Copyright © 1998 by Peter S. Spiro

The Spiro Family of Gemzse in Hungary

The name Spiro when it occurs in Jewish families is a variant spelling of Shapiro, along with Spira, Shapira and a few other spellings. The spelling "Spiro" is proper Hungarian, since the letter "s" standing alone in Hungarian is pronounced like "sh" in English. In Poland, the spelling was "Szpiro," and in Polish "sz" is pronounced like "sh."

Spiro also exists as a Greek name, particularly as a personal name, and this has no direct relation to the name Spiro in the current context.

Shapiro is among the relatively few uniquely Jewish surnames. There are two main theories of its origin. According to one theory, it derives from an aramaic word that sounds similar to it (and is etymologically related to the name of the sapphire gemstone). This is not impossible, but it is highly uncommon for surnames to derive from Aramaic words. A more widely accepted view is that the name derives from the ancient Rhineland city of Speyer whose name is Spira in Latin (meaning the coils of a serpent or the strap of a helmet), which became distorted into Shapir in Yiddish. There was a flourishing Jewish community here in the middle ages, but they were massacred in 1349 during the period of the Black Death, when angry mobs blamed Jews for the plague. Very few of the Jews of Speyer survived. There is a legend that Jews in other parts of Europe adopted the name Spira in memory of this community. Certainly, it is one of the oldest Jewish surnames in Europe, and instances of it are found going back at least to the 1500s.

The word "spiro" in Latin is the first person singular of the verb "spirare," meaning "I breathe." However, very few Jews knew Latin, so it is unlikely that Jews named Spiro were aware of this, and it is even less likely that they would have deliberately adopted a surname which is a meaningful slogan in Latin.

Most of the people who presently spell their name Spiro appear to be of German Jewish descent, while those whose ancestors lived in Poland mainly spell it Shapiro. Those of Hungarian descent also continue to spell it Spiro, but they are much less numerous than those from Germany.

The name Spiro on gravestones in Hungary is spelled shin-peh-yod-resh-aleph in Hebrew characters. This is the same spelling as used for Shapiro elsewhere.

While Shapiro and its variants were very common Jewish names in Poland, and now in North America, Spiro was a very uncommon name in Hungary. I have looked through numerous memorial books for Hungarian communities, and only the city of Debrecen had a substantial number of people with that name. I have gone through the Mormon microfilms for Jewish congregational records for several towns, and found the name Spiro only in Gemzse. Given the large migration of Jews from the Polish province of Galicia (where it was a common name) to Hungary, it is remarkable that so few Hungarian Jews were named Spiro. Of course, many Jews did not have surnames until required to adopt them by the government. This was one of the edicts of Joseph II, who ordered Hungarian Jews to adopt German surnames in 1787. I do not know if those who already had surnames were forced to change them at this time. It is possible that there were some Jews with the surname Spiro who changed to more common German names. Whatever the reason, the rarity of the name in Hungary makes it probable that all or most Hungarian Jews with the name Spiro spring from the same roots.

How Long have Jews lived in Hungary?

There are archaeological remains and inscriptions showing that Jews lived in what is now Hungary even in the days of the Roman empire. However, Hungary is in the middle of Europe with no defensible borders, and has been repeatedly swept by invasions. While Jews have lived in parts of Hungary on and off for two thousand years, there is little continuity to their history in Hungary.

The Magyar tribes occupied the country in 896, and they were accompanied by (and possibly related to) some Khazars, a nation famous for the fact that its king and nobility had converted to Judaism. Jews are known to have lived in Hungary in medieval times, and were generally treated much better in Hungary than in most other European countries. During the Crusades, when Jews were massacred all across Europe by rampaging Crusaders, the Magyar King Koloman (Könyves Kálmán) used armed force to repel the Crusaders and protect the Jews of Hungary.

During the 1500s Hungary was invaded by the Turks, and most of Hungary was ruled by them for about 150 years. Szabolcs county itself never completely fell into the hands of the Turks. It was a disputed border territory, and the site of frequent battles and much devastation. It is unlikely that any Jews lived in Szabolcs during this period of turmoil.

