Stanley Diamond, one of the pre-eminent Jewish family genealogists in the world, has long urged all Jews, especially those of Ashkenazic descent, to get their DNA tested.
The reason is not only to satisfy their own curiosity about their family roots, but because the information could be crucial to the many people who are trying to recover their Jewish identity, or find relatives who were lost in the Holocaust. These are often Jewish children who were hidden or adopted by non-Jewish families during the Second World War.
As executive director of Jewish Records Indexing-Poland (JRI), which he founded in 1995, Diamond played a key role in helping Maria Vasitinskaya – a 76-year-old Polish-born woman living in Omsk, Russia – find out who her biological parents were and confirm that she is Jewish. This led to the discovery of numerous relatives in Israel, who she met last spring.
But the story doesn’t end there. Diamond was astonished to find out this past month that he is directly related to Vasitinskaya, on his mother’s side.
Diamond, whose maternal ancestors were from northeastern Poland, says it’s an “amazing coincidence” that “I am a perfect ‘zero distance’ (meaning identical) mitochondrial match for Maria and her first cousin, Ora Wittenberg, whose DNA was used as the DNA match that resulted in certification of Maria as being Jewish.”
To find out the degrees of separation between them and where their ancestors crossed will take a lot more digging.
Diamond said that of the 40,000 matches to his DNA that he has found on the Internet, only about 150 are zero distance. “Can you imagine, working on a case (for years) to help a woman in Omsk, Russia, find her identity and then find this out?”
Accompanying Vasnitskaya to the conclusion of her genealogical journey overjoyed Diamond and he hopes his experience will spur others to get tested and post their results online.
JRI determined that Vasitinskaya’s birth name was Rivkah Zilber, that her parents were Esther Freund and Ze’ev Zilber, that she had an older sister and brother, and that she comes from what were large families in Krosno, Poland, where she was born, as well as Jaslo. She now has photos of her parents’ wedding and of her older brother and sister with her parents before the war, among others.
Her mother, it is now known, died in the Belzec concentration camp and her father in Bergen-Belsen.
Her Jewishness has now been certified by the chief rabbinate of Russia. She has applied for German restitution, which she could use given her meagre circumstances.
“I have been involved with many other missing identity cases, but none are like this,” said Diamond, “because Maria will come to know a large, closely related and loving family from both her mother’s and father’s sides, which is beyond her original expectations and that makes Maria’s story even sweeter.”
About 100 relatives attended a family reunion when she was in Israel.
Vasitinskaya was taken in by a gentile couple, the Markoviches, when she was about eight months old, after, it is believed, her parents were confined to the ghetto.
In 1947, her adoptive family, in which there were no other children, moved to Ukraine. Vasitinskaya knew from an early age that she was Jewish, Diamond said. When her adoptive mother died in 1953 and her father’s new wife did not want her, Vasitinskaya went to live with a Jewish couple.
In 2010, she went to Israel to visit descendants of that couple and decided to finally find out who her birth family was. This search brought her into contact with JRI-Poland, an independent, non-profit organization that has a database of more than five-million Jewish birth, marriage and death records from that country, going back more than a century.
Diamond is proud that JRI-Poland and its mostly volunteer genealogists in several countries worked doggedly to help Vasitinskaya, but admits that it likely would have been impossible to have ended in the happy way it did only 10 years ago, before reliable DNA testing became readily available.
“This glorious conclusion was made possible by a combination of records indexed by JRI-Poland in 2003 as the framework and a succession of DNA tests/matches, starting with the first breakthrough last November, with a match who ultimately turned out to be a first cousin in Brooklyn,” he said. Still, there were plenty of false starts along the way.
Vasitinskya has a daughter and a grandson who also now know who they are, as well.
“I cannot find words to express how thankful I am to you. I even cannot describe to you in what emotional condition I am now because my longtime dream has come true – I found out my parents’ names. And together with this, I found my family and close relatives. I am overwhelmed with joy and happiness. What seemed impossible came true. I am very thankful to you for your sympathy, kindness and help in my search of my relatives,” she wrote Diamond.
Diamond notes that it was this story that finally persuaded his 93-year-old cousin, Avi Morrow, to get tested, so that any descendants of his mother’s (and Diamond’s grandmother’s) sisters might find the two Montreal men, if they survived.
“My message is put yourself out there, make it possible for someone, somewhere to find you just as you want to find them,” said Diamond. “Dramatic stories of discovery like this, of establishing anew long-severed family connections, illustrate how technology has provides new opportunities for those who want to know for themselves and future generations.”