A familial journey to Israel, launched with a simple cheek swab
What started as a simple cheek swab with a Q-Tip became a long-distance trip this past March to meet family in Israel who survived the Holocaust. With home DNA kits a multimillion-dollar business that attracts new customers at an amazing rate, discovering ancestral connections in other countries is easier than ever.
When my daughter Caroline, 26, gave me a gift card for a DNA home test kit from Ancestry.com in 2017, I didn’t think much of it. She was having fun figuring out where her light skin and green eyes came from (2 percent Irish), but I was positive I knew my roots. With two Jewish parents, I was comfortable with my Ashkenazi ancestry, and it turns out I was right. My data showed I was 89 percent European Jewish. Ancestry.com updated that figure to 98 percent in 2019. What I never expected was that I would also get a long list of names representing possible DNA connections. These were listed as potential family members, and most were names I did not recognize. An American Jew with European roots, I often wondered if any of my family was lost in the Holocaust, if any had escaped, and under what circumstances. I’d dabbled in a bit of genealogy, but before the Internet, the research was long and tedious, and I’d turned up nothing.
The first name on the Ancestry.com list was a bull’s-eye: second cousin Lou Hirsch from Benicia, Calif. I received a friendly return e-mail from his wife, Lisa, who was helping research the Pechter family tree. Through Lou I learned of our Israeli family, who emigrated after time in a displaced persons camp at the close of World War II. At 6 years old, my cousin Frida Hirt Raz (now 76) left the cruelties of life as a refugee (she was born in an unknown camp in Salzburg, Austria), and boarded a ship for the new state of Israel.
Frida Hirt Raz, her father, Yeshua, and mother, Devora, sailed on the ship Galila and entered the port of Haifa in 1949. They settled first in Rishon Le-Zion, which was declared a city in 1950 and is now the fourth largest in Israel. Later, Petah Tikvah, Israel, north of Tel Aviv, became home.
I connected with Frida’s son Ohad, 45, a radio professional working in London and now Israel, who was delighted to hear from me. Frida and I were introduced, and, after a telephone call, we began talking online, where we continue to converse.
I was inspired to learn Hebrew (modern or conversational, as opposed to ancient or biblical Hebrew). My lessons started at the Boston Language Institute with teacher Ilana Benivgy. I continued my study with the Ulpan program at Hebrew College in Newton.
This March, I traveled with my daughter, Hannah, 32, to Israel. We booked a modern Airbnb in Tel Aviv, tucked Frida’s phone number into my carry-on, and traveled through New York’s JFK to David Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv.
Though I had visited Israel 20 years earlier with my family to celebrate Hannah’s bat mitzvah, Israel looked different. The buildings looked taller, security tighter, highways busier. Most importantly, DNA testing helped me find my family.
On a rainy March day in South Tel Aviv, Hannah and I waited for Frida’s text that she, her husband, Reuven, and Ohad had arrived at our meeting place. European-style compact cars whooshed by the busy avenue near where a subway was being constructed under streets with names like Allenby (after British general Edmund Allenby).
A short, fair-complexioned Israeli walked up to me with a smile. This was my cousin Ohad. We hugged. Frida was waiting with the car a few blocks away, her husband, Rueven, in the car. We embraced.
We drove north in their tiny compact, as I was squished between Frida and Hannah, chatting like old friends. Frida and Ohad have impeccable English. Frida speaks five languages, I later learned.
Our destination was the HaZahav shopping mall in Rishon Le-Zion, where we enjoyed a delicious shwarma lunch and met Aliza Hirt, Frida’s sister-in-law. We ate chicken schwarma with fresh vegetables and pita and talked for hours about family.
Israeli highways are crowded and with the subway construction in Tel Aviv, our trip back to the city was slow. With no plans for our next day in Israel, my new family offered a second day of this personal side of Israel. It was lunch with newly discovered family, a dip into my past.
We walked through an outdoor shuk or market, where we shopped for beautiful Israeli and European style dresses, tops, and shoes. Frida bought us clothes and spoke to all the shopkeepers, who knew her taste and offered the shuk’s version of a big sale. Wandering with my Israeli cousin through shoes and clothing in the side streets of Tel Aviv was a new way to see Israel.
The ancient port city of Jaffa was our next stop, where pink stone shone amid twisting pathways offering glimpses of the Mediterranean. After a lunch of many small dishes of hummus, falafel, salads, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, and more, we walked into brilliant sunshine toward the seawall. There, Ohad recorded his mother speaking about her past and how proud she was to be a Pechter.
The remainder of my 10-day trip with my daughter was spent discovering sights on our own, riding public buses, trying out my Hebrew skills, and bringing back memories to last a lifetime.
L’hitraot, Israel. Until we meet again.