He was orphaned in the Holocaust and never met any family. Now he has cousins, thanks to DNA tests

Jul 11, 2024, 9:46 AM | Updated: 3:34 pm

Shalom Koray poses for a picture with members of his extended family just after he met them in pers...

Shalom Koray poses for a picture with members of his extended family just after he met them in person for the first time on Wednesday, July 10, 2024, in North Charleston, S.C. Koray was orphaned during the Holocaust and never knew any of his relatives until a DNA test in 2023. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

(AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Shalom Koray never knew his real name or his birthday. He was saved from the streets of a burning Warsaw neighborhood while he was a toddler during World War II, when the rest of his family was killed by Nazis in Poland.

He grew up and lived in Israel with no idea of his past. He never knew a hug from someone who shared his blood or his DNA — until Wednesday, when Koray walked off an airplane in South Carolina and into the arms of Ann Meddin Hellman. Her grandfather was the brother of Koray’s grandfather, making them second cousins.

It’s a story that would have been impossible without modern DNA science and without a genetic test that Koray was given by a psychologist who studies children orphaned in the Holocaust.

Hellman’s ancestors came to the U.S. while Koray’s family stayed behind in Poland to run a family business. They would decades later be among the 6 million Jewish men, women and children systematically killed by the Germans in World War II.

“I feel like I’ve given somebody a new life. He’s become my child. I have to protect him and take care of him,” Hellman said, although she is a few years younger than Koray, who is about 83.

She beamed and gave Koray another hug as they waited for his luggage so they could start several days of parties with dozens of other relatives at Hellman’s Charleston home.

Koray, who speaks mostly Hebrew, couldn’t stop smiling even if he didn’t quite understand the hubbub of camera crews and Southern hospitality swirling around him. He and Hellman spoke often since the DNA breakthrough, first in letters and later on video calls several times a week.

As Hellman waited at the end of the jetway, she nervously spoke to her brother and sister. “I can’t wait to get my arms around him,” she said.

What is known of Koray’s story started with him alone. He was on a street in a burning Jewish ghetto in Warsaw in 1943 when a policeman scooped him up and took him to a convent. Nuns baptized him and started to raise him as a gentile with several other orphaned children.

Lena Küchler-Silberman, a Jewish woman who was part of the resistance against the Nazis, heard of the children. She saved around 100 Jewish children, sometimes taking them in as she found them abandoned or alone or sometimes negotiating or paying to take them out of non-Jewish orphanages.

Koray was taken to a Jewish boarding school in Poland, then to France and eventually to Israel in 1949. He spent 35 years working on semi-trucks. Koray had three children and eight grandchildren. And he put out of his mind that he would never know his actual birthday, the name given to him at birth, how his father and mother met or what his grandfathers did for a living.

“You can’t start searching for something you know nothing about,” Koray said in Hebrew to the website for MyHeritage, the company whose DNA testing helped find his relatives.

MyHeritage offered Koray and other Holocaust orphans DNA testing in the summer of 2023. A few months later Hellman got a ping from a DNA sample she had given during her extensive research of her family tree. It was an unknown second cousin.

The name and other information was unfamiliar. On a hunch, she asked another cousin to test her DNA. It matched too. Hellman reached out to MyHeritage and requested a photo and other information. She remembers gasping when she saw Koray. He looked just like her brother.

“The picture gave it away,” Hellman said.

The connection instantly fell into place. Kellman knew a branch of her family connected to her great uncle was killed during the Holocaust. Now she knew there was a survivor.

Hellman wasn’t looking for anyone in particular when she took her DNA test, but sometimes wonderful surprises happen, said Daniel Horowitz, an expert genealogist at MyHeritage.

“All this family that he was always praying for came to him just like that,” Horowitz said.

Some mysteries remain, thanks to the Nazi annihilation of people and many records of their existence. Hellman knows the name of Koray’s aunt. “But I haven’t been able to find his parents’ names. That upsets me the most,” she said.

Hellman has learned much about her cousin. He’s shy and quiet. As Koray got off the plane Wednesday along with his travel companion and translator, Arie Bauer, he jokingly asked if he could stand behind Bauer. His friend told him to hug his family.

“It’s slowly dawning on him. He’s getting used to, little by little, a brand new family he didn’t know about,” Bauer said.

It wasn’t just Hellman at the airport. More than a dozen other relatives — Hellman’s brother and sister, her husband and sons, a niece, sister-in-law and cousins were there to celebrate. Dozens more were gathered at Hellman’s house for more parties and gatherings.

Koray smiled as each of his relatives hugged him. In quieter moments when they talked among themselves, he looked them over.

“He’ll get to see himself in them in a way he has never gotten to see himself before,” Hellman said. “And we get to give a family to someone who never thought one existed.”

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He was orphaned in the Holocaust and never met any family. Now he has cousins, thanks to DNA tests