My family’s journey with genealogy began over a decade ago. It was really my mother’s interest that started us down this path. She wanted to know more about her grandfather’s early life in Poland, something that he refused to ever speak about. Morris, my mother’s grandfather (my great-grandfather) once said, when asked about Poland: “Poland didn’t want anything to do with me, I don’t want anything to do with Poland.” When we asked his daughter, my mom’s mother and my grandmother, about her father’s family, she didn’t know too much more than we already knew – most of them had immigrated to the United States in the early twentieth century. But she did tell us one crucial detail that would ignite a decade of searching: Morris’ father, Isadore, possibly had siblings that did not immigrate. We wondered, first, if this was true, but second if this meant that they would have been victims of the Holocaust just two decades after the rest of the family immigrated.
This is where we started. Our family name in the US is Goodfader – finding their original name would take years. We started at Ellis Island (I don’t quite remember when this was, but my nana traveled with us so it was many years ago). At Ellis Island, we found the document that would truly kick off our genealogy journey. The names of my great-great-grandfather and his wife and children were located on a ship manifest from December 1916, listing passengers on the SS Nieuw Amsterdam, sailing from Rotterdam to New York City . Their last name on this document was listed as “Gutweider” and from this document we can see that they were from Ciechanów, “Russia.” (Of course, at the time, Ciechanów was part of the Russian Empire, though would become Poland with the end of World War I).
I want to note here that you will see my great-great-grandfather’s name written as Isadore, Isak, Icek, Itsek, Yitzhak, etc. These are all variations on the same name. But in his life in the United States, he went by Isadore, so I will refer to him as Isadore when not referring to specific documents.
The ship manifest was an exciting find, as it listed the exact town our family was from. But still, at this point, we only knew that our direct ancestors, left Poland (Russian Empire) in 1916. We had no further information about possible relatives that did not immigrate.
In 2012, my mother and I travelled to Poland for the first time. We only spent about five days in Poland after three weeks in Italy. The culture shock was real. But we hired a tour guide to help us and she managed to take us to Ciechanów. From the ship manifest, we knew the street they had lived on and discovered it was actually the main street in the town.
We didn’t discover anything “new” on this trip: we still only knew the following information: Isak “Gutweider,” his wife Esther, and their children Sara, Rosa, Hersh, Morsche, Wulf, Fella, and Josef had lived in Ciechanów before immigrating to the US in 1916. However, all searches on genealogy sites using the name “Gutweider” would not give us any further information. We were stuck.
Our initial trip to Poland spurred my own personal interest in Polish Jewish history. I began to study the subject in college and in the summer of 2015 I returned to Poland for a summer study program on memory of the Jewish past in Poland. On this trip, I met a woman who is a very skilled genealogist . I told her about trying to find more about our family and showed her what we had so far. She told me, “That’s likely not the real spelling of that last name. Let me do some searches.” The next day, she came back and informed me that our family’s last name was actually Gutwajde/Gutwajder. She also pointed out that this was a unique last name and that if we searched using this last name, any discoveries with even a close spelling of the name would likely be related to us in some way. This was really the information we needed – Robinn, we are indebted to you for this discovery.
I called my mom that night and told her about this discovery. She was flying to Poland soon to meet me as we were going to continue a trip through Poland once my program was over. She was also going to go to some archives with our guide from our 2012 trip and could now, hopefully, find some more documents about our family. When she finally arrived in Poland and spent a day in the archives, she called me very excited: “Alison, I found the birth records of Morris and Isadore and the whole family!” These birth records gave us some vital information. We finally knew for a fact that my great-grandfather Morris was born in Ciechanów in 1903. But we also found out something new – where my great-great-grandfather Isadore was born. It turns out that Isadore was born in a small town called Kurów, in the Lublin region of Poland. And strangely enough, I had just been there the day before on my study program. My study program, which focused on the memory of Jewish history in Poland, took us to Kurów because it was an example of a town that prior to World War II had a majority-Jewish population – however, in 2015 there was a not a single Jewish space that remained here, nor was there even a placard or memorial to the Jewish history of the town.
After this trip, we would find many documents on the Gutwajde family. In fact, we found out that Isadore’s lineage in Kurów, goes back all the way to 1779, if not earlier. This we know from a death record for a Dobra Hudwayde (remember that tidbit about any similar spellings?) in the Kurów archives from 1847, which gives us her year of birth. This is a pretty incredible find for Jewish genealogy. Jewish records in Poland are very incomplete – from centuries of fires, purposeful destruction, and war. So the fact that we have been able to trace our direct line back to 1779 is pretty miraculous. After the 2015 trip, we delved headfirst into online genealogical research. We found many records for Gutwajde’s and began filling out our family tree when possible. Often, the only records we could find online were merely indexed records, meaning that we could not access the document itself but instead someone had collected important information from the document into an index, such as names, dates, places etc. One set of indexed records intrigued me – they pointed to a family of Gutwajde’s in Ryki, Poland and, at that time, we did not know where they fit into our family tree.
In 2018, we returned to Poland once again, this time with the goal of really delving into our family history. Here, we hired a tour guide I had met on my prior trip – Sławek – who helped us research our family based on our initial findings and put us in touch with a researcher named Tadeusz, who could help us find and translate documents. Tadeusz passed away recently…he was so wonderful to us when we met him in 2018. He was beyond helpful, kind, and considerate. May his memory be for a blessing. After meeting with Tadeusz and receiving so many documents and translations for our tree, Sławek took us to an archive in Otwock, where some records from Ryki were located. Here we made one of the most exciting discoveries in this entire journey – a residency record from 1939.
After Ryki’s occupation in September 1939, authorities conducted what was effectively a residence-census of people living in Ryki. In this document, we find that a family of Gutwajde’s lived on 11 Listopada street in 1939. Mordko Gutwajde, his wife Ruchla (nee Winograd), and their children Hersz-Mendel, Fajga, and Lejb, were living in Ryki in 1939. We also know that other relatives of this family were living in Ryki at this time. Mordko’s brother, Szmul-Kiwa, and his family (wife Serka, and children Hersz-Mendel and Rut) were also living in Ryki when the Second World War began. This we know from a variety of documents, including birth records and memorial books written by survivors from after the war, but I will get to that in a future post.
While this was a a fascinating discovery, for so many reasons, this was also a sad discovery for us. For these families to be living in Ryki during the Nazi occupation in late 1939, meant that their survival of the war was unlikely. We finally got some answers to our initial inquiries – did my great-grandfather have relatives that were “left behind?” The answer was yes, that my great-grandfather’s first cousins and their children would have been in Ryki during the Holocaust, with no indication that they survived.
The rest of this story, which I find so fascinating, I will save for another post.
In terms of our family tree – at this point, it is pretty extensive. We have 260 people in the Gutwajde tree, and while many of them are our contemporary family, we also found so many of our more distant relatives through genealogy. And, as more documents get indexed or even digitized, the possibility to add to our tree grows as well. Again, I feel it is only right to thank the people who helped us so much in this process: Jagna, Sławek, Tadeusz, Robinn.