Holocaust Survivors Offered DNA Tests to Help Find Family

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NEW YORK (AP) — For decades, Jackie Young had been searching.

Orphaned as a child, he spent the first few years of his life in a Nazi concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. After World War II he was taken to England, adopted and given a new name.

As an adult, he struggled to identify his origins and his family. He had little information about his mother who died in a concentration camp. But about his father? Nothing. A blank space on the birth certificate.

Earlier this year geneticists were able to use a DNA sample to trace a name — and some relatives he didn’t know.

Having that answer to a lifelong question was “amazing,” said Young, now 80 and living in London. It “opened a door I thought would never open.”

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Now an effort is underway to bring that opportunity to other Holocaust survivors and their children.

The New York-based Center for Jewish History launches DNA Reunion Project, offering free DNA testing kits through an app on its website. It also gives users of the kits a chance to get some guidance on next steps from geneticists who worked with Young.

Those geneticists, Jennifer Mendelsohn and Adina Newman, have been doing this kind of work for the past several years and run a Facebook group on Jewish DNA and genetics.

The advent of DNA technology has opened up a new world of possibilities in addition to the paper trails and archives used by Holocaust survivors and their descendants to learn about family ties severed by the Holocaust, Newman said.

“There are times when people are separated and they don’t realize they’re separated. Maybe there’s a name change, so they don’t know to look for the other person,” he said. “There are cases that simply cannot be solved without DNA.”

While interest in genealogy and family trees is widespread, there’s a certain urgency to doing this work in a community where many family ties were severed because of the Holocaust, Mendelson said.

Her first attempt at this stage was for her husband’s grandmother, who lost her mother in a concentration camp. That effort led to aunts and relatives unknown to anyone in her husband’s family.

Her husband’s uncle then called and said, “You know, I’ve never seen a photo of my grandmother. Now I see photos of her sisters and it gives me so much comfort. I can only imagine what she must be like.”

“How do you explain why it’s so powerful? It is. People have nothing. Their families have been destroyed. Now we can bring them back little by little,” Mendelssohn said.

She and Newman take pains to emphasize that there are no guarantees. Checking or searching the archives does not mean a guarantee of finding living relatives or new information. But it offers an opportunity.

They and the center encourage people to take advantage of that opportunity, especially as time passes and the number of survivors dwindles.

“This is really the last moment where some measure of justice can be served to these survivors,” said Gavriel Rosenfeld, head of the center.

“We feel the urgency of this,” Newman said. “I wanted to start yesterday, that’s why it’s like this, not like now.”

Rosenfeld said the center has set aside an initial $15,000 for DNA kits in this initial pilot effort, which will cover about 500. He said if they see enough interest they will scale up.

Ken Engel thinks there will be. He leads a team Minnesota He has already told his members about the program and for the children of Holocaust survivors.

“This is an important initiative,” Engel said. “It can reveal and reveal amazing information to them that they never knew, and they can feel more settled or more connected to the past.”

Young certainly feels that way.

“I’ve wanted to know all my life,” he said. “If I didn’t know what I know now, I would still have realized that my left hand or my right hand was not fully formed. Family is everything, it is the main pillar of human life.”

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