Holocaust orphan Jackie Young searched painfully and unsuccessfully for the identity of his biological father for most of his life.
He has known for decades that he was born to a Jewish Viennese woman in her early 30s, who was deported in June 1942 to Maly Trostenets, a Nazi killing center near Minsk, Belarus, where she was murdered. The woman’s name, Elsa Spiegel, appears on Young’s original birth certificate. It was noted that she was unmarried, and the space for the father’s name was left blank.
Young miraculously survived as an orphaned infant for two years and eight months at the Terezin (Theresienstadt) camp-ghetto in Czechoslovakia.
Now, thanks to the help of two specialists in Jewish genetic genealogy, Young knows not only his father’s name but also that he has living relatives on his paternal side in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Israel, and possibly Hungary.
“I’ve been waiting for this news for six decades. I’m not alone anymore,” said the 80-year-old retired London taxi driver. As far as he knows, he was the only child of his biological parents, and his adoptive parents, Ralph and Annie Young (Yanofsky).
Young came to the attention of American genealogists Jennifer Mendelsohn and Dr. Adina Newman thanks to a The Times of Israel article on Young’s appearance on the BBC television program, “DNA Family Secrets.” Mendelsohn and Newman are the administrators of the 10,000 member-strong “Jewish DNA for Genetic Genealogy and Family Research” Facebook group.
The BBC show’s geneticist, Dr. Turi King, was able to allay Young’s long-held fear that his biological father was a Nazi.
Young had theorized that the only way he could have survived Terezin was for his father to have been a Nazi who protected him from mistreatment, and from being one of the 9,001 children deported to extermination camps in the east.
“The result was really clear,” King said of Young’s DNA test. “You are coming back as 99% Ashkenazi Jewish. So we think almost certainly that your father was not a Nazi.”
The “DNA Family Secrets” team was able to locate two second cousins once removed (a brother and sister) on Young’s paternal side. They coincidentally live not far from Young in North London. Young and his wife Lita have since met them and are in regular contact.
Genealogist Mendelsohn told The Times of Israel, “We thought that with our specialized knowledge and experience with Jewish genealogy, and Jewish genetic genealogy specifically, we could take Jackie’s search further.”
According to Newman, Jewish genealogical research with historical documents and records requires particular know-how, and Jewish DNA is tricky.
“Because Ashkenazi Jews are an endogamous population, people can appear to be closer relatives based on their DNA than they actually are on paper according to historical records and family trees,” she said.
Within five days of reaching Young in early June to request his DNA test results and permission to research on his behalf, Mendelsohn and Newman had answers. Not only did they identify Young’s biological father, but they were also able to reverse engineer a family tree based on matches in DNA databases and historical documents. The tree goes back to the early 1800s and Young’s second great-grandparents. The family was based in Lackenbach, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and is in Austria today.
“Let me turn my computer around,” a proud Young said as he showed The Times of Israel on Zoom how he had printed out the family tree, framed it, and put it on his wall at home.
A family is born
Young’s father was named Adolf Kornfein, and he was born in 1894. It seems that Kornfein, a tailor, was in a relationship with the much younger Elsa Spiegel following a divorce or separation from his wife.
“We can surmise this from the records showing that Kornfein, his wife Hilda (née Schlesinger), and teenage son Wilhelm were living together at the same Vienna address in 1938. But in 1942 he was living alone at a different address,” Mendelsohn said.
Records showed that on June 2, 1942, Adolf and Elsa were both on a transport to Maly Trostenets. Hilda and Wilhelm were deported to Auschwitz on July 17, 1942.
“We have been able to establish that Adolf and Elsa lived within a short distance of one another at that time. We don’t know if they were on the same transport because they were together, or simply because the Nazis were rounding up all Jews living within a certain area,” Newman said.
Elsa Spiegel handed her baby, named Yona Jakob Spiegel, and born at the Rothschild-Spital (Jewish hospital) on December 18, 1941, to an orphanage before her deportation. Young found two accounts of this, with one saying he was three and a half months old, and another that he was five and a half months old.
Young was deported to Terezin in September 1942 and was interned there between the ages of nine months and three and a half years. He has been able to establish that he was the sole survivor among the 15 children without parents who were together with him on the same transport to the camp.
