The ancestry sleuth

by Joel Yanofsky, BA’77, MA’81

Stanley Diamond’s first career was straightforward. At 13, he helped his older brother, just home from the Second World War, run a mail-order company out of the family basement.

“You’d send out a parcel. Get paid. I liked the cause-and-effect, how one thing led to another,” says Diamond, BCom’54.

A commerce degree from McGill followed (“I learned how to learn there”) and led to an MBA from the Harvard Business School. Then, in 1960, Diamond started his own small decorative ceiling business, which evolved into Intalite, an international success story.

From the start, Diamond envisioned Intalite going global. By 1971, he had a factory in Holland and assembly plants in Australia and Japan. He also saw an opportunity to take on work that American manufacturers of specialized ceilings were not pursuing at the time. “We were this little Montreal company doing airports and banks all over the world.”

Not to mention palaces. In the late seventies, Diamond’s most elaborate project was Baghdad’s Saddam Hussein Conference Palace.

But even Diamond, who prides himself on his ability “to think around corners,” didn’t see the next phase of his career coming. In 1995 – he sold Intalite in 1986 – Diamond co-founded the non-profit, online database Jewish Records Indexing-Poland, which has become, in two decades, the largest country-based Jewish genealogical resources in the world. In 2016, Diamond, JRI-Poland’s executive director, was nominated for Poland’s Order of Merit and awarded the Government of Canada Meritorious Service Medal.

In retrospect, the indefatigable 83-year-old, who regularly leads genealogy workshops and is also the founding president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Montreal, can see how one thing led to another, just not in a way he could have ever predicted or imagined.

In 1977, Diamond’s nephew became seriously ill and doctors determined he was a carrier of the trait for beta thalassemia, an extremely rare blood disorder in Jews of Eastern European descent.

His nephew recovered – beta thalassemia was not the cause of his illness, after all – but Diamond discovered he was also a carrier of the trait, as was most of his immediate family. Diamond felt a responsibility to learn more about the effect of all this – when passed on from both parents, beta thalassemia requires regular blood transfusions – on his extended family.

The problem was the trait originated on his father’s side. “My mother was one of 14 children. I knew hundreds of cousins on her side. I didn’t know anyone on my father’s.”

Then, in 1991, Diamond received a letter, “out of the blue,” from a cousin on his father’s side, who was living in Hawaii and looking for Montreal relatives. Diamond quickly booked a plane ticket. His cousin knew nothing about beta thalassemia, but other cousins did. For Diamond, it was the start of a family tree that now numbers 14,000.

More doors opened when Diamond attended a genealogical conference in Israel a few years later. There, he met Professor Jerzy Skowronek, director of the Polish State Archives, who invited Diamond to Poland. On Diamond's second visit, he brought along a printout containing 40,000 record entries from his ancestral town (he’d been busy). Skowronek was amazed.

“I saw his reaction,” Diamond recalls, “and I just said, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to do this for all of Poland?’ He looked at me like I was crazy. He said, ‘Let’s start small. Try with a few towns.’”

Here, however, Diamond’s business instincts kicked in. He was never the type to think small. At the same time, he harboured a nagging regret about not asking his grandmother, who lived to be 103 and died in 1960, about her life. Years later, doing a family search, he found an obituary of her. “She was quoted saying how much she loved telling stories about her childhood in Poland. I read that and said, ‘If only.’”

In a way, JRI-Poland is designed to do away with “if-onlys.” It currently contains more than five million online records from 550 Polish towns. That includes birth, marriage, and death certificates, as well as other civil records, some dating back to the 1700s.

JRI-Poland enlists up to 1,000 volunteers, including Ruth, Diamond’s wife of 50 years, to follow the same “shtetl-specific” model (shtetl is Yiddish for small town) Diamond originally used to trace his family tree. The accumulated data has led to family members learning the fate of unknown relatives, many of whom were lost in the Holocaust.

And, extraordinarily, some who weren’t. Like one man who discovered, through JRI-Poland, a 70-year old half-brother he never knew existed. The two were reunited a few years ago.

JRI-Poland also works closely with Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum, identifying “thousands and thousands” of previously unidentified victims. The goal: to assure all victims are remembered. “For anyone doing genealogical research, especially with roots in Eastern Europe, the Holocaust is not the elephant in the room, it’s much, much bigger than that,” Diamond says.

With popular interest in genealogy growing – thanks, largely, to easier access to information online – JRI-Poland has provided research to television shows like PBS’s Finding Your Roots, tracing the family trees of celebrities like Carole King and Gwyneth Paltrow. Recently, Diamond confirmed for Guinness World Records that Israel Kristal, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor, was, in fact, 112-years-old, making him, at the time, the oldest man in the world.

Despite its non-profit designation, Diamond has always tried to run JRI-Poland like a business, but the daily emails in his inbox suggest otherwise. He’s routinely being thanked for reconnecting families and for changing lives.

“In business, you learn to limit personal relationships,” he says. “Here, you can’t. You get involved in every aspect of people’s lives.”

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