The Turks were finally defeated by the Austrian Habsburg emperor, and expelled from Hungary in 1699. The country that the Turks left behind was depopulated, devastated and extremely backward. The 1700s was a period of rebuilding by the Magyars, and Jews filtered back to take part in this enterprise. Indeed, the nobility encouraged Jewish immigration, as there was virtually no commerce or literacy in Hungary. Every noblemen wanted Jews living on his estate, especially to run enterprises such as taverns on his behalf.

A census conducted in 1723 found only about 30,000 Jews in all of Hungary. By the end of the century, their number had grown to about 200,000, both due to natural increase and immigration from other parts of the Habsburg empire. Initially, Moravia (now in the Czech republic) was a major source of immigration, as there were severe restrictions on the Jews there. Following 1772, Galicia became part of the empire, and also became a source of immigration. However, after 1800 most of the growth of the Jewish population seems to have been due to natural increase. The Jewish population of greater Hungary eventually grew to about 800,000, representing 5 percent of Hungary's total population.

Spiro in Hungarian Records

The only published record of the name Spiro occurring before 1800 is in the city of Pozsony, now in Slovakia and renamed Bratislava. Hershl Spiro, a businessman, was active there from the late 1600s to early 1700s, and he is mentioned in the archival material of volume 9 of Magyar Zsido Okleveltar (also titled Monumenta Hungariae Judaica), since records of the numerous lawsuits he was engaged in have survived. There was also an artist, Spiro Ede, born in Pozsony in 1790, who is mentioned in Zsido Lexikon (1790). There were also several early Hungarian rabbinical families named Spira. In addition, the family name of the Hassidic rabbis of Munkacs was Spira, but they did not immigrate to Hungary until the 1850s.

In the 1848 census of Szabolcs county, Gemzse is the only place that had any people named Spiro. Some family members were known to have moved away from Gemzse to the cities of Miskolc, Nyirbator and Debrecen.

The Spiro Family of Gemzse

Gemzse is a tiny village in Szabolcs county, in the north-east corner of Hungary. (Gemzse is pronounced with a hard "G," and the stress on the first syllable. Both "e"s sound like "e" in "get," and "zs" is Hungarian is pronounced like "s" in pleasure.) This corner of Hungary is surrounded by former areas of Hungary that were lost in the first world war, and are now parts of Slovakia, Ukraine, and Romania. Szabolcs is a quiet, agricultural region of Hungary, with potato and grain crops predominating. It and the neighbouring county of Zemplen are remarkable in that most every village had several Jewish families, engaged in farming rather than the just the traditional Jewish activities of trade. In some instances, they combined farming with some other business on the side, such as a tavern or store run out of one tiny room of their house.

The population of Gemzse in 1993 was about 700, just about the same as in 1893. There is a school and two churches, one Catholic and one Protestant ("Reformatus"). The free-standing wooden bell tower owned by the Protestant church is Gemzse's main claim to fame. It reaches a height of 16.5 metres, built entirely of wood, and is even held together by wooden spikes rather than metal nails. It is located at the entrance to the town, a stone's throw from the former homes of Moric and Samuel Spiro. The present tower is believed to have been built around 1789, replacing an even older one on that site (Szabolcs-Szatmar Megye Muemlekei, p. 443). One can visit Gemzse and know that this tower at least is something that remains exactly as our earliest ancestors in that village saw it.

In pre-war days there were separate Catholic and Protestant schools, and the Jews were required by law to attend one of these. The Spiro's, in the 1930s at least (Joseph, Lajcsi and Jeno) attended the Catholic school, and hence learned a few words of the Latin Mass, even though the Jews were excused from class during the teaching of religion. They also had Hebrew lessons from an itinerant melamed, who in this instance was Moishe Weiss, brother of the future Hermin Spiro. The Spiro family goes back to at least to 1800 in Gemzse, and probably earlier. The oral tradition says that the earliest Spiro immigrated to Gemzse from the region of Tarnopol in what is now the Ukraine. This ancestor's name was likely Samuel, but there is no written record of this.

A census of Jews was carried out in 1784, and there were already 22 Jews in Gemzse at that time. The much larger town of Kisvarda only had 118 Jews at the time of this census. (Jolesz Karoly, Kisvarda es kornyeke zsidosaga, emlekkonyv, Tel Aviv, 1980, p. 30, citing the Hungarian national archives, Orszagos leveltar kancellari oszt ad. nr. 4772/786). This census did not list individual names. Later censuses carried out in 1795, 1820 and 1828 did list individual names of taxpayers, but in the case of Jews they did not use surnames, only compound personal Hebrew names. While Jews in Hungary were legally required to use surnames as of 1787, it appears that this was not enforced even on tax censuses.

