Project of Hope
By Syd Mandelbaum
Jewish families long separated by the Holocaust could one day be reunited by new DNA matching techniques, say scientists who are building a genetic database of holocaust survivors. The new methods were initially developed to identify victims of the World Trade Center attacks.
My parents, Joseph and Lena Mandelbaum survived the tortures of Nazi concentration camps and the murders of their parents, siblings and loved ones. Sixty-five years after the Holocaust, they know exactly who they are still searching for: those gassed but not incinerated; Joseph's two brothers and Lena's father.
"We have nobody in the cemeteries, because our aunts and uncles and grandparents and brothers and sisters, everybody went," says Lena Mandelbaum, who is now 80 years old.
"We hope to find them and then be able to make a Jewish burial and I will be able to say kaddish," the Jewish prayer for the dead, says Joseph, who is 84. "I do say kaddish after them anyway," he adds.
I am trying to bring my parents and other Holocaust orphans a gift of hope that their missing may one day be found. We has set out to sample cheek cells from the thousands of still-living holocaust survivors, their children and grandchildren to create a lasting DNA database. University of Arizona geneticist Michael Hammer and I co-founded the project have named the project "DNA Shoah" after the Hebrew word for the Holocaust and analyze the samples, which are gathered through mail-in kits.
"Of the six million Jews that were killed during the Holocaust, two million were cremated and their remains are lost forever. But four million, their remains were placed in the ground in mass graves or small graves distributed throughout Europe," explains Hammer. "So today, as roads are being developed and shopping malls are being built, some of these bones are turning up today accidentally by people doing the construction and they don't know what to do with these bones."
He says identifying those remains is now possible, using DNA matching techniques developed in the aftermath of recent catastrophes. The devastation of 9/11 forced scientists to innovate ways to identify victims from badly damaged DNA. "These are people who died between 1933 and 1945, so their remains have been in the ground for a long time," says Hammer.
Then, the Indian Ocean Tsunami and hurricane Katrina necessitated "non-self" matching -- using the DNA of living family members to identify victims -- since personal items like toothbrushes and hair brushes were washed away.
Everybody in their DNA has something called genetic markers which are places in the DNA that are known to be different, or variable, between individuals," explains Hammer. "So if we type enough of those markers in your DNA, you will have a unique profile."
"Every individual is unique, but you're more closely related to your family members because you inherit your DNA from your mom and dad. So if we're able to get DNA from different members of the family, we can reconstruct the genetic profile of a missing person who's part of your family," he says.
"The other thing that's aiding us ... is improvements in technology to understand massive amount of information has improved greatly," Hammer says. "Computer software has been developed to help people match survivors with lost ones in cases where many, many families are involved and many, many victims are involved."
The project will also gather samples from children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. But for interviewing and sampling survivors themselves, time is of the essence. "The average age of the survivor is mid-80s, so if we're going to be able to construct a database of the survivors we need to act today," he says.
Let me point out that information from survivors like my parents is also critical. They learned in the terrible selection process who among their loved ones were taken to the death camps and who may lie somewhere in Europe.
We have people coming to us now that are Holocaust survivors that know exactly where their families were murdered. They would like nothing more than to have those remains extracted and brought to family cemetery plots here in the U.S. or in Israel or in other places around the world.
If the database grows large enough, it might even link distant relatives and reunite scattered families. At the end of World War Two, over 10 thousand orphans were sent throughout the world, and many of the orphans who were anywhere from five to 10 years old had no idea where their families were. For the first time now we believe we can give them the potential of finding family that could have survived the Holocaust."
I'm not kidding myself about the odds of finding matches right away, but my parents taught me the power of hope. Without a database there is no hope of finding matches. With the database there is hope and we can't guarantee anything, but we do know the finality of the word 'no,' but the possibility of the word, 'maybe'."
The work we do now is not just for this generation, because as remains continue to turn up in Europe there is potential for matching to take place. Remains will be turning up for the next millennium, as long as construction goes on in Europe.
For more information on the DNA Shoah project, visit http://www.dnashoah.info/.
Hammer's research was published in the June 2006 edition of "Nature." M-FYSys software was donated by Gene Codes Corp., Ann Arbor MI, and the project depends on volunteers and funding from private contributors.
Syd Mandelbaum, BS, MA, MBA, is a scientist and the son of two survivors. Working with the Video-Archive of Holocaust Testimony at Yale University in 1981, he began documentation efforts establishing the first video-taping of holocaust survivors and camp liberators project. In 1994, he headed the American team which used DNA sequencing to disprove the relationship of Anna Anderson Manahan to the Czar and Czarina Romanov, in her claim to be Anastasia. This landmark case became the first to use DNA to solve historical mysteries. He is the CEO and Founder of Rock and Wrap it Up!, an international anti-poverty hunger relief organization and think tank. www.rockandwrapitup.org
Michael Hammer PhD Geneticist is a Biotechnology Research Scientist at the University of Arizona with appointments in the Department of Anthropology and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, as well as Director of the Genomic Analysis and Technology Core (GATC) facility. He received his PhD in Genetics from the University of California at Berkeley and was a post-doctoral fellow at Princeton and Harvard Universities. He co-authored the first paper showing that present-day Cohanim are descended from a single male ancestor.
Howard Cash, President, Gene Codes Forensics, Inc.,Gene Codes Corporation. At Gene Codes he designed and developed the Sequencher program. A version of Sequencher tailored to forensic human identification was developed for the U.S. Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory [AFDIL] in 1997 and is now the accepted standard. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Cash was asked by the City of New York to develop DNA analysis software used to identify the remains of
those killed at the World Trade Center. That software, M-FISys, was also used for some of the DNA identifications after the tsunami of 2004.
The GATC (http://gatc.arl.arizona.edu/) is a core facility that provides state-of-the-art molecular biology services to University investigators, as well as the private sector. The GATC is the laboratory that does the genetic analysis for Family Tree DNA (http://www.familytreedna.com/), a premiere genetic genealogy company, and the current National Geographic Genographic Project, which Dr. Hammer is supervising. (https://www3.nationalgeographic.com/genographic/index.html) Since its inception, in April of 2000, Family Tree DNA has been developing the science that enables many genealogists around the world to advance their families' genealogical research at the DNA level.
Advisors to the Project
Dr. James D. Watson, President, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine for discovering the structure of the DNA molecule.
from the March Passover 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine