Last November, Syd Mandelbaum read news accounts that bones dating from the Nazi era had been found during roadwork in Stuttgart, Germany. "The German government contacted the Israeli police to see if it could help identify the remains, but they could not," recalls Mandelbaum, who soon learned that other mass graves from the same period had just been uncovered in Poland and elsewhere in Germany in development projects. With no way to identify remains, the governments didn't know what to do with the bones.
The news hit a nerve with Mandelbaum, who had three grandparents murdered and burned at Auschwitz and whose grandfather worked as a slave laborer and disappeared in 1943. "I believe that his bones may lie somewhere in a shallow grave," says Mandelbaum, who developed the first videotape archive of Holocaust survivors and camp liberators 25 years ago with the Israel Holocaust Authority. When he contacted the authority to see if they could help identify remains with its extensive survivors' registry, he was told there was no way to do this. So the one-time scientist and entrepreneur, who holds a master's degree in general science, decided to figure out how to do it.
One of his first calls was to University of Arizona geneticist Michael Hammer, who studies Jewish genetic origins. The contact came from a colleague with whom Mandelbaum had worked in 1994 to disprove Anna Anderson's claim of being Anastasia, a descendant of the royal Russian house of Romanov. The case became a benchmark of using DNA as forensic evidence. Hammer agreed to help set up the database
James Watson agreed to serve as an advisor. (Watson had purchased one of the first flow cytometers Mandelbaum ever sold when he was working for Johnson & Johnson in the 1980s.) The final piece of the project fell into place when the sister of Gene Code's CEO, Howard Cash, emailed Cash about an article on the project from a survivor's newsletter, and Gene Codes signed on. Its subsidiary, Gene Codes Forensics (GCF) developed its Mass Fatality Identification System (M-FISys) to help identify badly damaged human remains from the World Trade Center, and was later used after the 2004 tsunami.
The team came up with the DNA Shoah Project, taking the Hebrew name for the Holocaust. In June, the team announced that it will establish a genetic database of survivors and relatives with the goal of reuniting some of what they estimate are the 10,000 postwar orphans sent to the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, and elsewhere, and thousands of the remaining 400,000 survivors worldwide. On August 13, the team collected 130 samples from more than 80 survivors and their families in Los Gatos, Calif. The University of Arizona and private donations will absorb much of the $2 million cost of the overall project. A DNA database of short tandem repeats and potentially other markers, says Mandelbaum, could help identify remains only now being discovered, so that they might be returned to families for reburial. "Another goal of the project is to use forensic science, sort of like CSI, to teach young people about the Holocaust," says Mandelbaum.
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."
The tiny window is getting smaller: The average age of a Holocaust survivor is more than 82. Charles Srebnik, a 75-year-old who survived the Nazi occupation of his native Belgium because his parents hid him in a series of Catholic orphanages, lost his father and other close relatives in the concentration camps. Like many survivors, he's been looking for family members for 50 years. It's been hit or miss, but he hopes that the new project may change that.