“The only explanation I can come up for my being looked after and survival is that I must have been a pawn in the Nazi’s propaganda campaign to deceive the Red Cross,” Young said.
Newman agreed with the supposition saying, “Just look at the pictures of him from when he was a boy. He was an adorable child. He could have definitely been used for show by the Nazis.”
Still searching for his maternal roots
Whereas Young finally learned about his father and paternal family recently, he incrementally and painstakingly uncovered bits of information about his mother over decades.
As a teenager, a relative let it slip that he had been born in Vienna. However, his adoptive parents hid from him that he was a concentration camp survivor. It was only when he needed proof of his Jewishness to get married in a synagogue that he learned this distressing fact. Even then, his adoptive parents didn’t want him to read the relevant documents, and they remained uncooperative for the rest of their lives.
All these years later, he still doesn’t know much about his birth mother and her family.
“Unfortunately we can’t help Jackie at his point with this because there are not as many records to build a [family] tree for Elsa Spiegel, and there are no real matches for Jackie’s maternal DNA in the databases that we could place,” Newman said.
Young recorded his experiences searching for his roots over the years. They have been published online under the title, “Lost and Waiting to Be Found” at “WW2 People’s War: An archive of World War Two memories – written by the public, published by the BBC.”
Active in Holocaust survivor groups and eager to engage anyone who might be able to help him, Young has nonetheless faced many hurdles and dead ends as he traveled to Israel, Vienna, Prague, Terezin, and Belarus to find answers. With the steadfast assistance and support of his wife, he has made repeated inquiries at multiple organizations and archives.
Unfortunately little has shown up about his mother other than the bare-bones facts about her immediate family. He knows only that she was born in 1909 in Vienna to Emilie (née Schwartz) and Leopold Spiegel, who were married in Czechoslovakia. Leopold was deported to Terezin from an old age home, and Emilie died before the war. Elsa was a milliner, and she had an older sister named Hilde and a brother named Rudolph, whose fates are unknown.
Young was able to find detail about his early years in records from the children’s homes where he lived after arriving in the UK in the late summer of 1945. Young was among a group of 300 Holocaust survivor children flown to Britain from Czechoslovakia after the war. Most went on to Israel, but 32 of the younger children remained in the UK, with the youngest six placed for the first year at a Sussex home called Bulldog’s Bank. There he was looked after by sisters Sophie and Gertrude Dann and Anna Freud — Sigmund’s daughter who was to become a leading psychoanalyst.
Young was later moved to a home for older Jewish children run by a woman named Alice Goldberger. She arranged for his adoption in London at age nine by the Youngs.
Science steps in
To confirm their findings, Mendelsohn and Newman needed to find a close relative on Young’s biological paternal side to take a DNA test to prove the genetic match. Adolf Kornfein had four siblings. The genealogists tracked down Adolf’s brother Samuel’s only grandson in the US, Bill Kornfein. He agreed to take the test.
“Our daughters are adopted and we always hoped that if they wanted to look for their birth parents, someone would help them in their search,” Kornfein said in explaining his decision to provide his DNA.
Then came the wait to see if there was indeed a match with Young.
“We sat on pins and needles for four to five weeks until the results came back,” Mendelsohn said.
Kornfein, a retired lawyer from the St. Louis area, is indeed Young’s first cousin once removed. Both his parents were Holocaust survivors, and he was born in Switzerland, where they fled during the war. He and his wife are thrilled to discover this new relation and have been calling, emailing, and sharing photos with Young and his wife.
“We are so thrilled for Jackie. We hope to meet him and Lita in person in the future,” Kornfein said.
Both Mendelsohn and Newman said they were especially pleased to be able to help Holocaust survivors such as Young.
“This is a real example of how genetic genealogy can do huge mitzvot [good deeds] in this world. This is the kind of thing we should be doing with DNA,” Newman said.
Are you relying on The Times of Israel for accurate and timely coverage right now? If so, please join The Times of Israel Community. For as little as $6/month, you will:
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we started the Times of Israel eleven years ago - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.
David Horovitz, Founding Editor of The Times of Israel