Our Search for Ancestors: Finding Szmul, part 1.

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).

The ship manifest that lists my great-grandfather Morris, and his family. Statue of Liberty—Ellis Island Foundation.

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.

A photo from our 2012 trip to Ciechanow. This is not only the main street of the town, but also the street my great-great-grandfather and his family lived on.

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.

I took very fews photos of this town, Kurów, when I visited in 2015. It turns out that we can trace our family heritage to this town back to the 18th century.

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.

Residence List from Ryki, Poland in 1939.

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.

Explaining my Dissertation and Research

I’ve recently had to explain *what I’m currently doing with my life* to friends and family outside of academia and realized that very few people understand what completing a PhD looks like, particularly in the humanities. So I figured I would come on here and try to explain the PhD process, as well as my research, as simply and clearly as possible. One of the goals of this website, in my mind, was always to chronicle this process – though I haven’t been successful at this yet. This can hopefully be one step towards fulfilling that goal as well.

In short, I am currently a PhD candidate. This signifies a certain position in the process of attaining your PhD. In my case, I entered my doctoral program with a Masters degree, which meant that when I started I was a PhD student who needed to take two years of coursework before becoming a PhD candidate (as opposed to those who start with a Bachelors degree, who often need three years of coursework). After you’ve completed all course requirements, you also need to take a series of exams – we call these comprehensive exams (some people have oral comprehensive exams, but ours were written). Then, you have to defend your dissertation prospectus, which is essentially your proposal for your dissertation. In the case of history projects, you have to adequately explain your research questions, the goal of your dissertation project, what types of sources you will utilize in your dissertation, what archives you will need to visit to access such sources, and why your project is significant to the wider historical narrative. Once you have achieved all of these things – the coursework, the exams, and the prospectus defense – you become a PhD candidate. We also call this ABD, or all-but-dissertation.

Since May 2021, I have been ABD. This means that my goal currently is to complete the research and writing necessary for my dissertation. One component of dissertating that most people find confusing when I describe this process is funding. Usually, while you are taking courses as a PhD student, you also serve as a Teaching Assistant, which you are paid for (though our stipends for this are abysmal). However, once you become ABD, you need to find funding to complete your research – particularly if your research will take you abroad. Some PhD candidates can and will TA while completing research – but this is not possible for me with my project and the research I need to do. So, in my case, and in the case of many PhD candidates in history, we have to apply for grants and fellowships to support our research. I will return to this issue later.

My current research, and my goal for my dissertation, is a culmination of my research interests over the past six years or so. I want to try to explain this research here, briefly. While finishing my Masters degree in Holocaust studies, I became fascinated with the fact that during the Second World War, many Jewish cemeteries in occupied Poland (and also in other areas) were destroyed as part of the genocide. But as I researched this concept, I discovered many instances of Jewish people using cemeteries to escape from ghettos or hide from deportations – and this concept became so much more interesting to me. However, I also felt that something was missing – how can I try to understand these varied uses of Jewish cemeteries during the Holocaust, without knowing the uses of these spaces before it?

That is one part of my dissertation research: how were Jewish cemeteries used during the interwar period in Poland, and how might these uses have influenced the utilization of these spaces during the war? Of course, the obvious answer to this question is that people use cemeteries for funerals. And that’s true, but even my early research has proved to me that the cemetery was a significant space in both time periods not just because it was a space for burials and funerals but for many other reasons as well. During the interwar period, Jewish cemeteries in Poland often became sites for conflict over political identification or even between Hasidic and more secular Jews (I have written a paper on this and it will hopefully be published next year). Another aspect of cemetery usage that fascinates me is how the use of Jewish cemeteries impacted the creation or alteration of ghetto boundaries during the Holocaust. The best example of this comes from the Warsaw ghetto, where the German authorities recognized the need for a cemetery as a space to bury the dead, and therefore, when changing the borders of the ghetto, included the Okopowa Street Jewish cemetery along the border. This meant that smuggling operations out of the ghetto, through the cemetery, were able to continue (saving thousands of lives) and people were also able to use the cemetery to escape from the ghetto. Hopefully this will be a paper I write soon as well.

My dissertation will hopefully examine four different thematic lenses of analysis: ritual, space, movement, and actors. I am interested in not just the ritual uses of these spaces, of which there are many, but also how the space of the cemetery influenced human behavior in these periods, how people moved between cemeteries and other spaces, and which actors were involved in the management or use of Jewish cemeteries. The goal, then, is that these methods of examination will allow me to place Jewish cemeteries into broader contexts in Polish Jewish history, as well as Jewish history and the study of the Holocaust.

In order to write a dissertation on this topic, I need to find sources to support this research. In the field of history, we use a variety of sources – we find sources from the time period we are examining to be the most accurate, such as a newspaper articles, diaries, journals, documents created at that time, etc. These, we call primary sources and they should serve as the foundation of our research. But there are other types of sources that we consider to be primary that might not be from the time period of examination – sources like memoirs and oral histories or testimonies (interviews) with people that experienced that history, are also vital to our projects because they are first-hand accounts of what happened. Currently, my goal in my research is pursuit of such primary sources. So far, I have accessed or found many newspaper articles, memoirs, oral histories, and other documents that support my research but I am in search of more! I was thankful to be able to spend some time at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s archives in the spring, where I accessed so many documents that I am still working through them.

One of my organization tools for keeping track of my dissertation. This map shows towns where I have found documentation on their Jewish cemeteries. I try to keep this as updated as possible. One goal for this project is to look at the use of cemeteries in individual towns but also build a wider narrative about cemetery use as well.

The type of project I envision will require examination of documents in many different archives around the world. This requires a fair amount of travel and time spent abroad. I am very grateful to receive some awesome fellowships for this academic year that give me funding to be able to travel and well, *survive*, while completing this research. The first fellowship is the Claims Conference Saul Kagan Academic Fellowship in Advanced Shoah Studies. This essentially provides an academic year of funding and it allows me to travel wherever I need to travel to complete my research. This fellowship is also wonderful because I can renew this funding for another year if necessary (it will probably be necessary). I also received a fellowship through the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City. This is a three-month in-residence fellowship to access YIVO’s archives. My current plan is to spend some time in Poland this fall (I leave in three weeks!), then spend January-March in residence in NYC. After that, I may return to Poland or make a trip to Israel in the spring.

I have also been using other organizational tools as well. This is Zotero, which organizes sources and allows you to more easily cite when using Word. This tool has really helped me to keep track of my sources – which ones I have translated, which I have yet to translate, where I keep notes on the documents – it can also link sources together using tags and collections.

I hope this post helps to explain my dissertation project. I also want to use this site to chronicle some of my research trips and important finds along the way. Hopefully I will remember to keep this as updated as possible. Writing is so crucial to our progress in academia, and hopefully writing in this form can keep me accountable while also allowing me to share information in a public manner.