Tracing history: DNA Shoah Project seeks to reconnect kin
BY NOAH ROSENBERG
Thursday, June 5, 2008 10:07 AM EDT

In 1981, standing in front of Jerusalem’s Western Wall, Syd Mandelbaum had an epiphany. “I came back inspired,” said Mandelbaum, who had accompanied his father to the first gathering of Holocaust survivors in the Israeli capital (Both of Mandelbaum’s parents are survivors). For the next 13 years, the New York geneticist videotaped Holocaust survivors and concentration camp liberators, ultimately handing his project over to Steven Spielberg who went on to build a library of tens of thousands of eyewitness testimonies on film.
In November of 2005, Mandelbaum began collecting again. This time, however, instead of videos, the second generation Holocaust survivor decided to deal in DNA. Less than three years later, Mandelbaum has amassed over 1,000 DNA samples from Holocaust survivors, their children and grandchildren. While he is 299,000 donors short of his goal, Mandelbaum remains optimistic. “What we have to offer the future is pretty much endless,” said Mandelbaum, who founded the DNA Shoah Project (Shoah means ‘Holocaust’ in Hebrew) in an effort to reconnect families that were torn apart during World War II. Based at a University of Arizona laboratory run by Mandelbaum’s partner, Michael Hammer, the DNA Shoah Project is powered by Emphasis, the software developed to identify victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and used in the wake of the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia.
While the youngest generation of Holocaust survivors is dwindling, the DNA Shoah Project is able to utilize genetic material from second and even third generation survivors, via a painless cheek swab. The cheek swabs, Mandelbaum explained, are sent off to the lab where the DNA they contain is converted into a series of letters. So far, DNA Shoah has produced no matches but in the past few months alone the project has increased its donor base by around 50 percent and has partnered with Yad Vashem, the official Israeli Holocaust Memorial. Mandelbaum recently had a meeting at Manhattan’s Museum of Jewish Heritage regarding the development of a permanent DNA collection site. “We have something that no one else thought to do so it’s very exciting right now,” said Mandelbaum, who believes his system can someday be employed to match the DNA of human remains uncovered in Europe with that of survivors and their kin. Mandelbaum’s own mother never had closure with her father’s death because he disappeared after a year in concentration camps. However, the essence of the DNA Shoah Project is the living, Mandelbaum explained. “I’m much more excited about getting child survivors to meet families,” he said, noting that the thousands of children who were sent to convents and orphanages following the war never had the ability to track down their families. “There will be always be curiosity about one’s lineage and ancestry,” Mandelbaum added, noting that his database includes many donors from Queens.
Mandelbaum said he’s begun videotaping survivors again for use in his project’s educational component and he is advertising the DNA Shoah Project – participation is free and confidential – in various Jewish community centers across the country and in Israel. “DNA and genetics is so 21st century and we believe that’s it’s going the way of, not just to help those that lost family, but also to teach the next generation about the Shoah,” Mandelbaum said. But the DNA Shoah Project, a nonprofit organization, is in need of donations, both monetary and genetic. “In that,” Mandelbaum said of survivors and their descendants, “they can help preserve the legacy of the Holocaust.” For more information on the DNA Shoah Project visit www.dnashoah.org or contact Syd Mandelbaum at 1- 516-295-0670 .