Building a Memorial From Strands of DNA

New project uses genetic testing to identify the remains of Holocaust victims

By Talia Bloch

Published August 25, 2006, issue of August 25, 2006.
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More than six decades after the victims of the Holocaust met their fateful end, a new genetically based initiative could give some of the departed the last respects they never received.

The initiative, called the DNA Shoah Project, has as its goal the identification of human remains being unearthed in European towns and cities in recent years. The hope is to match these remains with DNA samples gathered from Holocaust survivors and from descendants of the departed. The project’s ultimate aim is the creation of a DNA database that can serve as both a genetic family tree and a memorial to those who perished.

The project is the brainchild of philanthropist Syd Mandelbaum and University of Arizona geneticist Michael Hammer.

“For the next thousand years, remains will be turning up in Europe,” Mandelbaum told the Forward. “But without a DNA database there is nothing to be done with them. With a database we may be able to offer closure [to a family] and a Jewish burial.”

Mandelbaum, himself the son of survivors, got the idea for his project last fall after reading a news report about human remains unearthed at a U.S. Army base outside Stuttgart, Germany. Construction workers digging a drainage ditch unearthed a shallow grave. Since the base was near the site of a former labor camp, and medical tests determined the remains to be about 60 years old, German authorities concluded the remains were likely those of Holocaust victims, and so they contacted Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum.

But when Mandelbaum, who has a background in genetics, phoned the museum to find out whether it had a genetic database, he discovered it had none. “I decided at that moment that I could do this,” he said.

Mandelbaum’s connections in the scientific world quickly led him to Hammer, a leading human genomics researcher and a co-author of the first study that located the genetic marker for Jewish priests, or kohanim.

The project’s top priority, Hammer told the Forward, is the creation of a database of genetic profiles from individuals still alive who lost close relatives during the Holocaust. This is particularly urgent, he said, given that in 20 years’ time the survivor generation will be virtually gone.

In most forensic work, a DNA match is made between a victim and traces of the victim’s DNA, left behind in things like hair- and toothbrushes. Sometimes, however, there are no such articles available — as is the case here — and a victim is identified through DNA matches with immediate relatives.

Those who choose to participate in the project would send a cheek swab to Hammer’s lab. The lab would then extract DNA from the cells in the swab and analyze them. The resulting information would be sent to a computer database that can scan for matches.

This database will be amassed by the Gene Codes Corporation, an Ann Arbor, Mich., software company that helped identify the remains of September 11 attack victims. Howard Cash, the president of Gene Codes, became a third partner in the project.

“One of my big motivations is to assist those who made it out alive and don’t know that there is another family member out there who also made it out,” Cash said, pointing to the project’s second aim: to unite those orphaned by the Holocaust with a close relative who survived. With a large database of living survivors, internal matches among them could also turn up. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful after all these decades to find out a brother or sister had also survived?” Cash said.

On August 13, the project conducted its first collection at a meeting of San Francisco Bay Area survivors. The first few hundred tests will be done free of charge, Mandelbaum said. After that the fee will likely be between $30 and $40. Mandelbaum is hoping to raise money from private sources to cover other costs of the project.

One survivor who has expressed an interest in participating is Charles Srebnik, an investment banker who, in 1981, was a co-founder of the biotech company Genetic Engineering. “I’m very bullish on this project,” said Srebnik, who survived the war hiding out in Belgium. “My mother and I were the only survivors [from my family], and I am always looking for relatives. I’m hoping maybe I’ll find someone.”

Louis Maier, a psychoanalyst in Washington, D.C., who was orphaned during the Holocaust, also expressed interest, saying he would be glad to participate and give a sample of his DNA, despite the fact that he doesn’t expect to find any relatives. “I’m afraid I know what happened to my immediate family,” he said.

Jeannette Friedman, editor of the newsletter Together, which is aimed at Holocaust survivors and their descendants, said that some survivors might be unsettled by the connotations of genetic testing in the context of the Holocaust. The project, she said, “is really addressing the second generation more than the survivors. The second generation would ask the parents for cheek swabs, and second-generation swabs are also good.”

David Szonyi, a co-editor of “Living After the Holocaust: Reflections by Children of Survivors in America,” expressed his own doubts about the project. “What percentage of people would really benefit from this?” he asked. “Will survivors want to go through the emotional turmoil again?”

A longtime advocate for Holocaust remembrance who wished to remain anonymous also voiced concerns over the project’s impact. “There is a certain somber dignity in allowing the victims of the Holocaust to be part of this nameless, spaceless graveyard,” he said, adding that he was not questioning the project directors’ motives but wondered how many positive identifications would result. “Mostly,” he continued, “what bothers me is that this will evoke false hopes in survivors” more than 60 years after the fact.

The directors of the project recognize some of these concerns themselves. “I don’t want people to have unrealistic expectations,” Cash said. “If 20 bodies are found, that doesn’t mean we will be able to make 20 positive identifications.”

“There is no guarantee it will return anything,” Hammer said, “But even if we get nothing out of it, documenting the Holocaust genetically has value.” The DNA Shoah Project, he said, will allow the memory of the Holocaust to be extended over many generations. A match not made in the survivor’s lifetime or in the lifetime of his children or grandchildren, he concluded, may be made in a later generation, allowing the memory of the victim to live on.

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