Ann Meddin Hellman had all but given up hope that she would learn more information about her father’s side of the family — a lineage long-believed to have been erased in the horrors of the Holocaust.
So it was a mix of surprise, shock and utter disbelief that followed when she learned five months ago she has an 83-year-old second cousin and Holocaust survivor living in Israel.
“We knew his family was annihilated in the Holocaust,” the South Carolina mother and grandmother told NBC News. “That’s been the family story I had heard forever.”
Thanks to a DNA testing service offered by MyHeritage, finding her cousin Shalom Koray and learning of his remarkable tale of survival has opened up a new chapter in their family’s history.
“We would have never found him,” she said. “There was no way that I could have looked him up in a phone book or found him under any circumstances. … I bet there would have been no other way besides DNA.”
Koray — who immigrated to Israel in 1949 — was first found abandoned in a potato sack in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941 at the age of 2. He was rescued by famed Jewish teacher and psychologist Lena Küchler-Silberman, who saved around 100 children during the war.
Now more than three-quarters of a century later, a researcher exploring the history of those kids prompted Koray to take a DNA test, and Hellman received an alert of a second cousin.
“That’s pretty high up for not knowing who this person is. That’s a close relation,” she said. Hellman said she let out a “scream” when she learned of the discovery.
The two have been maintaining regular communication through video conferencing, WhatsApp and language translation tools.
“What I do is I write him a note and I write it in English. I put it in Google Translate and let them turn it into Hebrew, and I send him both of those and he writes back,” she explained with a smile.
Hellman says Shalom was previously known by the name Petro Korczak, making the process of tracking him down far trickier.
But as they gained clarity on his background, photos of Koray also helped seal the deal.
“My brother [Stuart] jumped off the page,” she said. “He is definitely a Meddin.”
The two plan on seeing each other in person, surrounded by dozens of other family members, this summer in Charleston.
As Koray explained in a video produced by MyHeritage, “I was born into this reality and never knew anything else. I didn’t even know the concept of parents.”