Friday, June 8, 2018

An Extraordinary Victory For DNA

This article was published in the "Journal of One-Name Studies," the quarterly magazine of the Guild of One-Name Studies, of which I am member 6934. This piece appeared in Volume 13, Issue 2, April-June 2016.

I present it here now, two years after publication, because it was recenty honored with a "Guild Award of Excellence." It appears in blog form rather than directly from the Journal to enable readers to enlarge the images.
My flagship research is the single-surname Pikholz Project, the study of a Jewish family from the three provinces of east Galicia, which is Ukraine today but Austria before WWI. In 2012, I began doing genetic research and as I write this, over seventy Pikholz descendants have tested for me, We have done most of our testing with FamilyTree DNA and our analysis with FTDNA and GEDmatch.

In the 1800s, the Pikholz families lived in two east Galician towns, the larger group of families from Skalat (4926N, 2559E) between the provincial capital Tarnopol and what was then the border with Russia. My own family lived in Skalat. We know of five Pikholz men from Skalat who were born in the period 1780-1805 and four of the five have living descendants. At the start of our DNA project, we had fifteen other Pikholz families of four or more generations whose heads had been born about 1810-1870; thirteen of those have living descendants. One of the goals of both the DNA project  and the traditional research is to attach those fifteen "younger" families to the five older men.

In November 2014, I happened across an online tree featuring Sarah Pikholz, her husband Eisig Baar and twelve children.  The tree had them in Czechoslovakia with non-Galician given names such as Gustav, Victor, Rudolph, Emil and Berti, but I quickly found the first three births in Jagielnica in east Galicia. The first child was born in 1865 so I figured that Sarah was born in the early 1840s. I had no candidate for this "new" woman. Every other Sarah that I had in that period either died in childhood or married someone not named Eisig Baar.

Milton, the great-grandson of Sarah, who had posted the tree at Ancestry, hadn't a clue about Sarah's parents or siblings. Indeed, east Galicia and Jagielnica meant nothing to him. None of the records I was able to find were helpful except some Holocaust-era police records which cited the Jewish names of the children.

My attention was drawn to the son Gustav, whose Jewish name was Gabriel, a rare name in the Pikholz database. Rare but not unique. Breine Pikholz, the wife of Avraham Aron Riss, named the first of her seven children Gabriel Wolf (Wilhelm) in 1860. Breine's father was Gabriel, so he must have died young, as eastern European Jews do not name after the living. Breine's mother – based on a late birth record of two of Breine's children, filed after Breine's death – was Ryfka Pikholz. Both Breine and Sarah named their first daughters Rivka, with the secular name Regina.

There are other matching names among the children of the two women, but Moses, Juda, Josef and Rosa are too common for us to infer that the women are closely related.

Because of the names of Gabriel and the eldest daughter Rivka, it appeared to me that Breine and Sarah are sisters. I turned to DNA for help; perhaps the descendants of Breine and Sarah – putative third cousins – could appear to be closely related. Milton was willing to do an autosomal test, what FTDNA calls "Family Finder". Between Milton and me, we are in contact with five of Milton's second cousins – two from Gustav and three from Josef – but they have been unwilling to test.

On Breine's side, Wilhelm's granddaughter tested as did the two grandchildren of Isidor, first cousins to one another. Here too, there is a Josef with three grandchildren who have been unwilling to test. And Breine's youngest, Rosche, has a grandson from her elder daughter. But Rosche also has a living daughter, Lillian, who lives in Chicago.  I have tried unsuccessfully to contact her over the years.

Breine's three great-grandchildren matched one another exactly as expected. But Milton's results were a surprise. His very first match was with my father's brother, followed by my second cousin Lee, Breine's great-granddaughter from Wilhelm and my father's first cousin Herb. Milton's matches with his putative third cousins from Isidor are more distant. The closer is twenty-second on his match list and a suggested second-fourth cousin. The other is a distant "suggested fourth-remote cousin."

