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

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — (AP) — Shalom Korai 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 Korai walked off an airplane in South Carolina and into the arms of Ann Meddin Hellman. Her grandfather was the brother of Korai'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 Korai was given by a psychologist who studies children orphaned in the Holocaust.

Hellman's ancestors came to the U.S. while Korai'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 Korai, who is about 83.

She beamed and gave Korai 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.

Korai, 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 Korai'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.

Korai 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. Korai 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," Korai said in Hebrew to the website for MyHeritage, the company whose DNA testing helped find his relatives.

MyHeritage offered Korai 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 Korai. He looked just like her brother.

“The picture gave it away,” Hellman said.

The connection instantly fell into place. Hellman 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 Korai'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 Korai 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.

Korai 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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This story has corrected Shalom Korai's last name throughout. It is Korai, not Koray.

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