The DNA Shoah Project
A unique, innovative project is underway at the University of Arizona, aiming to reunite families torn apart by the Holocaust. The DNA Shoah Project is a non-profit, humanitarian effort, working to build a global genetic database of Holocaust survivors, their children and grandchildren in an attempt to match displaced relatives, provide Shoah orphans with information about their biological families and eventually, when the database has reached sufficient size, assist European governments with the identification of Holocaust-era remains that continue to surface.
The project is the brainchild of entrepreneur and philanthropist, Syd Mandelbaum, a scientist by trade and the child of Holocaust survivors. Upon reading an on-line news story in November of 2005 about the discovery of World War II-era remains outside Stuttgart, Germany, he quickly learned that no database existed to aid in remains repatriation or to alert families to their discovery. After further inquiry, he was introduced to Dr. Michael Hammer, a renowned geneticist at the University of Arizona with a background in Jewish population genetics and the director of the Genomic Analysis and Technology Core (GATC) facility.
The two men’s meeting was fortuitous, as Dr. Hammer’s lab is uniquely positioned to perform the task that they envisioned. Mandelbaum and Hammer rounded out the technological side of their endeavor with the participation and contributions of Howard Cash, President and CEO of Gene Code Forensics, Inc. Mr. Cash designed and developed the forensic matching software, M-FISyS (pronounced “Emphasis”), used to identify victims of the World Trade Center attacks. He also sits on the Michigan State Commission on Genetics, Privacy and Progress, whose recommendations regarding genetic information and privacy have all been signed into Michigan state law.
The founders’ goals are ambitious: where typical forensic reconstructions involve recent events and a limited geographical scope, this project seeks to reunite family members over decades and continents. In order to have any chance of success, the project cofounders need access to the very best of contemporary genomic technologies and tens of thousands of people, perhaps more, will need to contribute their DNA to the database.
To reach this target, representatives from the DNA Shoah Project are traveling extensively, speaking to survivor groups and Jewish genealogists, offering presentations for audiences at Jewish Community Centers, Hadassah meetings, synagogues and civic groups, advertising in Jewish media and encouraging all participants to spread word of the project. A critical part of the project’s outreach strategy is the “deputizing” of remote administrators who will be trained to speak on the project’s behalf and conduct group collections, both in North America and abroad. The project has also partnered with the Holocaust and War Victims’ Tracing Service of the American Red Cross in order reach a broader audience.
From the very beginning of this effort, the project’s founders have insisted that their services remain free of charge to the survivor community. To date, operational expenses have been covered by private donations and from in-kind contributions by Arizona Research Laboratories at the University of Arizona. If the project is to achieve its operational goals, however, support from the greater community, the Jewish community in particular, is required.
The collection of a genetic sample involves a simple, painless cheek swab that can be self-administered. A “kit” with the necessary equipment and forms will be sent out to anyone who requests one, anywhere in the world, free of charge. The paperwork, including biographical and contact information, a family tree, and missing persons forms, can also be accessed via the project’s web site, at www.dnashoah.org. Participants’ information is held in the strictest confidence. The DNA Shoah Project will not conduct any research on genetic samples nor will contributors’ information will be shared with any outside entity or organization.
In addition to the creation of the genetic database, the project has two other mandates: one is the creation of an online memorial, where the families of victims and survivors can upload their testimonies, photos and images of artifacts that illustrate their family’s story. This aspect of the project is unique in that it is user-driven and will create a museum whose content will be determined entirely by its participants.
The second is the development of science-based curricula aimed at high-school students and adult learners. These modules capitalize on pop culture enthusiasm for modern forensic technologies and will supplement existing Holocaust education materials that are already widely available in the disciplines of history, social sciences and the arts.
Mr. Mandelbaum stresses that this is a project for the living, one that aims to uncover familial relationships among siblings or cousins who may not even be aware of each other’s existence. But it would be irresponsible to not construct the best database that current science and technology allow, a database that could one day prove useful if European governments decide to fully investigate World War II-era mass graves.
Three of Mr. Mandelbaum's grandparents were cremated at Auschwitz in 1942, and his mother’s father toiled in a slave labor camp for an additional year and his whereabouts are unknown. It is in just such a circumstance that this project could provide answers, and closure, to families.
How can you help? If you are:
- A Holocaust survivor or second or third generation family member interested in contributing your DNA;
- A World War II-era European immigrant still searching for family members;
- A community leader interested in arranging a presentation for your JCC, civic group or synagogue;
- Seeking volunteer opportunities;
- Or interested in making a tax-deductible donation in support of this effort, please write, call or visit the project website for more information:
The DNA Shoah Project
P. O. Box 210240
Tucson, AZ 85721
Toll-free: (866) 897-1150