Standing in the living room of her Baltimore home, Jennifer Mendelsohn pulls out old family photos, slowly unraveling pieces of her family's history. A few years ago, Mendelsohn discovered her husband's 95-year-old grandmother, who survived the Holocaust, had family living in the U.S.
That launched Mendelson on a mission: To help connect victims of the Holocaust and their families, by using modern DNA technology.
"We had this idea that we would give free testing to Holocaust survivors," Mendelsohn said.
Launched in late 2022, the DNA Reunion Project is working in coordination with Ancestry DNA. They've received a donation of 2,500 DNA test kits. The goal is to send them out to Holocaust survivors or their direct descendants all over the world, and then put that DNA information into Ancestry's database. About 900 people have participated since the project launched.
While there have been attempts to use DNA to reunite Holocaust survivors before, they've never been on this scale. Ancestry DNA already has a DNA database of more than 20 million people.
"We just want people to understand that so many of these people believe they are all alone and they're really not," Mendelsohn said.
There are no exact numbers, but historians believe at least six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Many who survived lost every member of their family, as well as vital family documents.
"The Holocaust created many situations where people have no paper trail," Mendelsohn noted.
Adina Newman is a co-founder on the project. She says that in some cases, participants have found living family members they thought were gone, or have simply been able to fill out their family tree.
"Part of what the Holocaust did was just completely sever ties for families," Newman said. "We're looking for those smaller connections where people feel 'It's not just me in this world.'"
For the co-founders of the project, time is adding another layer of urgency to getting the test kits distributed. Many Holocaust survivors are in their 80s or 90s, so time is of the essence in reaching survivors still alive.
"This is the latest frontier in technology communicating history," said Gavriel Rosenfeld with the Center for Jewish History.
Rosenfeld sees the entire project as an opportunity, adding,"If we don't learn lessons from the past we are going to repeat those lessons."
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