Sunday, April 21, 2013


An attorney whom I did not know phoned me with an interesting story.  Soon after the end of World War II, in devastated Poland, two Jewish survivors married. The woman had a married brother with two sons. The man was an only child.

Soon after, they had a daughter who was severely retarded. This daughter was also an only child. A few years later, the two families came to Israel and they remained very close. The man died in the late 1980s and the wife about ten years later. The daughter inherited whatever they had and her two cousins (whose parents had died in the meantime) took care of her affairs.

A few years ago, the daughter died and was buried next to her parents. She died on the tenth of Iyyar which was last Shabbat, which is why I am telling her story today.

According to Israeli law, the parents are the heirs of the daughter, even though they are both dead. The expression is that they "inherit in the grave," which essentially means that whatever assets exist are split evenly between the mother's family and the father's family.

The mother's heirs are clear - her brother's two children. The ones who looked after the daughter's affairs after her parents died. The father had always said that he was an only child. The mother's nephews claimed than since the father had been an only child, they should inherit both halves.

The attorney wanted me to prove that the father was indeed an only child.

The information we had on the father was that he was born in a certain large Polish city in 1912. (We have the specific date, but as you have already figured out, I am not giving detail for reasons of family privacy and protection of sources.)

According to Polish law, vital records are not transferred from the Civil Records Office to the Polish State Archives until at least a hundred years from the last record in the particular set. We knew the father's parents' names but not their ages, so we had no way to know what years were relevant for the search. For that matter, we did not know if the couple had lived in some other city or even if they had been married previously. So proving that he was indeed an only child was no simple matter. It rarely is.

I began my search in the Arolsen index at Yad Vashem, where I was able to locate index cards naming the parents of the father. The proof of the parents was unambiguous, as he is at the same address as the daughter, on a brief list of survivors. The mother is on this same list, but with her maiden name and grouped with her brother's family.

Armed with the parents' names, I turned my attention to the JRI-Poland index, which for the city in question only went as far as 1902. That was enough to find the births of our guy's father (1876) and mother (1882). Those dates made it unlikely that there were children born before 1902, but any time from 1902 until the early 1920s would have been reasonable. Based on the ages of his parents, our man could well have had both older and younger brothers and sisters.

While I was at it, I checked the JewishGen Family Finder to see if anyone was researching his family on either his father's side or his mother's side. There was one, but it was a different, unrelated family.

During the past few years, the indefatigable volunteers at JRI-Poland have made efforts to gain access to records less than a hundred years old and have enjoyed some success. All of this is very much off the record, but in the case of the city in question, the JRI-Poland organizer is a good friend of mine and she told me that they had what purported to be a complete index of records through 1942, though not the records themselves.

We found the 1905 marriage record of the parents, in the index.

We also found births in the index for their eight children - that would be the only child, his three brothers and his four sisters.

The years in the index for the brothers are 1905, 1908 and 1912. The years for the four sisters are 1912, 1916, 1917 and 1920. Plus of course our man himself, in 1912.

The brother born in 1906 died that same year and the one born in 1905 died in 1908, so our guy wouldn't have known either of them. That does not conflict with his using the term "only child."

Three births in 1912 looked unusual - perhaps they were triplets, but more likely two of the births were late registrations, for reasons we cannot know. My friend the JRI-Poland organizer used a Polish connection to get a look at the actual registrations and in fact they were born in three different years - just registered at the same time. Our guy was actually born on the day which appears in the Arolsen records and in the Israeli documents.

In any case, we were left with one brother and five sisters unaccounted for. The term "only chid" is not consistent with having adult siblings killed in the Holocaust - not in Hebrew or Polish or Yiddish. Yet, there was nothing on these five other than their births. We see no death records and no marriage records. We see no one looking for them after the Holocaust nor them looking for family members.

There are any number of explanations - they could have married or died elsewhere. Our guy could have known they were killed so never looked for them. They could have survived unbeknownst to him and be living even today in Australia or Argentina or even in Poland. But none of those explanations is consistent with his being an "only child."

Our guy's father in mentioned in Holocaust literature as being from the city of his birth, so it is unlikely that the whole family moved elsewhere.

In the end, I was hired to find the facts and I did that to the best of my ability, even though they did not prove what the client wanted. What they worked out with the court regarding the inheritance is none of my business, but I expect it was some kind of a compromise. After all, the court is most afraid that some relative will show up later demanding a share of an inheritance which has already been distributed. That is a very low-probability event, no matter how you look at it, so there was alot of room to work something out.

But I did add one unusual paragraph to my report, as follows:
I must point out that I accept as axiomatic that the deceased is [who he said he is] ... that is, we are not speaking of a man who adopted the identity of another who died or disappeared, as happened more than once during the Holocaust period. I do not reject this possibility, but I have ignored it - largely because I have no way to examine it. Anyone who thinks that this solution fits this case is free to pursue it, but on his own.
If you ask me, that may well be the answer.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Housekeeping notes:
One of my lecture proposals has been accepted by the Program Committee of the 33rd IAJGS Conference on Jewish Genealogy planned for Boston in the first week in August.

My talk is scheduled for 5 PM Tuesday, which sounds good to me. There are five other lectures at the same time, plus a couple of meetings of geographically-based groups.  My previous two lectures have both been on the first day of the Conference, before many of the Conference attendees had even arrived.

Following is the lecture description as it appears in the Conference program.

A DNA Skeptic Turns His Family On Its Head - And Remains A Skeptic

As a genealogy research tool, DNA is very tempting because it tests the scientific genealogical makeup of possible family members, but at the same time uses analysis based on statistics and probability that can lead to incorrect or unfounded conclusions. The experts' explanations often confuse more than they illuminate, especially when you consider that some of these experts are the ones selling the testing services. So what is the lay researcher to do?

This talk will tell the story of one researcher, strictly a layman, who – despite his skepticism – used DNA testing to turn his basic family structure on its head, with more plans on the way. And despite his intentions to continue with this kind of research, remains something of a skeptic.


  1. Replies
    1. No. And since they were paying me by the hour and not a percentage, it doesn't matter.