An international DNA database is helping Holocaust survivors and their offspring solve nagging mysteries and perhaps unite with long-lost relatives.
The DNA Shoah Project at the University of Arizona uses “genetic testimony” to identify unnamed victims of the Shoa, unite family members, and even assist European governments to identify victims.
Syd Mandelbaum, a scientist and son of Holocaust survivors, cofounded the nonprofit initiative with University of Arizona geneticist Dr. Michael Hammer.
On Nov. 1, he came to Congregation Beth-El in Edison to discuss the project. Afterward, volunteers took sample cheek swabs from audience members, a number of them Holocaust survivors.
“If a survivor is no longer alive, if we have the DNA from children, or even grandchildren, we can still do a match,” said Mandelbaum. “Right now we can do three generations, but in the future we may be able to do one more generation.”
Much of the technology employed by the project was developed in the wake of 9/11 to identify victims and refined during such recent disasters as Hurricane Katrina and the Asian tsunami.
While Mandelbaum said the project has no interest in deliberately unearthing bodies, with Europe — particularly Eastern Europe — undergoing large-scale development, victims’ remains are beginning to turn up.
“They are somebody’s relatives, and this could give that person the opportunity to give that relative a proper Jewish burial,” said Mandelbaum. “This could help my mother find out about my grandfather and put him in a grave. Sixty-five years after the Nazis, they are still persecuting her.”
Mandelbaum, a Long Island resident, helped found the Video-Archive of Holocaust Testimony at Yale University, the first videotaping of Holocaust survivors and camp liberators.
In 1994, the one-time science teacher and medical researcher headed the American team that used DNA sequencing to disprove the claim by a woman that she was the last Russian czar’s daughter Anastasia. It was the first time DNA had been used to solve a historical mystery.
In 2005 he learned that no one had thought to compile a DNA database of Holocaust survivors. After hooking up with Hammer, the final piece came together when Howard Cash, who developed the software used to identify World Trade Center victims, called Mandelbaum and offered to donate the software to the project.
David Verbitsky of Edison, an Eastern European immigrant with family in Odessa, Ukraine, and Kishinev in Moldova, said he came to the event because was interested in finding missing relatives, although not his grandfather. “He was burned alive,” Verbitsky said. “The Germans spilled gasoline on him in the yard.”
Sol Lourie of Monroe, a Holocaust survivor from Lithuania, was separated from his family and spent part of the war in an orphanage. His mother was killed two days before liberation. Although he had some surviving siblings, there now is nobody left. “I want to know if I have any long-lost relatives,” he said.