ב׳ באדר ב׳ ה׳תשע״ד (March 4, 2014)
Stellaractive launches DNAMatch for the iPad to help find families lost Jewish relatives. Irish family recently discovers they are Ashkenazi Jews and start massive search with apps help.
Alice Collins Plebuch is searching for her “Irish” father’s Jewish birth family. Through the power of DNA, Plebuch learned two years ago that half her DNA was Ashkenazi Jew and that her proud Irish father, James Patrick Collins, was actually Jewish.
“I was sure something was wrong with the DNA test and it gave me a queasy feeling to think it might be correct,” said Plebuch whose DNA results looked correct for her Irish mother, but not for her father. Whose DNA was showing up for her father? Plebuch’s six other siblings also took DNA tests and to her relief, they were all full brothers and sisters. After looking at her brother’s X chromosome in a utility that highlights genes identified as Ashkenazi, she realized the Ashkenazi Jewish DNA was on her father’s side.
Plebuch then tested two of her first cousins, from both her mother and father’s side of the family, and found she shared no DNA with her cousin on her father’s side. She consulted the help of genealogists she met on a yahoo group (DNA-newbie.) With their help and research she was able to confirm that her father, born September 23, 1913 at the Fordham Hospital in the Bronx of New York City was indeed switched at birth.
Since then Plebuch and her siblings have diligently searched for her father’s birth family and the lost Irish son who was switched with her father. Alice and her sister, Gerry Wiggins have sifted through hundreds of leads and thousands of DNA matches.
Jim Collins, her brother, developed an iPad app DNAMatch to assist in the search for his Father’s family. He has since sold hundreds of apps to folks also looking for lost relatives.
“I saw the gigantic spreadsheets my sister was working with and I knew there had to be a better way,” said Collins who is a mobile app developer for Stellaractive of Portland. “DNAMatch4 the iPad replaces large cumbersome spreadsheets, narrows down matches and makes matches easier to visualize.”
“I created DNAMatch to help my sisters with our search for missing relatives, but it can be used by Jewish families searching for family scattered by the holocaust, adoptees and of course genealogists.”
Collins warns that DNAMatch is a small part of true search. “There is still a lot of detective work that needs to happen to find lost relatives,” said Collins who encourages people to read his documentation at DNAMatch4iPad and on the iTunes store before purchasing the app (the app sells for $7.99 at the iTunes Store).
Plebuch and her siblings are following up on thousands of leads and DNA matches. They know their relatives were Russian most likely from the Ukraine or Belarus. The closest matches that she has found are unfortunately two men without knowledge of their family tree, an adoptee and another man whose mother was a black market baby.
“It will just take time and more people testing their DNA, but in time we will find our missing relatives,” said Plebuch.
So how does it feel to grow up Irish Catholic and learn in your mid sixties that you are Ashkenazi Jew of Russian decent?
“From my point of view, I don’t feel Jewish. I still feel Irish,” said Collins. “It’s difficult to put into words. It gives you a bit of a strange feeling because you’re not really who you thought you were.”
Plebuch admits that she has made good friends with a number of Jewish contacts who have helped her with the search and on a recent trip to Warsaw she found herself crying at a visit to a war memorial for the holocaust. “It surprised me,” said Plebuch. “I felt personally connected to it.”
Collins thinks that his father would approve of the search for his birth family. “He wasn’t always that happy with his family, I think he would want to know. Though it doesn’t change who he was, it just adds to his rather interesting and amazing story.”
James Patrick Collins was born the youngest of three children to John and Katie Collins. His mother died when he was 9 months old, and his father placed James and his brother in an orphanage run by the Catholic nuns. Note: Plebuch did extensive research on his placement into the orphanage and confirmed there was no chance he was switched at the orphanage. James’ life in the orphanage was difficult and bleak. Though he was bright, one of the nuns did not allow him to complete high school because he had broken a statue in a fight with another boy.
James often referred to his “misspent youth” in New York City where he made a living as a pool shark and a bookie, running numbers all over the city including the local NYPD. His brother-in-law, a New York Police officer, warned James that the FBI was coming after him and James left New York City and joined the Civil Conservation Corps and later the army.
His sergeant recommended that the army test James after he skillfully showed the sergeant how to move caissons from one location to another in a fraction of the normal time. The army tested James twice because they thought he must have cheated on the first test. Both tests showed he was a math genius and James completed his education at West Point. Thus began his career in the army, where he specialized in explosives, became a sharp shooter and taught the troops at West Point. He served in WWII and the Korean War. Along the way, he met an Irish Catholic girl, Alice Nisbet, and started a family that grew to seven children, 14 grandchildren and countless great grandchildren.
In the 1950s, he moved the family to California and worked as a correctional officer in Soledad, which at the time was one of the toughest prisons in the country at the time. The beloved Father and Grandfather died at age 85 years old. To celebrate his 100th birthday last year, the Collins clan held a family reunion in San Francisco, and sibling Gerry Wiggins presented each family a stained glass ornament with a Star of David and a shamrock in the center.
(Top photo: Irish Jewish Museum, Flickr)
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