannibalized by their starvation for excitement?

What happened to our Genealogical Proof Standards?

Posted in Benjaman Kyle, Crime and Law Enforcement | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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

Gertrude Spyra and Charlotte Rebhun, Warsaw, about 1942

Gertrude Spiro and Charlotte Rebhun, Warsaw, about 1942

Gertrude Spiro must have been well-connected.  She was the proprietor of a liquor and cigarette shop at 2 Nowiniarksa St. in Warsaw in 1941-1942. The shop undoubtedly generated a lot of income for whoever owned it; liquor and cigarettes are two of the most in-demand commodities during wartime.  Moreover, Gertrude’s shop was the only cigarette shop in Warsaw, and it also sold liquor. In her position she must have had many friends and many enemies.

Gertrude Piss-Spiro and her daughter Sonia were arrested in Warsaw and put into Pawiak Prison in 1943. They are listed among 141 women on a prison transport bound for Auschwitz on 24 August.  However, three of those 141 women apparently did not arrive. Two of them were Gertrude and Sonia.

As of a few months ago, the trail ended there.

As of today, the trail still ends on 24 August 1943, but there is so much more we have learned about this mysterious baby-smuggler. Adele and Wolfgang Rebhun’s account of Gertrude’s visit to speak to their mother Charlotte, and Pnina’s subsequent delivery to the Rebhun’s apartment, have been revealed as a small part of a much larger and more complex picture.

When we started this research, we knew very little about Gertrude Spiro (Spira, Spyra, Spyro, Szpyra, Schapiro, ???) other than she was a Christian woman from Berlin who had been married to a Jew. Her husband had been deported, and she was the middle man in a scheme to save the life of a Jewish baby by placing it with a Christian family on the Aryan side of Warsaw.  We did not even know how to spell Gertrude’s last name.

1931 Berlin Jewish address book Leo David and Gertrude Spiro

1931 Berlin Jewish Address Book

Our new revelations about Gertrude began with Cate Bloomquist’s discovery of a Leo David Spiro and a Gertrude Spiro in the Jüdisches Adressbuch für Gross-Berlin 1931 (Jewish city directory for Greater Berlin 1931). They were both listed at N 54 Brunnenstrasse 175/177.  In 1930, Leo David is listed at this address as a “lederarbeiter” or leather worker. Until now, we had been assuming that Gertrude was the Gertruda Spyra who was a partner in Poniecki, Meisner & Co., a wine and spirits manufacturing company in Chorzów near Katowice in southeast Poland. Could we have been wrong?

Another clue came a few weeks later when Cate discovered Frederick Priess in the 1940 Berliner Adressbuch (1940 Berlin City Directory) at N 54 Brunnenstrasse 176.  He is listed as a wagon driver (or delivery man) living at this address as early as 1925, and as late as 1943, the last year available through the Zentral und Landesbibliotek Berlin.   Note the last name is P-r-i-e-s-s (pronounced Preece), and not the more common P-r-e-i-s-s (pronounced Price).  We felt confident that this was Gertrude’s father, and that the Leo and Gertrude listed at this address in 1930-1931 were “ours”.

1940 Berlin City Directory

1940 Berlin City Directory

Gertrude’s liquor and cigarette store was located at 2 Nowiniarska St. on the Aryan side of Warsaw. Before about 1940, the Warsaw city directories indicate that the address was located in a Jewish neighborhood; as of early 1941, according to Barbara Engleking’s book The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City, the area was incorporated in the Warsaw Ghetto.  Later that same year, when the neighborhood was excluded from the Ghetto and became part of the Aryan section, shops appeared along the even number (north) side of Nowiniarska St.  Whoever opened Gertrude’s shop must have been well-connected and wealthy to grab such desirable real estate on a busy corner, just a block from the Ghetto wall.

North boundaries of the Warsaw Ghetto as of February 1941 (green line) and area excluded as of December 1941 (blue area).

North boundaries of the Warsaw Ghetto as of February 1941 (green line) and area excluded as of December 1941 (blue area).

Engleking’s book reveals another curious detail.  In the section on smuggling, on p. 437, she quotes from the Ringelbaum Archives:

“The policeman Jakob Frydman set up a business smuggling goods to the ghetto. The Zglinowicz cafe in Leszno Street was the place where contacts were made.  In the cafe, Misza Waserman sat by the telephone and took calls from the Aryan side to say that the goods were ready.  Misza replied with a password, indicating the time and guard post one could enter (Wroblewska 1996, 205)”.  A similar role was played by a certain cafe on Nowiniarska St. “All the smugglers knew the telephone number 11-33-00 of that cafe, where they could come to terms among themselves and make deals with the players (AZIH, Ring I, 435)”.

The 1941 Warsaw city directory reveals that the phone number associated with the cafe belonged to Chaim Szok, 8 Nowiniarska St.  It was located in the same building as Gertrude’s shop.

