The Baltimore Holocaust Memorial on Lombard Street. Photo by Bill Badzo/Flickr Creative Commons.

A project co-led by a Baltimore genealogist is helping reunite families separated by the Holocaust, and will host an event Sunday in Baltimore.

The Center for Jewish History (CJH) is offering a behind-the-scenes look at a compelling reunification project that brings Holocaust survivors and their descendants together with relatives they thought they lost, and even some they didn’t know they had.

The event will take place Sunday, April 2, at 2 p.m. at the Bolton Street Synagogue, located at 212 West Cold Spring Lane in Baltimore. The program is “pay as you wish,” meaning it is free, and donations are optional, tax-deductible, and deeply appreciated.

The program, “Reunited and It Feels so Good: The DNA Reunion Project at the Center for Jewish History” features Baltimore genealogist Jennifer Mendelsohn, who is co-founder of the project. The CJH officials say it’s a first-of-its-kind program, seeking to “leverage the power of DNA to reunite families separated by the Holocaust by providing free commercial DNA tests.”

Attendees will hear stories of how the program helped orchestrate the reunification of families torn apart by the Holocaust, “including how DNA identified the unknown parents of two orphaned child survivors and how a 95-year-old survivor was reunited with first cousins more than 70 years after the war.”

Mendelsohn is an internationally recognized genealogist, and she was recognized by Baltimore Magazine as a “GameChanger” in February 2023.

The project provides free DNA kits to survivors and their children and serves as a centralized resource for Holocaust survivors to access a genetic genealogical consultation at no cost to them.  Complex cases may involve finding hidden children, unknown parent cases, or non-Jews learning of their hidden Jewish history from having their DNA tested.

Ancestry, the world’s largest for-profit genealogy company, donated 2,500 DNA kits to be used for the project.

The DNA Reunion Project was launched by the Center for Jewish History in November 2022. Mendelsohn and her co-founder, Dr. Adina Newman, are Ashkenazi Jewish genetic genealogy specialists, well-known for their impressive track record for solving complex cases. They work with librarians at the CJH’s Ackman & Ziff Family Genealogy Institute.

According to the Times of Israel, Newman hopes the program motivates people to “dig in to reclaim their family stories.”

“We want to empower people with the tools to find closure about the fates of their family members while they can,” Newman said. “Too many people mistakenly think there’s no point in searching, but there really still is information to be found.”

“Part of our goal is to raise awareness of how valuable DNA testing and genealogical research in general can be for Jewish families,” Mendelsohn said.

It certainly was and continues to be for 80-year old Jackie Young. An orphaned infant in the Terezin concentration camp, he survived and was kept safe for three years there. Adopted by a Jewish family in London after the war, he spent his life haunted by his history and the possibilities that he’d survived because his father may have been a Nazi guard.

BBC’s “DNA Family Secrets” helped him learn the truth about his heritage, assuring him he was Jewish. Partnering with Mendelsohn and Newman and the DNA Reunion Project helped him complete the picture, as they were able to figure out who his father was and reunite him with his first cousin once removed.

Time is of the essence, though, as Holocaust survivors continue to age.

Mendelsohn told the Times of Israel,  “Genetic genealogy can be an incredibly powerful tool for making family connections when the paper trail has been disrupted, but many people aren’t even aware that it can be used that way. They think DNA testing is just about the ethnicity pie charts.”

But it’s so much more, she said. There is so much information to be learned, stories that can be told through DNA, family connections that can be made.

Getting the word out about the project takes a multi-pronged approach. While Mendelsohn calls Baltimore home, Newman is in Massachusetts, and the CJH is based in New York. There has been international media coverage. They’re also using direct mail, in-person events like the one on Sunday, webinars, social media, conferences, and stories have been written about the project all over the world.

Ken Engel leads a group in Minnesota for the children of Holocaust survivors and is doing his part to spread the word among them and elsewhere about the DNA Reunion Project.

“This is an important effort,” Engel said. “It may reveal and disclose wonderful information for them that they never knew about, may make them feel more settled or more connected to the past.”

A large, thriving Jewish community calls Baltimore home. According to a Brandeis 2020 study, Baltimore’s Jewish community comprises approximately 46,700 households that are home to more than 115,000 people many of whom have long, generational Baltimore ties. Nearly half (45%) of the adults in the study were raised in Baltimore.

Mendelsohn hopes they learn more about their own history through the science and poignant power of the DNA Reunion Project.