DNA Helps Holocaust Survivors to Reconstruct Family Trees

    07 December 2022

    The United States-based Center for Jewish History is launching a project to provide genetic tests to Holocaust survivors and their children. The testing is aimed at helping such families learn more about their histories.

    The Holocaust was the genocide of European Jews by Germany's Nazi government during World War II. About six million Jews were killed. Many families were split up and sent to different places, never to hear from each other again.

    Jennifer Mendelsohn and Adina Newman are genealogists: expert researchers of family histories. They have been doing this kind of work for several years. They currently run a social media group about Jewish DNA and family histories.

    Lauren Gilbert, Center for Jewish History, Senior Manager for Public Services, in New York City Tuesday, November 29, 2022, handles Ancestry DNA test kits the center offers free to Holocaust survivors. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)
    Lauren Gilbert, Center for Jewish History, Senior Manager for Public Services, in New York City Tuesday, November 29, 2022, handles Ancestry DNA test kits the center offers free to Holocaust survivors. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)

    The DNA Reunion Project operates from New York City. It offers free DNA testing kits through its website. Mendelsohn and Newman offer help on investigating family history based on the DNA results.

    Newman said that DNA technology has opened new possibilities along with paper records and archives to help these individuals find out more about lost family members.

    "There are cases that simply cannot be solved without DNA. There are times when people are separated, and they don't even realize they're separated. Maybe a name change occurred so they didn't know to look for the other person," Newman said.

    This happened to Jackie Young. He is now 80 years old and lives in London. He had been searching for a connection to his biological family all his life.

    He was orphaned as a baby and spent his first few years in a Nazi concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. He was taken in by a new family and given a new name. Then, he was taken to England at the end of World War II.

    He did not know much about his birth family. He had a little information about his birth mother. She was killed in a Nazi death camp. And he did not know anything about his father. He was not even named on Young's official birth document.

    But with the DNA test results, the genealogists were able to find a name and some family members that Young did not realize he had.

    The effort, he said, "opened the door that I thought would never get opened."

    The project's Jennifer Mendelsohn says one of the early mysteries she worked on was for her husband's grandmother. She had lost both her parents, six siblings and a grandfather in a death camp. Mendelsohn discovered the existence of aunts and cousins her husband's family had never known about.

    Mendelsohn got a call from her husband's uncle after she shared her findings. "You know, I've never seen a photograph of my grandmother," he told her. "Now that I see photographs of her sisters, it's so comforting to me. I can imagine what she looks like."

    Mendelsohn was deeply moved.

    "How do you explain why that's powerful? It just is. People had nothing. Their families were erased. And now we can bring them back a little bit," she said.

    The center cannot guarantee that they will find family who is still living, but there is still a chance. Mendelsohn, Newman, and the center are urging people to take that chance, particularly as time goes by and there are fewer living survivors of the Holocaust.

    Gaviel Rosenfeld is the president of the Center for Jewish History. He said, "It really is the last moment where these survivors can be given some modicum of justice."

    Newman agreed, "We feel the urgency of this. I wanted to start yesterday, and that's why it's like, no time like the present."

    Rosenfeld said the center had set aside $15,000 for the DNA kits for this first project. That covered about 500 kits. But he said that if there is more interest, then they could add more money for the kits.

    Ken Engel is the leader of a group for children of Holocaust survivors in the state of Minnesota. He thinks there will be a lot of interest, especially from his group.

    Engel said that he has been wanting to know more about his family history all his life.

    "Family is everything, it's the major pillar of life in humanity," Engel said.

    I'm Faith Pirlo.

    Deepti Hajela wrote this article for The Associated Press. Faith Pirlo adapted it for Learning English.


    Words in This Story

    DNA n. a substance that carries genetic information in the cells of plants and animals

    kit n. equipment or materials needed for a special purpose

    archiven. a collection of historical documents that provides information about the past, or a place where they are kept

    orphaned – adj. not having a mother or father

    uncle – n. the brother of one's father or mother or the husband of a sister of your mother or father

    comforting – adj. describing something that makes people feel less upset, worried or scared

    erase – v. to wipe something away or hide it from being seen

    modicumn. a small amount of something, particularly if it is valuable

    pillar n. a basic fact, idea, or principle of something