Warsaw was boiling with both pro- and anti-Nazi activities during the early 1940s; without doubt Gertrude was acquainted with both sides.  She was the proprietor of a shop on the Aryan side that was only steps away from the Ghetto walls and located next to a cafe that was a well-known center of smuggling activities.  Her daughter’s sweetheart was a German soldier, yet she felt safe in relaying his request to a Christian friend to shelter a Jewish infant smuggled from the Ghetto.  Gertrude and her daughter Sonia were arrested as political prisoners and put into Pawiak Prison in early 1943.  Yet both mother and daughter apparently escaped from a transport to Auschwitz a few months later.

Who was this woman?

In search of answers, we contacted the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, asking for any information they might have on Gertrude Spiro or on 2 Nowiniarska St.  One item they provided was the handwritten record from the Pawiak Prison recording Gertrude and Sonia’s arrest on 11 May 1943.  Gertrude’s parents are listed as Friederich and Maria; Sonia’s parents are listed as Leon and Gertrude. Their last name is confirmed as Priess-Spiro.  No release date is specified.

Gertrude and Sonia's Pawiak record from the JHI 209_312 s35-2

Gertrude Spiro and her daughter Sonia were arrested on 11 May 1943 and sent to Pawiak Prison. Images courtesy of the Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw.

Gertrude and Sonia's Pawiak Record from the JHI 209_312 ok








We were hoping the JHI could provide the names of other prisoners arrested the same day as a clue to why Gertrud’s was arrested.  This was not possible, as there are 35,000 names in the register, and only images of the Jewish entries in the book have survived. The records of German prisoners were not copied after the war.

Regina Domanska’s book Pawiak Wiezienie Gestapo (Pawiak Gestapo Prison) offers a hint that Gertrud was affiliated with the Communist party. As translated by Franek Grabowski, our group member from Poland, the prison’s diary entry for 11 May 1943 reads:

Book of Pawiak without Watermark_1

Book of Pawiak without Watermark_2 Marked Up








Bełina Brzozowski Antoni                      Kamiński Jerzy                    Trzewski Jozef
Jankowski Stefan                                     Poklewski Jozef

Budzyński Andrzej                                   Hereczy Jan                          Osiński Andrzej
Domański Waclaw                                   Hryciuk                                  Skołimowski Mieczysław
Dylag Czslaw                                             Kosiński                                 Strzałkowski Jan
Gasch Erhard                                            Maciejewicz Emil                 Wisniewski Władysław

Cpt. Mikolaj Arciszewski, commander of intelligence network “Michal” was shot in the gate of the tenement at 27 Dzielna St on the orders of the SS Hauptsturmfuhrer Paul Werner.

As a result of denunciation by an informer, arrests began among attackers on “Bar Podlaski” [Podlasie’s Bar or Pub] (10 May), members of the battle group Union of Youth Fighters [Zwiazek Walki Mlodych] of Mokotow [Warsaw’s district]. Arrested were: Zbigniew Swanczyna, then Ludwik Zakrzewski (date not set) Jan Niwiński (26 May), Witold Ganabiniski (6 June), and Zdzislaw Kaczynski (19 June).

Research revealed that many of those arrested had Communist party affiliations.

Book of Pawiak without Watermark_3

Book of Pawiak without Watermark_5 Book of Pawiak without Watermark_6 Book of Pawiak without Watermark_7Book of Pawiak without Watermark_8

The diary’s entry for 24 August 1943 reads in part:

A large transport left for Auschwitz. The next day 875 men and 141 women arrived at the camp. The prisoners were not allowed to take food. At the Station West [Warszawa Zachodnia – Warsaw West] the escort was increased, and harassment intensified. Carriages were loaded with 75 prisoners each. The prisoners were given numbers: men 138771-139645 and women 55778-55918 . They were:

[A long list of prisoner names follows, including those of Gertrude and Sonia Priess-Spiro.]

There is no other mention of Gertrude and Sonia in Domanska’s book.  Contact with the Auschwitz Museum provided no further information on their fate.

As an aside, the last name on the transport list for 24 August 1943 is that of Krystyna Żywulska, a noted Polish writer, columnist, song writer, and graphic artist of Jewish origin. Her real name was Zofia Landau, but she changed it upon interrogation at the infamous Szucha Prison. Zywulska was wife of Leon Andrzejewski aka Leon Ajzef aka Lajb Wolf Ajzen, an important figure of communistic security services.  After the war, she wrote Przeżyłam Oświęcim (I Survived Auschwitz), an account of her harrowing experiences in the camp.  She also wrote Wiersze oświęcimskie (Auschwitz Poems) in 1946, and Pusta Woda (Empty Water) in 1963.  She died in 1992 in Munich of leukemia and is buried in Dusseldorf.

If Gertrude and Sonia escaped the transport to Auschwitz, they probably went into hiding. But where could they have gone?  As the proprietor of the liquor and cigarette shop, Gertrude was well-known around Warsaw.  It’s likely that she and her daughter escaped to another part of Poland, to a place where they would not be easily recognized.  If so, she probably had assistance, either from family members, from friends, or from fellow members of the underground.

