The designation earlier this month of a 112-year-old Israeli as the world’s oldest living man by Guinness World Records would not have been possible without the sleuthing of Stanley Diamond, the Montreal-based executive director of Jewish Records Indexing-Poland (JRI).
The exacting Guinness organization was not convinced by Yisrael Kristal’s claim that he was born on Sept. 15, 1903 in the town of Zarnow. He did not possess documentation that Guinness regards as irrefutable proof.
When Diamond read about Kristal and his supporters’ bid for the oldest title in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz about six weeks earlier, he knew he had to help.
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Diamond was by no means certain he could come up with what Guinness required, but he knew that if anyone could find that vital missing piece it would be JRI. Diamond founded the non-profit JRI 21 years ago, an outgrowth of his amateur genealogical research into his own Polish Jewish roots sparked by discovering he had a rare genetic condition.
Today, JRI is the largest, fully searchable database of indexes to Jewish vital records accessible online – for any country. Five million records from more than 550 Polish towns are now indexed, and more are added all the time.
Unfortunately, those records did not include a birth certificate for Kristal. Diamond found that the vital records for Zarnow, the small town nearest the village where Kristal was actually born, have not survived.
“Although Kristal has postwar international tracing service records and immigration papers to Israel [with his age], they are more than 20 years old, which Guinness does not accept,” Diamond explained.
The first breakthrough in JRI’s sleuthing was the discovery in the state archives of Kristal’s residency card in Lodz, thanks to the co-operation of the director of the Lodz archives, a longtime collaborator of Diamond’s, and the work of JRI’s database manager, Michael Tobias in Glasgow, Scotland.
At 17, Kristal had gone to that city to rejoin his father who had come back from Russia and had a candy business.
He was known in Poland as Izrael Icek.
The card shows his birth year as 1903 – and this document is within Guinness’s 20-year limit.
But it was not enough. Diamond then came upon Kristal’s marriage banns to his first wife published in the town of Malagoszcz in 1928. The rabbinical certification stated that the groom was 25 years old.
But alas that record was more than 20 years after Kristal’s alleged birth date.
Then Diamond had a “eureka moment” when he discovered birth protocols, a type of sworn statement, attached to the banns for both Kristal and his bride.
They had been cut off on the right-hand side when first scanned.
That was sufficient to convince Guinness, and on March 11 it confirmed Kristal as the world’s oldest man (but only the 32nd oldest person, those older than him all being women.)
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“The key thing in all this is to underline that [Jewish] records do survive, that people can follow a paper trail, and that we can help them do that,” said Diamond.
JRI has frequently been called upon to find proof of age, but has never undertaken a project quite like this.
“Often, I’ve had people right here in Montreal come for help because when they immigrated they said they were younger than they were. Then when they have reached pension age, they need proof of their real age to get those benefits,” he said.
Kristal survived the Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz. His first wife and two children perished in the Holocaust. Kristal immigrated to Israel, to Haifa, where he still lives, in 1950.