DNA project aims to give Holocaust survivors answers about families

BY TOM WALSH
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST

July 30, 2006

Powerful new tools — including software created by Gene Codes Corp. of Ann Arbor to help identify remains of 9/11 terrorist attack victims — are being applied to solve mysteries that remain from the Holocaust of World War II.

The DNA Shoah project, announced last month by Gene Codes founder Howard Cash at the Human Genome Organization meeting in Finland, could be the most extensive DNA detective undertaking ever, if organizers succeed in collecting DNA samples from even a fraction of the 300,000 Holocaust survivors around the world.

By creating a giant genetic database of people who lost relatives during the Holocaust when 6 million Jews were killed, the aim is to:

·  Reunite families scattered by the Holocaust. As many as 10,000 so-called Holocaust orphans may have been separated and never reunited with parents and siblings.

·  Identify remains that occasionally still turn up in Eastern Europe.

·  Use modern forensic science tools to teach future generations about the Holocaust.

Rene Lichtman, 68, of West Bloomfield, a child survivor of the Holocaust, sees potential benefit in the project.

“Even today we hear stories of child survivors from Poland who were hidden and raised by Christians, who finally learn they are Jewish in deathbed conversations with their adoptive parents,” he said.

These people, who have strong identity issues, could be reunited with blood relatives, said Lichtman, a member of the executive committee of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust.

Mandelbaum is a geneticist and philanthropist who used DNA tests on strands of hair in 1994 to disprove the claim that Anna Anderson Manahan was the long-lost grand duchess Anastasia of Russia. Mandelbaum also is the founder and CEO of Rock and Wrap it Up, an antipoverty organization that gathers food left over from rock concerts and other shows for distribution to the hungry.

To launch the Holocaust project, Mandelbaum linked up with Michael Hammer, a geneticist at the University of Arizona, and with Cash, whose Ann Arbor firm has won global acclaim for its M-FISys (Mass Fatality Identification System) software used to identify victims from the 2001 World Trade Center attack and the 2004 Asian tsunami.

“It’s really picking up speed,” Mandelbaum told me recently. “We’re having an important event Aug. 13 — a mass collection of DNA swabs in the San Jose area.”

The data collection and analysis will work as follows:

·  DNA sampling kits will be sent to families around the world.

·  Participants rub swabs along their inner cheeks to collect cells, then place swabs in tubes and mail them to Hammer’s lab in Arizona for DNA fingerprinting.

·  Data will be analyzed using Gene Codes’ M-FISys software to determine whether the DNA from the swabs matches DNA from the remains of known Holocaust victims or from living relatives of Holocaust victims.

Cash, who employs 45 people at the Ann Arbor firm he founded in 1988 to help scientists then working on the Human Genome Project, said the M-FISys software works with all currently available methods of DNA identification. The ability to use mitochondrial DNA makes M-FISys a good fit for the Shoah project, he said, because mitochondrial DNA is the type that is most resilient and therefore most easily recovered from older or highly degraded remains.

“There is a concern that expectations may get too high,” Cash said of the DNA Shoah project. “We can apply the very newest and most sensitive identification technology, but there is no guarantee that remains will be identified or previously unknown living relatives discovered. But this is something that should be tried, as one last measure of respect to people who had so much taken from them.”

The University of Arizona will absorb most of the lab costs, and Mandelbaum is looking for benefactors to help pay for sampling kits and other costs.

In addition to the upcoming event in California, Mandelbaum also is contacting Jewish groups around the country, looking for opportunities to spread the word about DNA Shoah. He already has been in touch with people involved in a Detroit-area conference in late August of child survivors of the Holocaust and their families.

Lichtman of West Bloomfield said organizers of that conference are reluctant to publicize details about the specific time and place of the event, due to privacy concerns and the deeply personal and sensitive nature of the discussions.

Those same issues could also lead to some initial caution about the DNA Shoah project.

“People don’t want to be manipulated or used. A lot of people have given up hope of finding lost relatives,” he said, “so there might be mixed feelings about the idea of opening up old wounds.”

Hammer and Mandelbaum have vowed that the DNA Shoah project will keep all genetic information confidential and protect anonymity by cataloging DNA samples with bar codes instead of names.

Contact TOM WALSH at 313-223-4430 or twalsh@freepress.com.      Copyright © 2006 Detroit Free Press Inc.