DNA technology has helped to identify 9/11 victims, find missing persons and determine paternity. But can it really reunite victims of the Holocaust?
Thea Singer has decided it's worth a try.
Singer has done just about everything else to reconnect with the friends and family she lost during the Holocaust. (The Hebrew word is haShoah; today Houston is observing Yom HaShoah, tomorrow's international Holocaust Remembrance Day.)
Born in Berlin in 1929, she spent much of the war in hiding with her two younger sisters while her parents toiled in concentration camps. She and her sisters then moved to Israel before relocating to Houston with their parents in the 1950s.
Since then she's been in touch with relatives in Berlin, England, France and Belgium. She's contacted the Red Cross and written letters. She found people on the Internet. She spent years maneuvering through the infamously dense German bureaucracy to locate a friend who helped her during the war before only recently tracking her down.
As the oldest sibling, Singers says, she feels responsible for finding whoever she can.
"I'm the only one who can tell--'Who was the uncle? What did he do?'" she says. "I'm 80. How long do you think I'm going to live?"
Singer has been unable to locate a younger cousin who lived in a Warsaw ghetto -- and she's uncertain even of her name.
That's where Matthew Kaplan, who runs a genotyping lab at the University of Arizona, and his DNA Shoah project come in. Kaplan has been collecting cheek swabs from Holocaust survivors and their relatives in hopes of creating a database big enough to begin reuniting families.
That's still quite a ways off.
"It's an issue of scale," Kaplan says. "Right now we have about a 1,000-sample collection. And I don't think that anyone will match within that sample. That would be naïve. I don't have any illusions about matching anyone until we hit about 10,000."
To increase his database, Kaplan has been taking the project on the road, making presentations and taking swabs. He visited Houston last month. The non-profit project will also send DNA kits anywhere in the world for free. The sheer magnitude of the Holocaus t-- 9 million dead, people scattered across the globe -- makes this a far more difficult task than anything that has been tried with DNA matching.
The technology takes what Kaplan calls a "reader's digest" of the human genome and looks for similarities that might determine blood relations. Finding matches becomes more difficult by generation. Right now, Kaplan says, the process can cover six generations -- or match two grandchildren.
The project focuses on finding living relatives but leaves the door open for testing the remains of the deceased, which is a sensitive religious issue.
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Even if Kaplan's collection reaches 10,000 or more, a donor's odds of finding a relative remain minuscule. Kaplan compares it to the lottery -- you probably won't win, but someone does every day.
"Most people who participate are not going to get a match," Kaplan says. "That's the numbers game. Most of the people who they think are gone are gone."
Singer figures she might as well roll the dice.
"What do I accomplish with that? I don't expect that you find that particular girl," she says. "But the world is so small, you never know who you're going to meet, and who you're going to find."