Cate Bloomquist, our resident expert on German records, came up with useful information about Gertrude’s background.  Several months earlier, while researching the Priess family in Berlin, Cate came across the book Widerstand in Berlin gegen das NS-Regime 1933-1945: ein biographisches Lexikon (Resistance against the Nazi regime in Berlin, 1933-1945: a biographical dictionary) that references a Gertrud Priess from Berlin. Cate managed to obtain a copy of the relevant pages.

Widerstand in Berlin gegen das NS-Regime 1933 bis 1945 (Book on KDP) p1According to the lexicon, this Gertrud was connected with the KPD (Communist Party of Germany).  Her entry says she was on the KPD member list for 1928, also that she was involved in the KPD once it became illegal, specifically with housing a Communist named Ludwig Marmulla after his release from prison.  Her address is given in 1935 as 64 Kottbusser Damm St., Neukolln, Berlin. There is also a Fritz Priess mentioned, who was a member of the KPD, but it is not clear if he was related to Gertrude, nor if she was the woman we were searching for.

Cate made further inquiries about Gertrude and Fritz, and searched for more information on Ludwig and KPD member lists and activities.  She also investigated the Kotbusser Dam address, but without success.

However, two familiar names appear on another page of the lexicon.

WiderstandinBerlin Leo and Gertrude Spiro_1 p1

Spiro, David; 15.3.1897 – ?
Leather worker; 1938 resident of Berlin-Kreuzberg, Kommandantenstr. 55; on 26.4.1938 sentenced by the High Court in Berlin for preparing to commit treason to 3 -1/2 years in prison.

Spiro, Gertrud; 24.2.1899 – ?
Milliner; 1938 resident of Berlin-Kreuzberg, Kommandantenstr. 55; on 26.4.1938 sentenced by the High Court in Berlin for preparing to commit treason to 2 years in prison.

Gertrude’s fate was tied to that of her husband, Leo David Spiro, at least between 1938-1940.  She received a sentence of two years; he received a sentence of 3-1/2 years.  In 1940, after her prison sentence was completed, she fled or was deported to Warsaw.

So what happened to her husband Leo?

The International Tracing Service at the The US Holocaust Memorial Museum provided much information on him.  His fate was unfortunate.  Once he was sent to Brandenburg Prison, unlike his wife, he never left “the system”.

On 26 April 1940, when Leo David Spiro had completed his first two years in Brandenburg Prison, he was transferred to the Polizeigefängnis c (Police Prison) in Berlin to serve an additional 1-1/2 years.


Dienstelle_2 Dienstelle_3Dienstelle_4





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.

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.


Leo Spiro would have normally been released on 26 October 1941, but by then he was a prisoner in the Sachenhausen Concentration Camp.  On 7 August 1941, the camp records state that he was transported from Sachenhausen to an unknown destination.

Sachenhausen Data_1Sachenhausen Data_2 Marked Up
 KL Sachenhausen, Ordner 93, GCC 10/84; Transportenlisten des Konzentrationslagers Sachenhausen Nach; Unbekannt; 7.8.1941; 400 Personen. Sachenhausen Concentration Camp, File 93, GCC 10/84, Transport List of the Sachenhausen Concentration Camp to an unknown destination, 7 August 1941; 400 Persons. International Tracing Service, Collection of the International Tracing Service, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC.


Ravensbruch Info 2017_1 Ravensbruch Info 2017_2 Marked Up Ravensbruch Info 3_1 Marked Up
 KL Ravensbruch, Ordner 46, GCC 9/54; Nummernbuch (Mannerlager); Blattenzahl:  200. Ravensbruch Concentration Camp, File 46, GCC 9/54; Number book (Men’s camp); Page count: 200. Collection International Tracing Service, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC.

spiro ravens gedenk (1)_1 Marked UpThat destination must have been Ravensbruch, as he is on the camp’s outgoing transport list of 25 March 1942.  The list does not mention where he was sent, but the Ravensbruch Gedenkbuch (Ravensbruch Memorial Book) states he died the same day at the Bernberg Euthanasia Center, a wing of the State Sanatorium and Mental Hospital in Bernburg, Saxony Anhalt.  It was one of several euthanasia centers run by the Nazis under their official “Euthanasia Programme”, later referred to after the war as Action T4. A total of 9,384 sick and handicapped people from 33 welfare institutions and nursing homes as well as around 5,000 prisoners from six concentration camps were killed there in a gas chamber using carbon monoxide gas.

Leo David Spiro, FindaGrave

Leo David Spiro was among them.  Although his remains were probably cremated by the Nazis, he is listed on Find-a-Grave among the Jews of Germany Murdered During the Holocaust.


Gertrude and Sonia were almost certainly unaware of Leo’s fate; they could not have depended on him for their survival.  We are still left with the mystery of what happened to them after 24 August 1943.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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