Ashkenazi Jewish DNA and the Potential to Piece Together Shattered Family Branches

by Finding Your Roots Genetic Genealogy Consultant, CeCe Moore

Ashkenazi Jewish DNA

Tracing Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry through DNA is notoriously difficult

The episode that aired last week with Carole King, Alan Dershowitz and Tony Kushner did not include any DNA research, but that doesn’t mean that I hesitated to delve into their genetic genealogy. In fact, a short segment featuring Alan is included in the special DNA-themed last episode scheduled to air on November 25.

Working with Ashkenazi Jewish autosomal DNA (atDNA) for the purpose of cousin matching has unique challenges due to the fact that the ancestors of Jews today have historically been an isolated population, typically marrying within their own group. The resulting lower degree of genetic variation means that any two people of predominantly Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry are likely to share stretches of matching autosomal DNA that would usually imply recent common ancestry between them, but the genealogical relationship is most often untraceable. This is because rather than a single recent common ancestor contributing this matching atDNA, it was inherited from multiple, more distant ancestors. The contributions from these multiple shared ancestors can add up to enough shared atDNA to mimic a relatively close cousinship. For example, two individuals of non-Jewish ancestry who share 1.5% of their atDNA are most likely confirmable second to third cousins. Conversely, for two people of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, 1.5% of matching atDNA is almost always indicative of multiple, more distant relationships. They might actually be double fourth cousins plus share an additional sixth and/or seventh cousin relationship. Obviously, the further back the common ancestors are, the more difficult it is to identify them.

atDNA

The admixture of Alan Dershowitz

In the case of our guests featured in “Our People, Our Traditions” last week, there were no real surprises in their DNA. Anywhere from 96% to 98.5% of their atDNA was predicted to be of Ashkenazi Jewish origin. Some genealogists believe that the challenges of working with Ashkenazi DNA are so considerable that there is little hope of success, but I am always optimistic.

I have found that concentrating on the matches who share above 2% of their atDNA (~150 cM) with fewer, but longer shared segments can show promise. Using this method for Carole, I was able to locate and confirm two authentic second cousins from her match lists, both from her Cammer ancestral line, each in a different DNA database. For Tony I also found one confirmed second cousin on his Kessler line and a very promising connection for Alan as well (exact relationship undetermined so far). These experiences reinforce my long-held belief that there is great potential for Jewish genetic genealogy research.

atDNA

The admixture of Carole King

With so many Jewish families shattered by the Holocaust, surviving relatives were scattered to the four corners of the Earth – often with no knowledge of each other’s fate. While recently working on a birth parent search, I happened upon the personal ads from the late 1940’s in a Pittsburgh Jewish newspaper. The heart wrenching notices placed on behalf of Jews who had survived the war and were searching for any living relatives really brought home for me how difficult it was at that time to reunite these family branches. On top of the chaos in the aftermath of the war, I could see that the search was further complicated by surname changes, vague knowledge of the final destinations of fleeing kin and limited communication. In light of this, it is not at all difficult to understand how some Jewish family members permanently lost touch even if they had survived the war.

atDNA

The admixture of Tony Kushner

As a firm believer in the power of genetic genealogy, I have many times stated my confidence that we would soon start to see success stories coming out of the Jewish community of long-lost family members reunited through DNA testing. In fact, I recently mentioned it to one of the principals at one of the DNA testing companies (who I thought looked at me a little incredulously) as well as in a media interview. I even told the producers of “Finding Your Roots” that I hoped one day to discover this type of story through the DNA of a Jewish guest on the show. Is it a tremendous long shot due to the huge loss of life and the fact that entire family tree branches were wiped out during the Holocaust? Certainly, but is it possible? I firmly believe it is and I now have proof in the story of Menachem Bodner.

Have you heard of Menachem and his search for his twin brother Joli, #A7734? Menachem is an Auschwitz survivor of the infamous and horrible Mengele twin experiments. Having lost both of his parents, he was adopted after the war and he never saw his twin brother again, but he always sensed that Joli had survived too. (This was somewhat unlikely since only about 200 out of the approximately 1500 individual twins survived.) For the last two and a half years he has been assisted by genealogist Ayana KimRon who helped him to determine through extensive archival document searches that Joli did, in fact, survive the war. Unfortunately, so far they have been unable to locate him. As part of the search, two of the major DNA testing companies sent Menachem kits on the very slim chance that Joli or one of his children or grandchildren had already been tested. They didn’t find Joli in the database, but they found something else that was astonishing.

Menachem was matched to a first cousin! How could this be – hadn’t he lost his entire family in the Holocaust? It turns out that Menachem’s maternal aunt had immigrated to the United States before the war. She too, believed her sister and all of her extended family was lost in the Holocaust. Thanks to DNA testing and a dedicated genealogist, the family has been reunited and, for the first time since the war, Menachem laid eyes on the faces of his parents through photos preserved in the United States and shared with him by his cousins. What are the chances? It is impossible to say, but if Menachem had not been actively searching for his brother, he would have never found his cousins.

atDNA

A newly discovered photo of Menachem’s parents, Roza and Ignatz Gottesman, used with permission.

Menachem’s story is, perhaps, the most dramatic Jewish genetic genealogy success story to date, but he is not alone. Lara Diamond tells of her family’s discovery of lost relatives here and Peter Kovacs relates his story about reconnecting with family thought to be lost in the holocaust here. With the growth of the databases, we are bound to witness more of these stories. Personally, along with African American and unknown parentage genetic genealogy research, I find this the most meaningful and promising application of genetic genealogy. Will it happen for everyone? Not by a long shot, but for every family reunited, it is a triumph over evil made possible finally and only through our work.