Figure 2 shows chromosome browsers for Milton and the three Riss cousins from the vantage point of each, using a threshold of 3 centiMorgans. The three Riss cousins match each other as expected, but Milton (the first diagram and the orange segments in the other three) has very little in the way of matching segments with the three Riss cousins.

This was not good enough for me to accept that Breine and Sarah are sisters, though it certainly does not indicate that they are not. Third cousins can be tricky like that..

But since I already had their Family Finder results, I compared each of the four to the other Pikholz families from Skalat, where over sixty descendants had tested for the project. All four clearly matched one particular Pikholz branch much more than any of the others. This is the branch which begins with (Isak) Josef (b. ~1784) and Rojse. (Note that both Sarah and Breine named children Josef and Rosa.)

Using both documents and DNA analysis, I had already determined that Isak Josef and Rojse had at least four children – Moshe Hersch, Selig, Berl and my great-great-grandmother. Clearly Ryfka, the mother of Sarah and Breine also belonged on that list, a daughter of Isak Josef and Rojse. But my great-great-grandmother was Rivka Feige and Isak Josef and Rojse certainly didn't have two daughters named Rivka/Ryfka.

The obvious theory was that after Ryfka's husband Gabriel died young – how young we don't know but Breine named her first son for him in 1860 – Ryfka, who was a young widow with two small children, was married off to an indeterminate cousin Isak Fischel Pikholz with whom she had four children. That is how their social safety net worked. A young widow or widower with young children was married off to a family member – the dead wife's sister or a niece or cousin or in-law. We don't have precise ages for the four children of Rivka Feige and Isak Fischel but the wife of the eldest was born about 1847, which would fit the scenario.

I am not concerned that the one is Ryfka and the other Rivka Feige. We know the name Ryfka from a birth record from 1888 when Breine is already dead and Riyfka herself had been dead  for many years. So the name provided by her grandchildren or son-in-law may well have been incomplete.

By this time, in early summer 2015, Lillian had agreed to meet me during my upcoming trip to the US. Lillian is one generation older than Breine's other living descendants (or Sarah's), so her Family Finder would be twice as good. But it was more than that. Last year, I asked my third cousin Joe in Denver to do a Family Finder for the project and also a Mitochondrial DNA (MtDNA) test. That would show his maternal line going back to Rivka Feige. Only Joe, his brother and his sister's two children could do that test as there are no other all-female lines. He said "What do you want to prove?" and I said "I don't know but maybe I’ll need it some day."

If Ryfka and Rivka Feige are the same woman, Joe and Lillian would have identical MtDNA. If they do, it would not be proof, but it would be supporting evidence. If they do not, Ryfka and Rivka Feige cannot be the same woman and I go back to the drawing board.

Lillian's Family Finder results came back in early October. Her first three matches are her known close cousins. Fourth is my father's cousin Herb, perhaps Lillian's half-second cousin. Her sixth match is Milton – a good sign. Ninth is my father's sister. Five more of my personal family are suggested second-third cousins and nine are suggested second-fourth cousins. This looked very good indeed. But if the MtDNA doesn't match, we have nothing.

A few weeks later, Lillian's MtDNA results came in and she is a perfect match to Joe. That is not a unique match, to be sure – there are over ninety other people with the same perfect match who would be connected further back in time. But together with the Family Finder results, it is enough for me to declare Ryfka and Rivka Feige to be the same woman and to merge the families.

There is another lesson from this particular inquiry. Milton's matches with the three cousins of his own generation – his third cousins – are not on their own convincing. But when I compare all four to the other Pikholz descendants, the pattern becomes quite clear, even obvious. When looking at third (and fourth) cousins, we must keep in mind that they may match other people better than they match each other and in ways that can clarify their relationships with each other. Of course, if some of Milton's cousins would test, we might find that they match the Riss group much better than does Milton.

DNA is supposed to be good, but not usually that good.

And another lesson - Do It Now

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