26 Aug 2016
Connecting with the Past
Helping families find their roots through the world’s largest database of Jewish vital record indexesRe: Mark Diamond (MBA 1978); John Boone (MBA 1958)by Jill RadskenTopics:
Photography by Owen Egan
Stanley Diamond (MBA 1958) was thinking about the health of future generations of his family when he went searching for records of his relatives in Poland. Prompted by the diagnosis of his nephew, Mark Diamond (MBA 1978), as a carrier of the beta thalassemia trait, Diamond says he “wanted to warn other members of the family whom I knew, and those I had yet to find” about their chance of inheriting the serious blood disorder.
Diamond had been retired only a few years after a successful career in the global decorative-ceiling business when he started his quest. What started as an altruistic concern for his family, however, led to a second career as cofounder of Jewish Records Indexing–Poland, an online database that has helped families around the world document their ancestry and find relatives about whom they have never heard.
“It’s been an absolutely amazing journey. I had no idea of how this would take on a life of its own,” he says. “I hear incredible, heartwarming stories every week.”
First, the numbers: Since its launch, JRI-Poland has grown to include more than 5 million records (e.g., registrations of births, marriages, and deaths) from 550 towns in Poland. The index, now the largest online database of Jewish vital records, can help genealogists quickly trace family ancestry back many generations, often to the 1700s. The site has been particularly invaluable in connecting people with family who may have survived the Holocaust.
Diamond’s email inbox is filled with success stories that describe his efforts as “holy work” and “nothing short of a miracle.” One person wonders, “Do you have any idea how many lives you’ve changed?” Another researcher comments, “From medical history to people’s sense of self… We are all thankful for how much your work has touched our lives.” A woman from North Carolina, whose search of JRI-Poland led directly to cousins in Sweden, Hungary, Israel, and Canada, has told Diamond, “You changed my life.”
“People have found family they were never able to find, or never knew existed,” says Diamond. “My great-grandmother had her first child at age 17 and had twin boys at age 49. If you keep that in mind, you can see why it’s not always possible for cousins to find each other when their parents or grandparents emigrated to the United States, Argentina, or Israel.”
Extended family was always a source of fascination for Diamond, a Canadian native whose mom was one of 14 children and whose dad was one of seven. A semi-professional fastball player who played for the Canadian World Team, he was finishing college (McGill University) in 1954 when two HBS grads—David “Bud” Shefler and Norman J. Keesal (MBA 1952)—convinced him to delay his application to HBS and hired him for Red Comet, their decorative-ceiling business.
“My bosses said, ‘You’ll get in. You will have the background and experience,’” he recalls. “When my mom called to say the letter arrived, I jumped so high I hit the ceiling in the storeroom.”
At HBS, Diamond remembers studying cases with professors Thomas Raymond and C. Roland Christensen, who made learning “both fun and stimulating.” One of the lessons that helped him in business and in establishing JRI-Poland came from a course he learned about through his roommates, John Boone and Larry O’Hearn, who took Georges F. Doriot’s popular class on manufacturing.
“I didn’t take it, but everyone in the School knew what he preached: it was the idea that wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, whatever new idea you have, someone else is working on something similar. Think outside the box. Innovate and try and do something different,” Diamond explains.
Diamond brought this way of thinking back to Red Comet after graduating. Two years later, the business went bankrupt and he started a new company, Integrated Lighting Limited, with two other former employees.
“It was like being thrown in the deep end,” he recalls, of owning his first business. “I did everything: marketing, making sales, coordinating shipments, supervising, installation of the ceilings.”
In 1963, Diamond bought out his two partners, and later, merged with another company in order to free himself to pursue building global distribution. He renamed the entire operation Intalite.
“Within a month, I was on an airplane to Germany and Denmark setting up distribution,” he remembers. “American manufacturers of specialized ceilings were so insular at the time that it gave me carte blanche to quickly make inroads all over the world. By 1970, we had a factory in Holland serving Europe. In 1971, we started assembly plants in Australia and Japan.”
He visited more than 50 countries, including many in the Middle East to take advantage of the oil boom. Among his most elaborate projects was the Saddam Hussein Conference Palace in Baghdad, built for the Conference of the Non-Aligned Movement. When Iraq went to war with Iran, the conference moved to India and the palace sat unused until the United States destroyed it during the 1990–1991 Gulf War.
In 1986, Diamond sold his interest in Intalite and worked for several years as a consultant for Construction Specialties, a manufacturer of specialized architectural products. At the same time, his nephew Mark brought him on board as an investor and marketing consultant in several high-tech startups, including Eicon Technologies, a Canadian maker of computer networking cards; Modular Visions Systems; and Gage Electronics, the first manufacturer of computer-based instrumentation.
In 1991, the need to find and warn family members of their genetic heritage prompted Diamond to concentrate on that pursuit. He attended his first international Jewish genealogy conference a year later, and started to build relationships in the genealogical world. Three years later, two colleagues with technical know-how implemented his idea for online Polish-Jewish records with a rudimentary search system. The turning point came soon after, when Diamond and another colleague persuaded the Polish State Archives to allow them to index his family’s ancestral town.
“Four months later, I went to Poland with a printout of our entire database of 40,000 record entries. The reaction of the archives’ director was one of great surprise. I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to do this for all of Poland?’ He hesitatingly responded, ‘Let’s start small,’” Diamond recalls.
“In the next few years, we signed a formal agreement with the archives.” As activities grew, JRI-Poland formed an executive committee and Diamond took the helm as executive director.
An impassioned Diamond built JRI-Poland with a legion of dedicated volunteers (including Ruth, his wife of 50 years), in more than 15 countries, that has required of him a judiciousness well-honed at HBS.
“Volunteers cannot be fired, scolded, or criticized willy-nilly,” he says. “All the diplomatic tools I have acquired have become vital in managing JRI-Poland. Please and thank you are the most valuable words in my vocabulary.”
Marketing lessons learned at HBS also helped Diamond develop effective fundraising methods. Because records in Poland were kept on a town-by-town basis, he was able to create what he calls the “shtetl-specific” model, referring to the Yiddish term for a small Jewish town.
“We start by generating a surname frequency list,” he says. “In this way, we are able to appeal to the personal interests of an individual genealogist or researcher by revealing what records exist for his or her family in our database.”
Diamond’s own family tree now has 14,000 entries, but JRI-Poland’s work stretches beyond individual family historians like himself: it has provided research for the American television shows Finding Your Roots (PBS) and Who Do You Think You Are? (TLC). Diamond has coordinated research for legal inheritance cases as well as property recovery. In March, JRI-Poland enabled Guinness World Records to confirm Israel Kristal, a 112-year-old Holocaust survivor, as the world’s oldest man.
“He couldn’t produce a birth certificate, because the birth register from the town has not survived. But we found a birth protocol attached to his marriage banns showing he was born in 1903. It’s impossible to imagine, when this started, we would be called upon to produce proof to certify the oldest man in the world,” says Diamond, who, last December, was nominated for the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland. “We’re at a point now, where we’re taken for granted, and I think that’s a testimonial to our success.”
Class of MBA 1958, Section D