Discovering Stored Treasures

Discovering Genealogy, One Ancestor at a Time.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Brick Wall Comes Tumbling Down!

This is the moment genealogist live for—when hours of work finally lead to a breakthrough! The eureka moment!

Remember the Polish marriage record for Mechel Speiser and Rachel Jampel from last post? Mechel are my great-great-grandparents. They are part of a very large paternal brickwall. Finding such an important clue, about this Galician family lost in the holocaust, offered a glimmer of hope. Pulling out this first brick, might bring down the entire wall.mTo experienced genealogists, it's clear that bringing down a such a sturdy wall, requires the stars to actually align. It seems that seeing both the movie Gravity and Ender's game, helped align the stars for me!

Translating the Marriage Certificate

Once again, marriage record for Mechel and Rachel so you wont have to scroll back to last weeks post.
(Click to enlarge)

Index from JRI-Poland for Mechel and Rachel's marriage record.
(Click to enlarge)

Step number one was to translate this Galician marriage record. If you look at the record closely, the first thing you will appreciate is the truly beautiful handwriting. No one write like this anymore.  Lucky for me, the person who recorde Mechel and Rachel's wedding in 1904 did. Another bit of luck was the quality of the scan. Without understanding polish, the names and the places are quite legible and concur with what the JRI-Poland Indexer had submitted for this record.

Clearly, there was much more information on the record. The next step was to translate the record in it's entirety.'s service ViewMate is ideal for posting a document or a photo such as a gravestone in need of translation. Within a few days, knowledgeable contributors from all over the globe response and help with the translation. I've had good luck with this service before, so I posted the record. When I hadn't heard from viewmate, I also posted on the facebook group Jewish Genealogy.

In the meantime, impatience got the best of me and I decided to take a stab at it myself. Using mostly google translator, a list of typical Jewish Polish occupations from and a magnifying glass, I set out to translate the one hundred and ten year old document.

Mechel and Rachel's Marriage Record Translation:

The bridegroom: Mechel Speiser, a native of Wola Jakubowa, residing in Rychcicach, innkeeper (or tavern keeper), son of the deceased alleged parents Seliga Speiser and Laji of the house of Freiman. 62 years old. Marital Status: Single.
The bride: Rachel Jampel native of Dobrowlany and living in Rychicach, daughter of Mendla Jampel from Dobrowalny and the deceased Laji of the house of Freilich. 40 years, 7 months and 2 days old. Marital status: Single.
Marriage recorded on 14th of August, 1904 in Drohobycz. Rabbi: Ch K Horowitz, Witnesses: Israel Hel, Merchant and Moses Freiman, merchant.

The Jewish Genealogist on facebook, were fastest to respond, and a lovely woman from Indiana quickly helped me decipher a lot of the basic information and conquered with my own conclusions. Other native speakers chimed in agreed. ViewMate contributors agreed as well. Only the last column on the right, titled notes, remains untranslated. This note seems quite long and mentions the date of the actual marriage several times. I can't make heads or tails of the polish for now.

Building A Tree for Mechel and Rachel

Ten days ago, I attended a workshop with Stanley Diamond, founder of JRI-Poland, sponsored by the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Boston. The attendees were instructed to bring specific question and I was hoping for help with the Speiser/Jampel research. In preparation for the workshop, I was able to create a tree for Meche and Rachel. The amount of records available for the Drohobycz region on JRI-Poland was impressive. Equipped with a better understanding of marriage practices in Galicia and how to decipher polish vital records, I was able to carefully reconstruct a family tree. I identifed Mechel's parent, four grandparents, three siblings, two wives and nine children, going back to the late 1700s. Rachel, turns out was his second wife. So far, I've identified two of her grandparents  and two siblings.

One Eureka moment:

Mechel Speiser's signature!

Finding Mechel Speiser's signature! Mechel's signature appears on many of his children's birth and death certificates. Sadly, many of his children were stillborn or died young. This signature is from the birth record of Simon Jampel born on the 8th of March, 1898 and died in 1916. Mechel was the witness on occasions.

Description of mother of
Simon Jampel in his
Birth Record 
All of Mechel's children except one (Udel) were registered as illegitimate and under the their mother's maiden name, Jampel. Simon's record in particular, provides a wonderful insight. It actually documents Mechel and Rachel's Jewish wedding.

Under the description of Simon's mother it says that Ruchla Jampel (Ruchla is a nickname for Rachel), resident of Rychcicach, wife and then in a parenthesis (/: tylko wedle praw mojżesza ...) which means only according to the laws of moses. Thanks Google Translator! This government official, also with impeccable hand writing, clearly explained that Simon's parents were married by Jewish law, commonly referred to at the time as the Laws of Moses.

Udel's birth record is fascinating as well. Udel, born in 1905 was the only record I found for a child born to the couple after their civil marriage. She, unlike the rest of her siblings is registered as Udel Speiser. In this record, Rachel, for the first time, is recorded as Rachel Speiser of the house of Jampel (see right hand column). Mechel and Rachel's civil marriage is clearly documented in this record (see box under Mechel's name). It provides the 1904 record locator as Karta #45 and entry #89.  Note, Udel is reported as legitimate, that is not being born out of wedlock, slubne. Another important gem found on many of these records is the family's address: House #225 (see left). At the time, since the villages were so small, there were no street names, Instead houses were numbered. House #225 must have been the inn where they lived an worked. If a cadastral map of the village exist, I should be able to locate the exact location of this property.

