DNA Success Story: The Varnovati Family and the Maharal of Prague

Guest Post By Mike Gerver

A few months ago, I got an email from Herb Huebscher, head of the WIRTH family group which is organized through FamilyTreeDNA. The group members have a common ancestor who lived in the 1500s. Some time before, they had gotten the idea, somehow (Herb didn't explain how) that they might be descended from the brother of the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Sinai ben Betzalel (1508-1607).

They managed to find Zeev Eshkolot who had a pedigree on the patrilineal line going back to this Rabbi Sinai, and he agreed to have his Y-chromosome tested. It was not a match for anyone in the WIRTH group, but it did match several other families in the FamilyTreeDNA database, including a family called Varnovati. If this fellow was really descended from the Maharal's brother (and it would be nice to have another patrilineal descendant of the Maharal's family to confirm that), then the Varnovatis and the Maharal had a common ancestor who probably lived in the 1300s or 1400s.

It is just possible then that the Varnovatis are directly descended from the Maharal or his brother. Herb decided to organize a Maharal group through FamilyTreeDNA to explore these questions, and invited me and members of other matching families to join.

Just who were these Varnovatis? Let me tell you a short tale about them and how I come to be related to them and therefore how I came to experience a DNA success story.

My grandmother's name was Lena Woronoff Gerver. She had one brother, Nachman, who remained in Ukraine, after the rest of her family came to America. Many years ago, I noticed that one of his daughters signed her name, Chaya Varnovataya, in Russian, on the back of a picture she sent to her grandmother in America. I had wondered whether this was her married name, or, whether Varnovati was the original family name.

A couple of years ago, I finally followed up on this when I decided to fill out some Pages of Testimony at Yad Vashem for my great uncle Nachman's family. I wanted to make sure I had their family name right. So, I tried searching for "Varnovati" in the New York passenger arrival records which had recently been put online.

Up to then, I had never been able to find the arrival records of my grandmother’s family listed under Woronoff, but they showed up right away under the name "Warnowate," which is how “Varnovati” would be spelled by officials in the German port that they sailed from. They were listed in the right year and with the right names and ages of everyone in the family. It was definitely my grandmother's family.

Once I knew the family’s original name, I started searching on JewishGen for Varnovatis. In addition to my grandmother's brother Nachman, whose entire family had been killed in the Holocaust, I knew my grandmother had one uncle, her father Israel's brother Shlomo Varnovati. He had remained in Ukraine, but our families hadn't kept in touch after my grandmother's family came to America in 1905. I think the two brothers didn't get along very well. I was happy to find some references to a Shlomo Varnovati of about the right age in some records on JewishGen. In addition, some of his descendents appeared to have survived the war.

My next step was to look in the JewishGen Family Finder (JGFF) and there I found someone named Viktorya Urovish, who was researching the surname of Varnovati. I e-mailed her and she didn't answer. A year later, I e-mailed her again, and this time she did answer. I thought she might be a descendent of Shlomo, but we eventually decided she couldn't be. However, both families had connections to Odessa. Since the name Varnovati had turned out to be so rare, I felt sure we must be related somehow.

Recently, Viktorya had gotten her father, Ilya, to do a Y-chromosome test. Ilya’s last name was Gurevich, not Varnovati, but that was only because his father, Abram Varnavati, had changed his name to Mikhail Gurevich in the 1930s, to stay one step ahead of the KGB. Did I have anyone to test, so we could tell if we were related? As I was descended from a female Varnovati, I could not be tested.

Therefore, I had to locate direct male Varnovati descendants. There were only three living men on my side of the family with the Varnovati Y-chromosome. One was my father's first cousin Israel Woronoff, named after my great-grandfather, who was 82. I hadn't known him growing up, but had been in touch with him years earlier to gather family tree information. Another was his son. The third was a second cousin, whom I had never met or been in touch with, and I didn't know how to get in touch with him. If I ever did find him, I thought it would be quite awkward to ask him to do a DNA test.

Fortunately, I was able to find the e-mail address of Israel Woronoff, and he was amenable to doing the DNA test. He did a 12 marker test to begin with and he was a perfect match to Viktorya's father! Meanwhile, Viktorya got in touch with a cousin of her father, who remembered that his father had cousins who lived in Talnoye, the same town that my grandmother’s uncle Shlomo lived in. We're still not sure exactly how we are related, but it seems most likely that Viktorya and I are fourth cousins, with a common ancestor who was born about 1800.

So, returning to the Varnovatis’ relationship to the Maharal of Prague, Israel Woronoff agreed to have the test upgraded to 67 markers, so that we could get a better idea of how the different members of the Maharal group are related. Apparently, they have a common ancestor, probably an Ashkenazic Jew, born probably between 1000 and 1300. Zeev Eshkolot’s branch probably splits off from the Varnovati branch between 1300 and 1500, though it could possibly be even later, after the Maharal's brother was born.

I guess it's beginner's luck, but it is amazing that, after testing a Y-chromosome of one of my ancestors for the first time, I turn out to be (again, assuming the accuracy of that pedigree) related to the Maharal of Prague! The story doesn't end there. Although this was the first DNA test done on my family, a Y-chromosome test was done at the request of a relative of my wife's many years ago. In fact, that relative was none other than Bennett Greenspan, founder of FamilyTreeDNA, and my wife's second cousin once removed. He was related to my wife on the Nitz side.

About 20 years ago, he had found a Nitz family in Argentina who had also lived in Ekaterinoslav, as my wife's Nitz family did. Bennett found a lab willing to do a Y-chromosome test, and located a known Nitz cousin of his in the United States, and a Nitz from the Argentina family, who were willing to supply samples. They were a perfect match. As a result of that, Bennett got very interested in genealogical genetics, and went on to found FamilyTreeDNA.

Long after that I moved to Israel. One day in shul, I was talking to a friend, Henry Sinai, and discovered that he was also very interested in genealogy. I had mentioned to him that Bennett Greenspan was my wife's cousin, and he told me that he shared the Nitz Y-chromosome that had led Bennett to found FamilyTreeDNA. He had speculated to me about his theory that his family name, Sinai, came from the first name of the Maharal's brother.

Naturally, as soon as I got that first e-mail from Herb Huebscher about the Maharal connection, I excitedly told Henry about it, and he said, "I know Herb!" It turned out that the Nitz family and Henry Sinai were part of the WIRTH group. It was Henry's idle speculation about the origin of his family name that led them to test the Y-chromosome of a known descendent of the Maharal's brother Sinai. So, if it weren't for my friend Henry, I would never have discovered the possible Maharal connection.

As to Viktorya, she and I are in regular e-mail contact, talking about these things. We haven't managed to meet in person yet, but since she lives in New York, and I get there regularly to see my family, I'm sure we will before long.


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