A detailed census of Hungarian Jews was completed in 1848, which lists the names, ages, occupations and place of birth of all individuals. In Gemzse, the census appears to have actually been conducted two or three years earlier than 1848 (based on the ages of some of those whose birth year is known from alternative sources).

On this census (about 1845) there were five Spiro heads of families residing in Gemzse. All five were born in Gemzse, and all five were farmers. Some of the handwriting is hard to decipher:

Spiro Simon, aged 45, wife Eszter aged 35, children Elias, 14, Ferentz, 8, Sari, 10, indecipherable, 9.

Spiro Mozes, 36, wife Zsuzsanna, 36, Rakhel, 14, Ervin, 11, Sari, 8, Rebeka, 4, Katalin 2(?).

Spiro Ichak(?), 43, wife Maria, 38, Boreh(?) 17, Abraham, 15, Juli(?), 13, Rakhel, 9, Simon, 8, Eszter, 5, Eva, 3, Samuel, 2.

Spiro Elias, 32, wife Julis, 28, Abraham, 11, Rakhel, 9, Debora, 7, Hila(?), 4.

Spiro David, 30, wife Borka(?), 28, Marton 6, Jakab, 3, Hela(?), 8, Rakhel, 6 months.

It is remarkable that there were four girls named Rakhel. It seems to have been a very popular name, perhaps because it was that of their grandmother. Later, Samuel became a common name for boys, suggesting that this was the name of their grandfather, who probably died just a few years before this census was taken.

Tradition has it that the first Spiros moved to Gemzse when it became part of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1772, and that they were given free land as an inducement to settle there. (According to the late Sandor Tarjan of Australia, a Spiro descendant, land was given in the 1830s as a reward for having served in the Imperial army.) I have not been able to verify in any historical documentation that such land grants actually occurred. Indeed, it is questionable whether Jews were legally entitled to own land in Hungary as early as 1772. However, the Emperor Joseph II was known to have pursued liberal policies aimed at integrating the Jews into the general population, including urging them to engage in agriculture.

It is possible that the Spiros started out as tenants of an aristocratic landowner. This was a common event before 1867 (when Jews received full civil rights, including the right to own land). Some Jews with capital leased large tracts and employed Hungarians to work their land for them, an early form of agribusiness. It is very unlikely that the first Spiro immigrants to Hungary had an agricultural background, and it is remarkable that they were able to adapt to such a different way of life.

It certainly took considerable courage and enterprise for these people to settle in Gemzse. It is not like the more recent immigrations to North America, where one could settle in large anonymous cities that were accustomed to immigrants. Here was a tiny village where everybody had known everybody from time immemorial, and nobody spoke anything but Hungarian. And then again, while it must have been very difficult, they were no doubt induced to do so by even more difficult circumstances in the place they came from. In Moravia, for example, in each Jewish family only one son was legally entitled to get married and start a new family.

According to most authorities, Jews were not legally entitled to own land in Hungary until 1867, although some sources suggest there may have been some exceptions. In 1867, land reforms required the aristocrats to give a proportion of their land to the peasants (still quasi-serfs in Hungary at that time). It is possible that larger tenants were able, at that time, to buy the land they had been leasing. Most of Gemzse had belonged to the Counts Karolyi, along with something like 100 other villages. The Karolyis were one of the great "princely" families of the Hungarian aristocracy, along with the Eszterhazy and Palffy families.

Marton Spiro (c. 1837-1901) had two sons, each of whom inherited 20 hold (just over 28 acres) of land. The older brother, Moric, went to work as a baker in the United States for several years. The money he brought back enabled him to purchase more land. However, he was resented by the neighbours for having been away in the United States while they were fighting in World War I. Subsequently, there was a lawsuit over the title to the land that he had bought, and it was taken away from him. Moric and his brother Samuel also owned a steam powered threshing machine which they hired out to other farmers. This machine caught fire and was destroyed, but they were unable to get any compensation from the insurance company because they were held responsible for having left the engine running with the machine unattended. They were suspected of having let it catch fire on purpose, as it was not very profitable. Due to these reverses, the families were extremely poor in the 1920s and 1930s, with barely enough money to buy boots for their children in the winter. The whole Hungarian economy was devastated by the disruptions following World War I, in which Hungary lost 60 percent of its territory.

