25 May 2007

DNA and the Holocaust: 'A tiny window'

The May 2007 edition of The Scientist offers a story on Syd Mandelbaum's DNA Shoah project.

In November 2006, Mandelbaum learned that Nazi-era bones were found in a Stuttgart, Germany road project, and that similar mass graves had been uncovered elsewhere in Germany and Poland. The governments didn't know what to do with the remains.

Although the German government contacted Israeli police to see if they could assist in identifying the remains, the answer was negative.

The story was very personal. Mandelbaum's three grandparents perished at Auschwitz, a grandfather was a slave laborer who disappeared in 1943. Some 25 years ago, he developed the first videotape archive of Holocaust survivors and camp liberators. He contacted the Israel Holocaust Authority to ask if they could help identify remains but the answer was that there was no way.

A one-time scientist and entrepreneur who holds a master's degree in general science, Mandelbaum decided to find a way, and contacted University of Arizona geneticist Dr. Michael Hammer.

Hammer agreed to help, James Watson agreed to advise and Gene Code CEO Howard Cash came onboard after Cash's sister forwarded him an article on the project from a survivor's newsletter. Cash's subsidiary, Gene Codes Forensics, had developed a mass fatality identification system to help identify World Trade Center remains, later also used in the 2004 tsunami aftermath.

The DNA Shoah Project was developed to establish a genetic database of survivors and relatives to reunite an estimated 10,000 postwar orphans resettled in the US, UK, Israel and elsewhere, and thousands of the remaining 400,000 survivors. In August 2006, 130 samples were collected from some 80 survivors and their families in California.

Such a database may identify discovered remains so that they may be returned to families for reburial. Mandelbaum feels that forensic science can also teach young people about the Holocaust.

Cash has moderate expectations for the number of identifications that will be possible, given that entire families were wiped out, and survivors are quite elderly and may not be prepared to contribute DNA. "The chances are not high, but wouldn't it be incredible if, 60 years later, we were able to reunite siblings or other relatives who were not aware that they had family who survived?" Cash says. "We have a tiny window of time where some of the victims of the Nazis are still alive and where DNA laboratory and information technology can meet the challenge of DNA analysis and comparison on a massive scale."

Read more here.

Mandelbaum will appear at the special DNA Day, Wednesday, July 18, at the 27th IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy, July 15-20, in Salt Lake City. For conference and registration information, click here.

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