Reuniting Holocaust Survivors – Lost Journeys Found With DNA
It’s never too late to research a Holocaust survivor’s journey. Do you know of a family caught up in the Holocaust that needs encouragement to try to uncover a family mystery? Please urge all Holocaust survivors to take DNA tests before it is too late to connect with living family. Life-changing discoveries may be just around the corner.
This is one such success story resulting from of a combination of traditional genealogical research combined with DNA testing for which the Jewish Records Indexing – Poland (JRI-Poland.org) database played a vital role.
Judy’s Early Life
Judy AUERBACH was born in April 1942 in Vienna. While her mother Brandla, brother Kurt and sister Rifka were deported to Auschwitz in July 1942 and perished within a day, Judy was safely hidden in a Viennese children’s home – but only for a short period. In September 1942, only 5 months old, Judy was transported to the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp. We might normally expect young children and babies to suffer an immediate dreadful fate – but Judy didn’t. Miraculously she survived the camp, though by the time she was liberated she was temporarily blind and had lost her hair.
In August 1945, along with hundreds of other child survivors, Judy was flown to Windermere in England. From there she was sent to a hostel in Surrey. She was eventually adopted and married.
The Quest to Discover a Holocaust Survivor’s Journey Begins
In 2002, Judy started her journey of discovery. When the Austrian Embassy in London informed Judy that her father “Josef” had survived the War her first thought was “why did he not come looking for me?” Years passed with that baffling question unanswered. Finally, In the Spring of 2023, an Archive in Vienna helped her locate documents relating to her father “Joseph.” She was also assisted by the Wiener Holocaust Library in London.
Since the records seemed to point to Josef leaving Vienna for Colombia in 1938, 4 years before she was born, this added to Judy’s uncertainty as to her biological father’s identity. That was when I entered the picture and was asked to help Judy with DNA-related research. Not having known living relatives aside from her own immediate family, she hoped DNA could help her learn her biological father’s identity and find close living relatives.
DNA: The Bridge to the Past
I was ready to help with the DNA analysis and piece together Judy’s family tree. Armed with the information from Vienna, I managed to locate references to the family in several towns in southern Poland (coincidentally including one of my own ancestral towns). Using the records for Chęciny and Pinczów in the JRI-Poland database including additional in-progress (i.e. offline) records, I was able to compile a family tree with almost 200 people going back to the 18th century on some ancestral lines.
Other records In Vienna indicated that Judy’s maternal grandparents had emigrated to Palestine in 1938. I also identified her mother’s brother Israel who left for Palestine in 1935; he married a woman 15 years older than himself in Vienna that same year, possibly a marriage of convenience to ease the application for a visa. In Palestine, Israel remarried in 1936 (saying he had not been married previously) and then had a son. Israel married for a THIRD time in 1946 and had at least one child, a daughter Daniela. With the help of a contact in Israel, I traced Judy’s 1st cousin Daniela. She was not aware that her late father had had a sister in Vienna. Like so many survivors, he could never bring himself to speak of the family he lost in the Holocaust. The families are now in contact.
Using DNA, I was also able to locate several second and third cousins for Judy on her mother’s side. One of the second cousins had handwritten family trees in a family Hagaddah, one of which listed Judy’s mother Brandla. A sister of Judy’s maternal grandmother had apparently moved from Vienna to London for a few years where she ran a restaurant with two of her daughters before they moved to Cuba and the USA.
Further analysis of DNA results along with records in the JRI-Poland database and additional records in the pipeline, assistance from our team in Poland (who offered their services pro-bono for this humanitarian case), and Holocaust-related records in the Arolsen Archive, made it possible to close the circle and finally help identify Judy’s biological father as Chaim BERNSTEIN who was born in Stanislawów (now Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine), over 500 miles from Vienna. He was living with Judy’s mother and siblings in Vienna and was deported along with them to Auschwitz. Chaim was one of 12 siblings. One of his brothers Haskell who perished in the Stanislawów Ghetto had a wife Sarah and son Samuel (born 1937) who both survived the War in hiding and eventually moved to the USA.
Discoveries and Reunions
Thus, Judy now also has a newly discovered paternal first cousin Samuel in Florida who, like so many other child survivors, believed he was the only surviving member of his father’s family. The families had their first zoom meeting on 13th September 2023 that I briefly attended.
I was also able to locate Hans, a son of Josef in Colombia. He was born only a few months before Judy. Josef never mentioned a previous family to Hans either. Josef had married Cecilia in Colombia in 1940 while apparently still married to Brandla in Vienna. Josef eventually returned to Vienna where he died in 1996. Hans wants to travel to London next year to meet Judy. Despite now realising that there is no blood relationship, they feel tied by this strange, almost bizarre connection.
Conclusion: A Holocaust survivor’s journey revealed
Excluding the time waiting for the DNA results, this research took just over a month. Just think how many more success stories there might be if other survivors can be encouraged to take DNA tests.
Michael Tobias OBE, JRI-Poland Board Member
13 September 2023