DNA tests and Roman Vishniac’s photographs of Transcarpathia

A few months ago I did a DNA test, something I had thought about but rejected, because a cousin who did an Ancestry test a few years ago only found that she was 85% European Jew, 6% Italy/Greece and 3% Caucasus. What I wanted to know was – what is a European Jew? Then I got to know two people through this blog who had more interesting experiences. One found that her real father was a family friend, the son of an Odessa Jew mentioned in this blog. The second person used the British test Living DNA as his father was British and his mother was the daughter of Odessa Jews. Living DNA only looks at geography and his results were much more widely spread, from Britain and France to the Aegean and North Turkey. It was intriguing if nothing else. I was interested in a test that might actually find the routes that Jews took from Palestine to Eastern Europe and Russia. So I did the Living DNA test and found that I was 14.2% Eastern European, 29.8% Middle Eastern (17.7 % Levant, 4.3 % Iran, 3.5% North Turkey, 3.3% South Turkey and 1.1 % Northwest Caucasus) and 55.1% Iberian. Everything made sense except the 55% Iberian as I know all of my grandparents had been living in Belarus and northern Ukraine since the 17th or 18th century and if they had lived in Spain they would have left in 1492 and been marrying with other European Jews since then. It was not very plausible.

So I turned to the free online website GEDmatch, which is very easy to upload your DNA data to and tried their endless stream of tests. The tests are not that easy to interpret as they all have different geographical categories and there are very few maps of the categories on the website. I did eventually find some good maps for one of the tests and got the idea that the areas were quite large even if the name of the area was a small country like Armenia. Here is the map for East Mediterranean on the test Eurogenes K36.


GEDmatch Eurogenes K36 East Mediterranean

GEDmatch also provided some interesting population spreadsheets which showed the proportion of genetic markers from different areas for people from different countries. For instance, in one test that has a category for Ashkenazi Jews (puntDNAL K15), they are categorised as being about 40% Mediterranean, 22% Caucasian, 20 % North East European, and 10% Southwest Asian (Caucasian, south-west Asian and Mediterranean all encompass parts of the Middle East)., and that is pretty much exactly what I got. I found I was a typical Ashkenazi Jew, but I had more sense of where we had come from. Probably all Jews have a similar genetic mishmash, as they intermarried with other Jews who had come across the Middle East and Europe on many of the various routes. This is also very close to the Sicilian and South Italian result, which might suggest they followed similar routes. I puzzled over why the Sicilians and Jews had similar amounts of North East European, as I thought the Jews had acquired these genes after they left Sicily and went north. But the Caucasians also have 20% North East European, so the Sicilians and Jews, who may both have originated in the Middle East, may have gained North East European genes living on the trade routes of the Caucasus, or from northern invasions. It seems that there may be very little difference between people from Western Asia, the Middle East and the coasts around the Mediterranean and Black Sea as they traded and intermingled over the past few thousand years.

Thinking about the number of Jews, even several hundred years BC, in the area of North Turkey and the Caucasus, I wondered if any had moved across the Black Sea into Ukraine. I found an online article about the history of Jews in Ukraine, and it said Jews had moved from Turkey and the Caucasus to Crimea which was also on trade routes from east to west, and later moved up to central Ukraine and Kiev. The original port at Odessa was set up by Greeks and Italians, and Jews from Crimea must have also settled there. These Jews would not have had such a mixed genetic background until they married Jews coming from Europe to Russia. Probably the majority of Jews in Odessa around 1900 had only been there one or two generations and had come from other parts of Ukraine, Moldova and further afield.

silk routes sea routes

In the GEDmatch test with the most categories, the Eurogenes K36, my results were East Mediterranean 17.99, Italian 16.8, Iberian 12.4, Armenian 9.65, Near Eastern 6.86, Arabian 5.45, East Balkan 5.16 (Romania/Bulgaria), East Central European 4.97, West Mediterranean 4.12, North African 3.01, West Caucasian 2.87, North Atlantic 1.85, Volga-Ural 1.52, Basque 1.43, North East African .9, East Central Asian .88. My Iberian result may be slightly higher than average for Ashkenazi Jews, but nowhere near 55%. This was much more fun than larger categories as the imagination can roam with so many specific places. Even if they are just educated guesses, and possibly not all that educated. If you combine different areas it adds up to Mediterranean 55.75, Middle East/West Asia 23.74 and Eastern Europe/Russia 13.5, which may be as close to the truth as one can ever get.

