The Arizona Republic
Oct. 14, 2006 12:00 AM
Before 2004 and the growing popularity of commercial DNA testing, Duane Gerstenberger flipped through telephone books and randomly called people with his last name.
The Russians burned all his family's history records shortly after the Holocaust. Yet he felt a desperate need to map out his family tree.
"I started getting into census records and stuff like that, and I just instantly got hooked on genealogy," said the retired Army doctor from Sun City West.
"It's like a mystery."
For Gerstenberger, finding his distant cousins literally was a puzzle.
He could trace his ancestry back only as far as his grandfather. He started digging in phone books and library basements and soon began writing a book cataloguing all American families with the surname Gerstenberger.
"I couldn't tie any of these families together even though four of them came from the same area, Silesia, in Poland, " he said.
"Two of the families came from only 10 kilometers apart . . . I just thought, 'They got to be related,' " he said.
The turn of the millennium brought an answer to Gerstenberger's problem. Around that time, a handful of private DNA testing companies sprung up across the U.S., specifically for the purpose of DNA genealogy tracking.
Gerstenberger quickly got in line.
He soon made DNA connections between most of the American Gerstenbergers. He also found that Arlo Gerstenberger of Denver, a man he found by pointing his finger to a name under Gerstenberger in the phone book, was a distant cousin of his.
Duane made a hardbound keepsake of his family tree and helped organize the first-ever worldwide Gerstenberger reunion in the surname's area of origin - Gerstenberg, Germany. For three years, about 70 Gerstenbergers worldwide have attended the annual family reunion. The clan is also in the process of starting its own foundation and creating an extensive networking Web site.
Duane credits DNA testing for making it all happen.
Thousands of people on a similar quest are also seeking the help of commercial DNA testing companies.
Now, some companies are starting to build extensive "DNA libraries" with the results collected from labs. Anyone can have their DNA tested and see how many "matches" are in a database.
Another popular service is conducting a surname study. That is where families with similar last names, but of different spellings, check to see if they are somehow related. For example the surname Smith may have changed over hundreds of years to either Smyth or Smythe; or Combs may have changed to Coombs or Cobbs. Commercial DNA testing can track the relation.
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