Scientists have solved a century-old family drama using DNA from postcards

In 1885, Xaver, a young Austrian blacksmith, left home to become great. After finding a new job abroad, Xaver, a non-Jew, fell in love with Dean, his boss’s 17-year-old Catholic-Jewish daughter. He was subsequently fired. But that was just the beginning of this family drama.

Dina ran away from home to be with Xaver and found accommodation and work in the house of Ron, a 30-year-old Jewish factory owner. In 1887, she gave birth to a son named Renz, who is believed to have been Ron’s father. Renz received Jewish rituals and was baptized in the Catholic Church.

But Dina and Xaver stayed together, and after Xaver achieved some success in his career, the two married in 1889. Xaver recognized then-one-and-a-half-year-old Renzo as his stepson, and Ron provided family support. Xaver and Dina had three more children, including a son named Arles. During World War II, Renzo’s full Jewish origins were kept secret, while he and his relatives lived in fear of deportation to concentration camps.

The secret of his fatherhood was kept in public for years, but the true identity of Renzo’s father was passed down from generation to generation in the family.

Let’s move on to May 2017, when Cordula Haas, a forensic geneticist from the University of Zurich, Switzerland, was referred with an unusual request. Renco’s and Arles’ descendants wanted to confirm that Ron was indeed Renco’s real father. The family offered cheek swabs of living descendants of Dina, Renz and Arles for DNA analysis, and – at Haas’ urging – some postcards sent by Renz and Ron that could contain their DNA in the remains of saliva used to stick stamps.

Resolving kinship cases is a common task in forensic genetics, but this case was a little more complex than Haas was used to. For a year and a half, she and her team tried to confirm the story, but without success. By October 2018, they had thrown in a towel. But then, in March 2020, the family returned, this time with more inheritance. They found some more old postcards that Arles had sent on a 1922 business tour.

Scientists compared the DNA found under the seal of these cards with the DNA found on postcards sent by Renz while fighting in World War I and on post-war travels. They found a common Y chromosome lineage, which meant the two brothers had the same father. After more than a century, the family ended their fatherhood drama: Xaver, not Ron, was Renzo’s father.

With the consent of the family, Haas and her colleagues described their investigation in detail paper published this month in a journal Forensic Science International. (All names have been changed, at the request of the family.) And while this may seem like just a fun end to the family mystery, removing centuries-old DNA from artifacts — licking the fold of an envelope, hair from an old brush — was once considered Next Big Thing in genetic genealogy. His promise lies in offering everyone the opportunity to gain valuable insights into long-deceased ancestors and loved ones, to look further into their family tree, and to potentially reunite with existing relatives.

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