A DNA test up­ended my iden­tity

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY KATI MARTON Kati Marton’s lat­est book is “True Be­liever: Stalin’s Last Amer­i­can Spy.”

My daugh­ter gave me a DNA-test kit for Christ­mas. I du­ti­fully spat in the vial pro­vided and mailed the con­tents to an­ces­try.com. A few days ago, I re­ceived the shock­ing result: I am half Euro­pean Jewish, half An­glo-Ir­ish. This is sur­pris­ing news, con­sid­er­ing my sis­ter re­cently did a sim­i­lar test that found her to be of 89 per­cent Euro­pean Jewish stock. How could two sis­ters be of such dra­mat­i­cally dif­fer­ent an­ces­tries? My Jewish half made per­fect sense: My Hun­gar­ian mother and father were both Jewish. When did the An­glo-Ir­ish strand in­fil­trate my DNA?

It was the sec­ond time I was shocked by my iden­tity. At age 30, while in­ter­view­ing a Hun­gar­ian woman res­cued by Swedish Holo­caust hero Raoul Wal­len­berg, I learned that my fam­ily was not Ro­man Catholic — as I had been led to be­lieve — but Jewish. More painfully, I learned my grand­par­ents had per­ished not un­der the Al­lies’ bombs — as I had been told — but in the gas cham­bers of Auschwitz.

This rev­e­la­tion was a source of pride, and re­lief, too, at be­ing in pos­ses­sion of my fam­ily his­tory. It drew me back to the home­land I left as a small child. Hun­gary’s vi­o­lent, hate-filled his­tory be­came the sub­ject of sev­eral of my books. For my par­ents, it was a dif­fer­ent mat­ter. They were part of a gen­er­a­tion of se­cret-keep­ers, with much to for­get. They had twice suf­fered as a result of their iden­tity. First, as Jews in anti-Semitic Hun­gary, where they barely sur­vived the Ar­row Cross reign of ter­ror. Then, in the 1950s, they were la­beled En­e­mies of the Peo­ple (a la­bel in­vented not by Stephen K. Bannon or Don­ald Trump, but by Joseph Stalin) and jailed as “Amer­i­can spies” for the crime of be­ing brave re­porters who sup­ported the West dur­ing the Cold War. For my mother and father, iden­tity was a mine­field, and Amer­ica was their last chance.

Now, thanks to an­ces­try.com, my own iden­tity is again shad­owed. Was my beloved father not my bi­o­log­i­cal father? If not, who was? Search­ing dusty files of let­ters crisp with age, I found a copy of a let­ter (the original is in the Bu­dapest se­cret po­lice ar­chives) that my father had writ­ten my mother from jail. “Your only goal must be to leave with the chil­dren,” he in­structs my mother, un­aware that she was by then an in­mate in the same max­i­mum-se­cu­rity prison in Bu­dapest. “Mathew Crosse should come and marry you. Your re­spon­si­bil­ity for the chil­dren and for your­self is to leave me.” Heart­break­ingly brave words, but who is this Mathew Crosse? Might he be the source of my 50 per­cent An­glo-Ir­ish blood? Should I search for him? If I were to find an English­man who vis­ited Bu­dapest in the late 1940s — or his off­spring — what then?

All day I walked around in a fog of dis­be­lief. I felt un­moored. But my fam­ily stayed calmly in char­ac­ter. My sis­ter cheered that we had cause to cel­e­brate St. Pa­trick’s Day on Fri­day. My an­a­lyt­i­cal son and daugh­ter sug­gested we do a DNA redo, us­ing a dif­fer­ent com­pany. True Amer­i­cans — An­glo-Ir­ish Cana­dian in ad­di­tion to Hun­gar­ian — they knew who their grand­fa­ther was: Papa, who barely sur­vived the fevered iden­tity pol­i­tics of his Hun­gar­ian youth but taught all of us to ski and play ten­nis (though he failed mis­er­ably at teach­ing us to fence). His proud­est achieve­ment was not his ca­reer of stel­lar jour­nal­ism but lead­ing us to sanc­tu­ary in the United States.

In a cou­ple of weeks, my fam­ily will cel­e­brate the day a refugee trans­port brought my par­ents, my sis­ter and me — along with hun­dreds of other Hun­gar­i­ans — to Camp Kilmer, N.J., in 1957. I was the youngest refugee, and it was my birth­day. The Marine who “pro­cessed” me no­ticed this and pro­duced the gift of a sil­ver dol­lar. I still have it.

My an­ces­try.com shock lifted the next morn­ing. Re­gard­less of the ac­cu­racy of this test, I know who I am. Fam­ily is about more than DNA. Iden­tity used as a weapon of ex­clu­sion leads to hate, and once be­fore it led to ashes gust­ing from Europe’s fac­to­ries of death.

Why search for clues to an English­man who may or may not be my bi­o­log­i­cal father? Why redo a DNA test? I know who my father was, and I know who I am. I am Papa’s Amer­i­can daugh­ter.

Of far greater con­cern than my own, is our coun­try’s DNA to­day. Would a lit­tle girl ar­riv­ing af­ter an even more per­ilous jour­ney still be greeted with a smile and a sil­ver dol­lar?

THOMAS KIENZLE/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A chemist puts DNA sam­ples into test tubes in a lab­o­ra­tory in Stuttgart, Ger­many, in 2005.

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