Last fall, Dr. Melinda Wagner, a dentist in Red Bank who grew up in Fair Lawn, completed a mail-in DNA test to see if there were any indications of diabetes or heart disease in her family.
Around the same time, Miriam Carmona, a resident of Agoura Hills, Calif., and a retired school psychologist, submitted a similar DNA test in an effort to find information on her mother’s family, just about all of whom perished in Poland in the Holocaust.
Neither Melinda, 61, nor Miriam, 63, ever expected the results that came back.
In October, the report from the online DNA company informed the two women that they shared 26.8 percent of their DNA, likely from one parent. The company provided both Wagner and Carmona with each other’s names.
“I was honestly both shocked and excited,” said Wagner, who took her results to Dr. Frank Deis, whose biochemistry class she had taken four decades ago at Rutgers University, for an explanation.
“I told Melinda, from the results she received, that she definitely had a half-sister on her father’s side,” said Deis.
Carmona was just as curious and excited as Wagner was.
“I was told I had a sister I never knew existed,” said Carmona, a native of Tel Aviv who came to the United States in the late 1970s with her family, including a brother, now deceased, when she was 20. “I went looking for one thing and found something incredible.”
After getting the results, Wagner traveled to California and met Carmona, and the two have become fast friends. They believe they look alike, walk alike, and almost think alike, with the only differences being Miriam speaks English with a slight Israeli accent and styles her hair with bangs.
“Otherwise, we’re twinsters,” said Wagner.
“I wish Melinda was in my life 20 years ago,” said Carmona. “I hit the lottery with her.”
Backing up, it turns out the two have the same father, Yurek Litmanovich, who was one of the last individuals to escape from the Warsaw Ghetto, which he did prior to the start of the April 19, 1943, uprising by way of the Nazi-occupied city’s sewer system. He had a girlfriend named Esther Gloger who left Israel and came to the U.S. when she was three months pregnant with Melinda, apparently without his knowledge. Litmanovich married Sara Dermer in Tel Aviv in the 1950s.
Wagner’s and Carmona’s stories now diverge, with Melinda being put up for adoption by a Jewish agency in northern New Jersey when she was 4 months old, and Miriam emigrating with her family to Los Angeles.
“I was adopted by a loving Jewish family and had an excellent upbringing,” said Wagner. “As with many adopted children, as I got older, I really wanted to find out who my biological parents were.”
Her engagement to Seth Rosen in 1990 sparked her interest.
“Melinda really wanted to find out who her biological family was when we were getting married,” said Rosen, who works in the financial services industry. “We decided to pursue that as best we could.”
“I was 33, and I really wanted to find out,” said Wagner. “The federation gave me three clues about my biological mother — that she had a biblical name, had a marriage that ended in a divorce, and was from Israel.”
Research, using microfilm in the Passaic County Library, and the clues helped Wagner narrow the possibilities. An investment of nearly $10,000 in a private detective determined Gloger was her biological mother and lived in Florida, though the discovery was rather disappointing.
“We actually found Esther in Florida, and she really didn’t want to talk to us,” said Wagner. “I got zero support from her.” That said, she added, “At least I had roots.”
Gloger refused to confirm the name of the biological father, which Wagner was not happy about, but Wagner has developed an excellent relationship with her newfound first cousins, Gloger’s brother’s family, the Ben-Galims, who live in Haifa.
Like Wagner, Carmona suspects her father didn’t know he had another daughter. Litmanovich died in Los Angeles in 1979 at 57, according to Social Security records.
“I know my father, had he known about Melinda, would have wanted to have had her in his life,” said Carmona.
When Carmona first met Wagner at the airport in California, “we were dressed almost identically,” Wagner said. “We are both a little bow-legged and walk the same way. The chemistry was there immediately.”
“We do look alike, and do things alike, in so many ways,” she said.
And there is even more genetic proof of this through Wagner’s son, Matt Rosen, who has perfect pitch and is studying for his master’s degree in music at California State University-Fullerton. Carmona plays the piano, bass clarinet, and other instruments by ear, and also displays perfect pitch. Now that Matt knows he has a long-lost aunt in the area, he visits Carmona regularly, has a key to her house, and “jams” with her on the bass clarinet.
“Seth and I always wondered how we ever produced a son with perfect pitch,” said Wagner. “He has two parents who are totally tone-deaf.”
Said Carmona, “I always thought my musical talent came from my mother’s side of the family. Now I know it comes from my father’s side. Matt is very talented.
“I never would have known this if it wasn’t for a DNA test I did for a completely different purpose.”
Now the women speak every day, catching up on their successful lives and the decades before they knew about each other. It’s a miracle started by a young man who crawled through a sewer to escape the Warsaw Ghetto, eventually blessing the world with the joy of two long-lost sisters.