K 36 DNA numberless

Even after so many years of DNA tests existing, there seem to be many misconceptions about genetics when you look at the online forums discussing results. So many people think the results are wrong if they do not match the countries they know their grandparents and great grandparents lived in. They do not realise that even if their ancestors lived in the same place for several hundred years, if, like Jews, they have moved over the centuries and married among themselves, they will still have significant amounts of genes from where ever they originated. Nor do they realise the amount of upheaval caused by wars and invasions over the past few thousand years and how many people were displaced or forced to move. In the case of the Jews, it is thought that when they first began their movement out of the Palestine area, they intermarried more with local people, partly because there may not have been many Jews to marry but also because religion may not have been as clearly differentiated as it was later. Later they married more between themselves and there were many marriages of cousins.

When I had gained more confidence using GEDmatch, I began to look at the people I matched (mostly third or fourth cousins). You can put the matches through the various tests to see how you compare and also look at the similar sections of genes. But where these families lived and their names, the most interesting aspect, can only be got from the matches themselves. I wrote brief emails to the top few people on the list plus a couple who shared family names with me. There were connections in a couple of cases but even if people were enthusiastic at first, they soon lost interest, possibly because there was no obvious link to their specific family tree. Others were not interested at all.

But for me, the most disinterested person was the most interesting. I wanted to trace a few branches of my family further back in time. I asked this one person, who was at the top of my list, if he could tell me a few places where his family had lived and a few names. One of the towns was only 50 miles from where my mother’s family lived. I have found a couple of great great great-grandfathers on the 1806 revision lists of one town. He then gave me three names, one of which was extremely common. So I tried the second, Berkman, in the Jewishgen search and found quite a few in the town he had mentioned, Vishnevo, just south of the Lithuanian border. There was one marriage record where a Berkman had married someone with one of my family names, Rabinovich, unfortunately one of the most common names among Russian Jews. I then found some family trees on Jewishgen of Berkman and Rabinovich families and wrote to the person who had posted the trees asking where the family was from. The answer was Vishnevo and he sent me a document of 130 pages of the ins and outs of intermarriages among several Vishnevo families who all came from the same original ancestor, Beniamin, born in the mid-1600s. It was not until about 1800 that people needed to have last names for the tax censuses and each of Beniamin’s descendants chose a different last name, Davidson, Zussman, Rabinovich and Podberesky. I was amazed that none of the families chose the same name.

Although I could not find a direct link between my Rabinovich great great-grandfather and those in Vishnevo, not all the family was there and one common name running from the 1700s was Leib, my great grandfather’s name. And there was the genetic link. So possibly sometime before 1806, maybe even in the mid-1700s, my great great great grandfather Michel Nakhman Rabinovich, born in 1770, or his father, Nakhman may have come to the little town of Gorodische, south of Novogrudok, from Vishnevo. Maybe he just wanted to go somewhere else. Or had travelled through and thought it was a nice place. Or had met a nice girl from there.

The next two matches I heard from were from Odessa and the Carpathians on the border between Romania and Ukraine. I thought first of the family on my 1812 family tree, my maternal great-grandfather’s, the Tauzners, who were based for several generations in the very north of Ukraine, Lyubeshov, near Pinsk, but whose name is also found in Slovakia and Hungary. But I also thought about my maternal great-grandmother’s family, the Pikers, who only appear in Belarus around 1850. Where were they before? I scrawled through the Jewishgen records for Ukraine and frequently found the Piker name around Kishinev and Czernowitz. When I found, in Kishinev and further north in Moldova, the exact same first names and patronymics (Meer Ber and Meer Hirsh) as were common in my family, I felt I might be getting close. And then I found Pikers moving north in Ukraine, several in Berdichev, Belaya Tserkov and Kiev… and then one family in a village just a few miles from Lyubeshov. According to the census, in 1816 this Piker family had just arrived from Yampol, about 300 km south, east of Lviv. My branch of this family moved to the small town of Gorodische near Novogrudok, west of Minsk, some years after my branch of the Tauzner family had moved there as rabbis. Possibly they were already related from the time when they lived around Lubeshov or before. But it was there, in Gorodische, that my great-great-grandparents married. So the next step was finding the link with these other families from Transcarpathia, Romania and Ukraine.

Looking up images of one town where I may have had cousins, Teresva, in the Carpathian mountains just on the border of Romania and Ukraine, I discovered that the famous photographer Roman Vishniac had made many of his pre-Holocaust photographs of Jews in the 1930s in Teresva and surrounding area, so I will end with a few of his photos.

teresva Carpathian ruthenia by vishniac


Carpathian mts vishniac


vishniac Ruthenia