Monday, February 7, 2022

The DNA Rabbit Hole

One of the areas of genealogy that attracts many people is DNA.  While I am deep down the rabbit hole of genealogy research, I hesitated for some time before taking a deeper dive into DNA research. It was only when I received an email from a woman who reported that her husband had a high level of DNA connection to my late father that I began to pay close attention. I had heard of those “non-paternal events” which essentially mean the father isn’t who he is expected to be, but I hadn’t anticipated anything nearly so interesting within my own family. 


The level of DNA match is measured in a unit called a centimorgan (cM). A parent-child relationship would typically have around 3500 cMs and other relationships scale down from that to a distant cousin at 8 cMs.  Different testing firms can vary in the amount, but the basic relationships are fairly consistent.  Long ago I had convinced my father to get his DNA tested and had then uploaded our DNA to GedMatch, a site that provides tools to analyze the data. They had languished there for some time as I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them. Neither did I know what to do with the string of emails I was receiving from the original testing company announcing matches. Now I had new motivation.


In this case my Possible Relative (who we’ll refer to as PR) had a match to my father on GedMatch around 434 cM and about 132 cM for me. Raised in Puerto Rico, he had suddenly discovered with some surprise that he was 50% Jewish.  He was curious, but also concerned about causing discomfort in his family as no one had broached this subject with him previously.


I looked up a chart on FamilySearch that told me the likely cM match for different relationships. I eliminated those that were older than my father’s generation as PR was just shy of 50. From the chart, I concluded that the relationship to my father was likely through a first cousin and PR was either a son or perhaps a grandson of that cousin.  If he was the son of a cousin then we would share a common set of great grandparents and would be second cousins. That was the closest relationship I had ever sourced through DNA so now I had some incentive to come up the curve. 


I knew I needed to bring in reinforcements so I contacted a friend, Dan Kastrul, someone who was far more knowledgeable in DNA than I was. He suggested I look at DNA Painter which provides a similar chart as well as a tool that will tell you the odds of likely relationships. 


With his guidance I went into GedMatch and we looked at the X matches of PR to see if it would shed any light on which of his parents was Jewish. A man inherits his X chromosome from his mother so we looked at PR’s X matches on the GedMatch One to Many comparison tool. We saw no Jewish names in the multitude of X matches even though many of the DNA matches that were not X matches clearly had Jewish names. Thus we concluded that the mother was most likely not Jewish and the father was. My next step was to consider which of my father’s male cousins were likely candidates, considering cousins on both my father’s maternal and paternal sides. 


My grandfather had been the only one of his family to come to the United States in the early part of the 1900s. As a result, he was the only sibling who survived as the Holocaust sent most of our family to their death in Treblinka. My father had sixteen male cousins, twelve in Eastern Europe and four in the United States. We were fairly certain of those in Eastern Europe that only one had survived the Holocaust. After the war, Meyer, the son of my grandfather’s sister Bayla, tracked my grandfather down through someone he met in Germany who had an uncle who played cards with my grandfather – a story which gives new meaning to Jewish geography. I considered the five cousins I knew who had been alive fifty years ago and focused on two, one of whom was Meyer. He would have been 52 at the time of PR’s birth.  My hope that his branch of the family had survived may have influenced my focus, but on a practical level I considered that he had been single and lived in Florida, with some proximity to Puerto Rico. 


In the meantime there was a complicated personal story unfolding as PR finally decided to approach his mother with his questions and learned that he was in fact adopted. His adoptive mother produced the adoption file and it gave us additional information about the mother and the likely father. There was no direct line on the father, but some possibilities that still seemed to include those I was considering.


At this point I began to look for photographic relationships.  I had compared a picture of PR to my father and was struck by the resemblance, same forehead, same ears, same coloring. Now I went a step further back. From my genealogy research, I  had identity papers for my grandfather’s sister, Bajla, and her husband, the people I believed were possibly PR’s grandparents. These were papers that the Nazis required to be completed in 1941, along with a photo, as they prepared to  murder my family the following year. I positioned a photo of PR between his purported grandparents and there was a striking resemblance to Bajla. 


What I wanted was a picture of Meyer, the possible father.  I had an identity paper with a photograph, but it had Meyer’s brother’s name on it. Then I remembered a story I had been told. When Meyer left the displaced persons’ camp he had taken his late brother’s identity to get into the United States. He had heard it was easier to enter if you were younger and his late brother was eight years younger than him. He had some explaining to do when it was time to collect Social Security. The picture I had assumed was his younger brother was in fact him under his original name.  I continued to search Holocaust records, now using his original name and at Arolsen Archives I discovered a picture of him at an older age after the war. In the picture there was a deep cleft in his chin which matched that of PR. Based on photographic evidence, I was pretty sure I was on the right track, but I needed the DNA evidence to support it and I knew just where to go.


When I first started doing genealogy twenty years ago, my late aunt had suggested that I speak with her friend Phyllis about family. I was a bit confused at first as to the relationships. Phyllis and her husband rented my aunt’s Florida apartment. How would she know about family? I soon learned that she was far more than a renter. In fact she was a survivor from Radom, our common Polish ancestral town, and her family and mine had worked in the same business. She and Meyer had been in Auschwitz together. There were marriages between the families and Phyllis and my father were both cousins to Meyer, my father on Meyer’s mother’s side and Phyllis through his father’s side. I had done a lengthy interview with Phyllis years ago and learned more of the connections, and that story about Meyer assuming his brother’s identity. She has since passed away but I have kept in touch with her daughter, a contemporary of mine. If Meyer was the link, then Phyllis’ daughter should test similarly to me. 


When we ran the test my theory indeed proved out. Her test showed a similar level of centimorgans to PR as mine. I also ran my DNA against that of Phyllis’ daughter and learned that we didn’t have any direct relationship. I now felt confident that my theory was correct. Photographic evidence and genealogical research were supported by a DNA connection tied to both sides of Meyer’s family.