The rural Jews shared fully in the general poverty of the country. Unfortunately, they ended up suffering doubly in the end. There were wealthy Jewish industrialists and bankers in Hungary, and Jews accounted for about half of the doctors and lawyers in Budapest. This privileged condition had been tolerated during Hungary's prosperous period in the second half of the 1800s. Following World War I, the impoverishment of the country, and the aristocratic classes in particular, led to the rise of a powerful anti-Semitic movement, which led to laws that started taking away Jewish civil rights in 1920, well before anybody in Germany had even heard of Hitler. Many of the prosperous, educated Jews of Budapest were able to escape the Holocaust. The Jews of the villages were deported by the Nazis, mainly to Auschwitz, and probably about 80 percent of them perished.

The Jewish Population of Gemzse There were about half a dozen Jewish families in Gemzse at any one time, enough at least to have a minyan and employ an occasional melamed. The Jewish population was 114 around 1846, but had declined to 79 in 1930. In spite of a high birth rate, the population declined due to a constant outmigration by the younger generations lured to larger towns and cities.

Gemzse belonged to the Orthodox congregation of Nyirmada, and births, deaths and marriages were supposed to have been entered in the record book in Nyirmada. The pages pertaining to Gemzse are found on the Mormon microfilm no. 0642902. These are photographs of the copy of the Nyirmada congregational records now kept in the national central archives in Budapest. The first page of the entries for Gemzse was torn out, so the first thirteen births are missing. The birth records run from 1856 to 1883 (number 14 to number 51 for the congregation). Twelve deaths and 5 marriages are also recorded.

These records are clearly very incomplete. There are several people we know were born in Gemzse during this period whose names are not recorded. The residents of Gemzse probably did not want to be bothered to travel to Nyirmada and register their news. I have also gone through the microfilm for Nyirmada, and there are no additional Gemzse births noted in that book (although there were two midwives with the surname Spiro).

The Spiro names recorded on the Gemzse microfilm are as follows (but some are guesses since the handwriting is difficult to decipher):

Spiro Samuel, born 1857 to Spiro David and Pepi. Spiro Kati and Bernat, twins born 1860 to Spiro Simon and Leni. Spiro Jehosche, born 1861 to Spiro Simon and Leni. Spiro Zali, born 1875 to Spiro Abraham and Mari. Spiro Hersch, born 1877 to Spiro Jakab and Klein Kati. Spiro Lebi, born 1880 to Spiro Abraham and Mari. Spiro Samuel, born 1882 to Spiro Marton and Schvarcz Eszter. Spiro Mozes, born 1882 to Spiro Samuel and Gutman Roza. Spiro Mozes's name is mentioned three times from 1856 to 1861 as a witness or responsible for giving a name to a girl baby.

Spiro Samuel, died of fever, 1854, aged 17 days. Spiro Jakab, died 1858, aged 22 years. Spiro Abraham, died of typhus, 1860, aged 21 years. Spiro Kati, died of fever, 1860, aged 3 years. Spiro Pepi, died of pneumonia, 1875, aged 52 years.

This last named individual must have been Spiro David's wife, whose maiden name was Fecske Pepi. If she really was only 52 years at her death, that would imply that she gave birth to her son Marton when she was only 14 years old. However, the Hungarian words for "seven" and "two" sound almost the same, so it could easily be a recording error. The name Fecske is intriguing. It is the Hungarian word for the bird "swallow," but it is extremely rare as a surname. I have come across a very few Hungarian Christians with this surname, but no Jews.

The average age at death is less than 16 years for the Jews whose deaths are recorded in the Gemzse book. This is typical also of much larger communities. Huge numbers of children died at very young ages, mainly of infectious diseases. Even among those who lived to adulthood, it was unusual to live past the age of 60. For example, in the Kisvarda Jewish records, 46 deaths were recorded for the year 1895. Of these, 29 were children aged less than 5.

No Spiro marriages are recorded in this register. This could mean that members of the Spiro family who got married during this period all had their ceremonies in other places, or more likely that they were just not recorded anywhere. For the five marriages recorded, the average age of the groom was 26 years, and for the bride 18 years. This is typical for the averages seen on the Kisvarda microfilm, where hundreds of marriages are recorded. One would have thought that, with the short life spans people had, they would have gotten married at a younger age. Apparently, the men had to establish a livelihood before they could marry.