Very quickly I became an expert at deciphering the polish understanding these old documents. By discovering so much information, I was answering many of my own questions. The only question left for the head of JRI-Poland was: what about the records whose scan quality is so poor that I can't make out the handwriting? Unfortunately, some of the older records I uncovered were practically illegible aside from the names and dates. This was the question I saved for the workshop.

Brick Wall Tumbles

The wedding record unlocked such a wealth of information, I was ecstatic. Bricks were tumbling all around me. And then...the night before the JRI-Poland workshop, I received a note in my Inbox. Participants in the workshop were encouraged to submit a list of the surnames and towns they are researching. One of these participants noticed that her and I shared the surname Speiser and the three Galician towns where the Speisers roamed. A potential cousin! I couldn't believe it. Less than thirty, local genealogist were to attend the workshop the next day. What are the chances to connect with a cousin?

We met briefly at the workshop and promised to talk afterwards. When I asked Stanley Diamond  how to obtain better quality scans, he explained that this particular set of digital records from AGAD originated from microfilm. The two step process in creating the scan, reduces the quality. If sharpening the image on photoshop doesn't work (I tried, it didn't), there does exist a possibility of obtaining better scans directly from the polish archives which is constantly updating it's digital collection. He kindly gave me some suggestions of how to go about obtaining them.

Finding An Actual Cousin

This is not the first time I find a cousin. The internet has brought me together with many known long lost cousins. This is the first time though, I find a potential cousin I only knew about in theory. I always believed that my Polish grandparents, who lost everyone in the war, must have had aunts or uncles and cousins. I knew nothing about these lost cousins, except for the fact that my grandparents searched for years for survivors and never found anyone. My grandfather had only one set of cousins in Australia (last name Reiter). My grandmother had a brother who survived Auschwitz and one cousin who left Poland before the war, resided for several years in Israel and then moved to America. I found it hard to believe that at a time when there were such large families, my grandparents didn't have any distant cousins who survived the war or survived by leaving Europe before the war.

Turns out, this potential Speiser cousin is a descendant of one of Mechel Speiser's siblings, Lea Speiser. Our common ancestors are Mechel Speiser's parents Selig Speiser and Leibe Freiman. Both of us have been studying at the same Polish documents and feel with a large degree of confidence that we have the correct family. According to my new found 3rd cousin once removed, her great-grandmother Lea came to America in 1907. At the age of 50, widowed with most of her children in America, she finally joined them. This would explain why my grandfather did not know about this branch of the family. My grandfather was born in 1913, six years after Lea left Galicia. He never met this great-aunt Lea, or any of her children. Lea, passed away in 1933, six years before WWII and around the time my grandfather made Aliya to Palestine. It's difficult to say if Lea's nephew Leon (my great-grandfather) kept in touch with his aunt, but by the time was a young adult, he was far removed from Lea's family and probably had no way of getting in touch with them after the war.

Interestingly, while my story is steeped in Holocaust tragedy and loss, for my new found cousin, losing relatives in the war was a revelation. Their extended family immigrated to America before World War I. They felt blessed to have made the choice to leave Galicia and like many American Jewish families, watch the War with horror but were not personally affected. Since she was born after the war, it is very likely that the elder generations in her family, such as her grandfather, did know of many cousins who lost their lives in the war, but to her recollection, and not surprisingly, no one talked about it. Meeting me, had opened her eyes to the story of those who were left behind. Like me, she knew leaned of these extended Speiser branches only thanks to her detailed genealogical research.

Family historians live for the moments when brick walls crash, living relatives are found and better yet research collaborators are discovered. The best part, we live in the same city! Together, we hope to learn more about our shared family history.

What's next?

The next logical step is to prove our family relationship via DNA. In the meantime, we've joined each other's trees and have began sharing our work.'s little leaves would have made the connection between us eventually, but we beat them to it. The amazing thing was that we found each other at a small workshop. I can't wait to tell my dad that I not only found his third cousin, but that there are lots more cousins where she came from!


  1. Wonderful story. I'm so happy for you. While being the family historian often feels like a solitary endeavor, the number of resources on the Internet and "groups" willing to lend a fresh perspective or helpful eye make you realize you're not alone.

    1. Thanks, Wendy. You are so right. Having such a supportive community both on and off line is amazing. The army of volunteers indexing records from a cross the globe is also so impressive. All those anonymous contributors who make our work so much easier, it's mind boggling! I've been started indexing records recently and gained a new appreciation for how difficult this work can be.

  2. Hurray Smadar! Congratulations on your brick wall tumbling down! It's time for a genealogy happy dance!

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Thanks, Jana! Sure is time for the genealogy happy dance! I've been between jumping with joy for days!

    3. Smadar,

      I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at

      Have a wonderful weekend!

    4. Thanks, Jana! I love your Friday Fab Finds and it's always an honor to make your list!


Thanks for sharing your comments!