DNA offers hope for survivors

Effort aims to reunite Holocaust survivors, descendants with relatives — alive and dead

By Kimra McPherson
Mercury News
Joanne Ho-Young Lee / Mercury News
Alicia Appleman-Jurman, right, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, hugs Elaine Mar after submitting her DNA sample to DNA Shoah Project. Mar supervsed the World Trade Center DNA Identification Unit for the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner.

For decades, Agnes Grossinger has wondered what happened to her aunts, uncles and cousins during the Holocaust. Did they survive in work camps, like she did, and eventually leave their native Hungary? Were they deported? Did they die?

She contacted Holocaust organizations in Israel and the United States and placed ads in newspapers targeting survivors. But the 82-year-old San Jose woman never learned what happened to her extended family.

“Up till now, there was no hope,” she said.

But with a swipe of a small toothbrush-like swab on Sunday, Grossinger added her DNA to the beginnings of a worldwide database of Holocaust survivors and their descendants. Eventually, the founders of the DNA Shoah Project hope to reunite separated relatives and return victims’ remains to their families for burial.

“Sixty-five years later, we can make right for families what was taken from us only two generations ago,” said Syd Mandelbaum, the project’s co-founder and the son of two Holocaust survivors.

Mandelbaum started DNA Shoah in November 2005 after reading that authorities had discovered the remains of Holocaust survivors during a construction project in Germany but were not able to identify their bodies. He thought there must be a way to connect remains with living family members using the kind of DNA sequencing that has been used to identify victims of crimes and natural disasters.

In June, South Bay Holocaust Survivors Group leader Joe Sorger read about the project in the Mercury News and invited DNA Shoah leaders to Los Gatos. Sunday’s gathering was the project’s first major collection of DNA from Holocaust survivors and their families.

More than 80 survivors and dozens more of their descendants attended. Volunteers collected between 100 and 130 samples, Mandelbaum said.

The project has an impressive pedigree: Mandelbaum headed the team that used DNA evidence to prove that Anna Anderson was not the long-lost Romanov daughter Anastasia. Co-founder Michael Hammer conducts research in biotechnology and genomics at the University of Arizona. James Watson, one of the scientists who shared a Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA, serves as an adviser, as does Howard Cash of Gene Codes Forensics, who developed the software used to identify the remains of those killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the December 2004 tsunami.

In addition to providing DNA samples, participants also fill out forms detailing as much information as they know about missing relatives.

Hugo Silverberg-Rajna entered his DNA into the database Sunday in the hopes of learning more about his relatives who died in the Holocaust. His father survived, but his uncle Hugo — after whom he is named — died in the concentration camp at Auschwitz. He would like to know where his uncle and other relatives are buried, he said.

“There’s still a lot of things my dad hasn’t shared or hasn’t been able to share,” he said. Maybe, he said, DNA will help him piece together the stories.

In his address Sunday, Mandelbaum compared the DNA project to the oral histories many Holocaust survivors have recorded. People die and memories fade, he said, but DNA leaves a traceable path.

“What we are doing,” he said, “is genetic testimony.”

Contact Kimra McPherson at kmcpherson@ mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5928.