In 1986, when Montrealer Stan Diamond sold his decorative-ceiling company after a successful business career, he could not have envisioned that a second career, even more monumental than the first, lay ahead of him. Almost by happenstance, it seems, he became executive director of a large, U.S.-based non-profit organization called JRI-Poland, which would help thousands of people research their family roots – an achievement for which he received a Meritorious Service Medal from the Governor General of Canada at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on June 23.
To date, JRI-Poland (short form for Jewish Records Indexing, Poland) has indexed some five million 19th-century and early 20th-century Jewish birth, marriage, death and other records from more than 550 Polish towns. Not only is the database fully searchable online, but more than two-million records are available for download, with more becoming accessible every few months.
Driven by an executive committee of four, a 16-member board and an international network of hundreds of volunteers, JRI-Poland raises about US$100,000 ($133,000) each year, most of which goes to digitizing and indexing records that are mostly hand written in antique Polish script or Russian Cyrillic. Scores of volunteers from the United States, Canada, Israel, Australia, Great Britain, France and elsewhere participate in the project.
Diamond has heard countless stories of people achieving remarkable, sometimes even life-changing results from the JRI-Poland database. It has been instrumental, for instance, in uniting long lost family members. Recently, a brother and sister in Jerusalem found a half-brother from their father’s second family, who was previously unknown to them, even though he was living just 90 minutes away. Last year, Diamond used the database to confirm the birth date of 112-year-old Auschwitz survivor Yisrael Kristal of Haifa, who was subsequently proclaimed the world’s oldest man by Guinness World Records.
His inbox is filled with stories of research “miracles” and people telling him that JRI-Poland has solved enduring family mysteries. “Two weeks ago, a woman in Toronto wrote us that her grandfather had always said they were related to (the late French actor and mime) Marcel Marceau and she wanted to know how,” he said. Taking on the challenge, he found that Marceau’s family was from the Polish town of Bedzin, where their surname had been Mangel, and was able to make the connection to the woman’s family. The lady was thrilled.
While Jewish record books in most towns survived the devastation of fire, flood and war, there are often gaps in the series of available years. In a few towns, the records disappeared entirely. Sometimes it’s a matter of town officials being careless; and some records were lost during the tumultuous Nazi era, when the occupying Germans took over town halls for their headquarters. In Pultusk, Jewish records before 1875 were reportedly destroyed by the Jews themselves, who feared the Nazis would use them to track down the town’s Jewish families.
The Warsaw cemetery, Diamond related, once had huge volumes of burial registers that disappeared. “What we were told by the management of the Warsaw cemetery is that they were used as firewood during the war,” he said. “They were huge registers – you’re looking at a cemetery with some 300,000 or more burials.”
Diamond’s knowledge of Polish geography, developed over many annual two-week trips, seems remarkable for a non-native. “At the end of one trip, we were talking to the director of the archives about all sorts of things and I was pulling the names (of towns) out of a hat and he remarked, ‘You know, Mr. Diamond, I think you know more about the Polish State Archives (PSA) and about Polish geography than anybody else outside of Poland’,” he said.
His knowledge of both Polish geography and Jewish genealogy began innocently enough some 30 years ago, when he wanted to trace the path of a rare genetic condition called beta thalassemia within his own family tree. Travelling to Poland, he received permission to index the Jewish records from his own ancestral town, Ostrow Mazowiecka. When he was done, he paid a visit to Prof. Jerzy Skowronek, then director of the PSA.
“When I presented him with the printout of the database, I was not in any way, shape or form thinking about what was going to happen next,” Diamond said. “He said to me, ‘Mr. Diamond, this is very impressive, I wasn’t expecting this.’ And I don’t know what prompted me at that moment, but I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could do this for all of Poland?’And he said, ‘Well it’s not our policy, but maybe we’ll start small and do a few more towns’.”
When he returned to Canada, Diamond began calling people and raising interest. He attributes the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fortuitous co-operative spirit of the PSA as chief factors – along with the rise of the personal computer and the World Wide Web – behind JRI-Poland’s step-by-step development and growth. “Everything came together, the timing was exquisite,” he said. “It was a continuum of one thing happening after another that made all this possible.”
A key step along the way was the agreement that Diamond signed with the PSA in 1997 that officially recognized JRI-Poland as a partner. “After that, we had the credibility to go to each branch of the PSA, having been introduced by headquarters. Back then, of course, we were still buying photographs of the index pages. When digitalization became a reality, that was also a turning point,” said Diamond.
Diamond has already received numerous awards for his work, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies. Last December, he was nominated for the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland.
As for the Meritorious Service Medal, all JRI-Poland leaders and volunteers also share in the honour, he said: “What we have accomplished has only been made possible through teamwork and a level of collaboration and dedication unmatched in the Jewish genealogical world.”