Jews who don't know their biological family's identity because they were orphaned at a very young age during the Holocaust could discover their lineage - and even relatives - if they undergo DNA testing.
Prof. Mary-Claire King, a leading geneticist at the University of Washington who matched up dozens of children with their grandparents in the 1980s after the children's parents were murdered under Argentina's dictatorship, told The Jerusalem Post she would be glad to serve as volunteer adviser to such a project.
King developed the pioneering genetic tests - now routinely used for forensic medicine and paternity cases - that can extract DNA from teeth, bones and other tissue and identify close relatives with 100-percent accuracy. The geneticist, who last week made her sixth visit to Israel in the last 10 years and on Monday was to receive a prestigious $25,000 prize in New York from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, said such an identification program should be carried out before Holocaust survivors pass away.
"It wouldn't be very expensive to take blood samples from those who do not know their origins and from families in various parts of the world who think their relatives are still alive," said King, who also discovered the BRCA1 gene mutation that causes breast cancer in some women. "Sequencing of mitochondrial DNA costs about $100 per sample to process by polymerase chain reaction."
After she developed the DNA technique, King went to Argentina numerous times at the request of grandmothers, mostly Jewish, whose adult children disappeared at the hands of the Argentinian anti-Semitic military government.
Pregnant women, she said, were kidnapped by childless military or police officers and their newborns taken away before the mothers were murdered. DNA testing finally proved the identities of the real grandparents and enabled them to raise them, King recalled.
Leah Balint, a retired Jerusalem historian and Holocaust survivor, told the Post that she has set up an archive of Jews who were too young during the Holocaust to know who their parents were. Currently writing a book on the subject, she believes that there are about 2,000 such cases, most of them involving people originating in Poland. She herself has matched up some families based on records she uncovered in Poland at her own expense and through work she has done for Beit Lohamei Hagetaot near Acre.
Told about King's suggestion, Balint said it was "a great idea" to try to match up orphans with families. "The murders parents there [in Poland] were the most extensive. There are a few thousand Jews living in Poland, and some are still looking for missing relatives. DNA tests could identify them. But someone would have to provide the funding."
Asked to comment, a spokeswoman for Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority said it had no idea how many Jewish Holocaust survivors don't know their family's identity and that it had not tracked such information in its archives.
But she said Yad Vashem would be glad to put its records at the disposal of people interested in such a project, even if it didn't have the funds to finance it.