People did move around over substantial distances to get married. David Spiro's daughter Rachel moved to Szaniszlo (Sanislau in what is now Romania), about 50 miles from Gemzse. This may not seem like much of a distance now, but it must have been at least two days' journey when she got married. Later, Rachel's daughter Klein Pepi made the return trip to marry her first cousin Samuel. Klein Pepi used to go once a year to visit her father and siblings in Szaniszlo, but by that time there was a railroad that covered most of the distance.

There were several other Jewish families residing in Gemzse, with the names Felberman, Rotfeld, Weinberger, Grunczweig, Elefant, and Marmorstein being most frequently mentioned. The first three of these are known to have had members who were related by marriage or blood to the Spiro family.

The only Jews left in Gemzse now are those in the Jewish cemetery, on the edge of town. From the road, it is easy to miss it since it is overgrown with trees. As of 1989, there were perhaps a dozen gravestones standing, with many more fallen down. Over the years, these gradually sink into the soil. On a visit in 1998, there were only four gravestones still standing (three Spiros and one Marmorstein) and only about half a dozen fallen down. Some may have sunk into the soil, while others may have been stolen for building materials by the villagers. However, there has been no attempt to completely obliterate the cemetery. One thing acknowledged to the credit of Hungary, as opposed to most other east European countries, is that they have not removed the Jewish cemeteries in the regions where Jews have ceased to exist.

Spiro families of Hungarian descent known as of 1998

Known to be descendants from Gemzse:

Joseph Spiro and his sons Peter and David in Toronto. Peter is an economist, and David is a bookseller.

David's children are Ariel, Hannah, Jacob and Shawndra. For his book store's web page, click here

Peter's children are Jason Spiro, Devorah Spiro, and Eli Spiro.

Louis Spiro and his sons Steven and Peter in New York. Steven is a Certified Public Accountant, and Peter is a surgeon at Columbia University.

Ignac Spiro and his sons Gabor and Laszlo in Nyiregyhaza.

Yakov Spiro, Holon, Israel

Moshe Spiro, Kiriat Bialik, Israel

Related to the above are Tarjan/Taub descendants of Jakob Spiro, living in Australia, the US and Hungary. Leslie Spiro of Vancouver, born in Mateszalka, is also from this branch. Through them, the Spiro family is related to the actor Tony Curtis, whose father was Manno Schwartz, born in Mateszalka. Manno's mother was Roza Taub, whose brother Joseph married Jolan Spiro.

Others whose precise descent is unknown, but probably originate from Gemzse:

There are descendants of Moric Spiro of Szikszo (near Miskolc) living in the United States and Canada. These include: Tom Spiro in Princeton and his son Peter in California; Tom's sister Vera and other cousins in California; Tom's first cousin Dr. Steven Fried, whose mother was born Klara Spiro.

John Spiro of Missisauga, Ontario, Canada, is the second cousin of Tom Spiro; his father Dezso was born in Kisvarda in 1892.

Spiro Gyorgy (George Spiro) of Budapest, is a leading playwright and literary critic in Hungary. His father was a tailor born in Miskolc, and some Spiro cousins from Gemzse are known to have lived in Miskolc. He is one of only a handful of people surnamed Spiro in Hungary currently, as indicated by a search of telephone directories.

DNA Testing

An interesting new resource for genealogical research is DNA testing, which can verify if two men with the same surname (but uncertain ancestry) are related.

In the case of men, this test is for the Y chromosome, which remains unchanged in the male line from generation to generation. I have had mine tested by Family Tree DNA through the National Geographic Society's Genographic project:

The test found that my haplotype is R1b. This haplotype is the single most common in Europe, where 30% of all men have it. About 10% of Ashkenazi Jews are also in this haplotype, as is about 10% of the population in the middle east. (Behar et al, "Contrasting Patterns of Y chromosome variation in Ashkenazi Jewish and host non-Jewish European populations." Human Genetics, 2004, 354-65.)

To view some photographs related to Jewish relics in Gemzse, Kisvarda and vicinity, click here.

If you can add anything to this, or have any questions, please let me know.