Those who compile family trees or take DNA tests are looking for more than just hobbies. They’re searching for a connection to the past, something to provide a firmer sense of identity. In rare cases, they make discoveries that reshape their entire conceptions of their families.

Uri Berliner found the usual sources of family history didn’t do much for him. Everything looked like a dead end. One of his dad’s childhood mementos, however, revealed a familial secret that he never expected…

As a seasoned journalist, Uri Berliner was an expert on a wide array of topics. Yet, he had one blind spot in his knowledge that greatly troubled him: his family history. Uri saw only one possible way to remedy this mystery.

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His father would have to open up. Gert Berliner, now 94 years old, came to the United States in the middle of the 20th century and worked as a photographer. Uri knew that beforehand, he lived in Germany and fled because of the Holocaust. But he never really managed to squeeze any more information out of his dad.

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However, Gert had to face his past when Aubrey Pomerance, an archivist at the Jewish Museum Berlin, asked for an artifact from his childhood in Germany. They were looking for something heartfelt and personal, and Gert’s mind jumped immediately to one object.

Jacobia Dahm / NPR

All Gert’s life, he owned a small toy monkey. There was nothing inherently valuable about the stuffed animal — his son didn’t even know about it — and yet Gert wrestled with the decision for days before deciding to donate it to the museum. Why did it mean so much to him?

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Gert’s parents, Paul and Sophie Berliner, gave it to him when he was just a young boy in Germany. He rode his bicycle around Berlin with the monkey clipped to his bike — until there came a time when he could no longer ride his bike through the streets.

Gert Berliner

The Nazi Party gained more authority in Germany, and they increasingly oppressed Jewish citizens across the country. By 1938, police forces were rounding up entire families and sending them to concentration camps. 

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Paul and Sophie knew they had to get their only son far away. Though they understood that there might not be any hope for their own survival, they heard about ways to save Jewish children. They made one last selfless decision.

Gert’s parents struck a deal with the Kindertransport, a type of Underground Railroad that shuttled vulnerable children out of Germany — but no parents were allowed. Most kids they accepted ended up in England. Gert never made it there.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Instytut Pamieci Narodowej

Instead, the Kindertransport sent Gert to Kalmar, Sweden. He happily spent a couple years there with almost no reminders of his former life, save for his toy monkey. This object remained one of the few ties he had to his family, especially after their letters stopped coming.

Fredrik Daniel Bruno

Gert also carried the stuffed animal with him to New York City at age 22. Utterly alone, he struggled to make it as a photographer, but the monkey helped him think back to happier times.

Earth in the Past

But now that Aubrey asked him to give it up, Gert realized what he had to do. In 2003, he gladly donated the toy to the museum. He knew that it could educate future generations about the experience of the Holocaust. But Gert never expected it to make such a huge impression.

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More than a decade after Gert’s donation, Erika Pettersson and her mother Agneta visited the Jewish museum. One room had a series of boxes with possessions of German children during World War II. They opened only one of the boxes but gasped when they saw what it contained.

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Erika reached out to Uri who, coincidentally, decided to take a trip to Europe to study at the Jewish Museum’s archives and see his father’s monkey for himself. He agreed to meet Erika when she revealed that she had some important information about Gert Berliner.

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You see, Erika’s mother’s maiden named was also Berliner! As it turns out, two of Gert’s cousins also migrated to Sweden through the Kindertransport. However, they lost touch with Gert early on and built new lives in Sweden. Agneta was one of their daughters.

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Uri could barely wrap his head around this idea. He had to meet with Erika and Agneta. Further conversation proved the truth behind all their theories. Uri embraced his long-lost Swedish cousins. He couldn’t wait to tell his father.

When Gert had a photography exhibit on display in Berlin, Uri arranged for Agneta and Erika to meet him in person. Gert, who never had any extended family, at long last found some other Berliners.

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Gert’s health sadly prevented him from visiting all his Swedish relatives, but Uri made the trip for both of them. He celebrated the Swedish holiday of Midsummer Eve, surrounded by friendly faces and good food. Uri’s discoveries about his father’s past didn’t stop there, either.

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Uri also got to meet Claes Furstenberg, the grandson of one of the Swedish families that housed Gert before he immigrated to the United States. Uri and Claes became fast friends, and Uri got even more insight into his father’s early life.

Mary-Elizabeth Gifford

He gained a new perspective about what a godsend Sweden was for his dad, and how much he owed to these strangers. Gert, pictured below in the middle, happily lived with his Swedish step-brothers, one of whom was Claes’ own father.

Uri Berliner

For the Berliners, a small stuffed monkey not only brought a father and son closer together; it also showed them they were not alone in the world. “It’s a gift,” Gert said. “In my old age, I have discovered I have a family.”

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And no one can appreciate finding family in old age more than this Minnesota woman. In her seventies, she had always felt like an outsider even among her closest relatives. When she couldn’t take it anymore, she decided to act on her instincts—and it changed her life.

 Denice Juneski of Eagan, Minnesota, always felt out of place—even among her own family. Why did she feel like she was a stranger? She carried these feelings around for years until one day she couldn’t resist: she finally took a DNA test courtesy of 23andMe.com.

Denice told her family that she was taking the test in order to learn more about her health and well-being. But she secretly hoped it would prove that her suspicions about her place in the family were right…

When the results of Denice’s DNA test returned, she was relieved that she was not suffering from any serious illnesses. However, that wasn’t the only thing she discovered. She finally confirmed what she always knew: she didn’t share DNA with anyone in her family!

Denice decided to take the test again just to be sure—and she got the same results. Those who 23andMe listed as her closest relatives were all complete strangers. Though she suspected this, Denice was still in shock. What she didn’t know was that another woman not too far away was going through a journey very similar to her own…

Hammond, Wisconsin, resident Linda Jourdeans never felt right in her own family, either. She tried to shake the feeling for years, but couldn’t quite manage to keep her unease at bay. There were a litany of reasons she felt like the odd person out.

Growing up, Linda (bottom, right) was often ridiculed for being the only member of the family to have red hair. Linda’s mother, a brunette, was the only other one who stood out in a family of blondes, but that wasn’t enough to make Linda feel less alone. She was singled out constantly.

The differences didn’t stop at hair color, either. Linda was athletic, playing sports like softball into her fifties. Everyone else in her family hated sports of all kind. It was just another difference that made Linda feel isolated and alone growing up.

On the surface, these differences weren’t huge, and Linda knew that her family loved her very much. However, she just couldn’t shake the feeling that she didn’t belong. Meanwhile, back in Hammond, Wisconsin, Denice was still dealing with the fallout from own discovery…

It was tough news to process: “Either 23andMe made a mistake, or I was switched at birth,” Denice said. “I was really supposed to be another person.” It was the kind of news you can never be prepared to receive, but that was only the beginning—these two women would soon realize they were connected…

The two women’s paths finally crossed when one of the people listed as Denice’s relative was discovered to be Linda’s niece. When the niece shared the news of her DNA match with her cousin—Linda’s daughter—Linda wondered if she ought to take a DNA test, too.

For years, Linda and her daughter, Michelle, wondered why she didn’t look like the rest of her family. In fact, Michelle once checked her mother’s birth records at City Hall just to be sure!

When Michelle learned that her cousin had found a new relative in Denice, it was all Linda needed to hear to convince her to take her own test. Without knowing where it might lead, Linda sent her DNA sample to 23andMe…

When Linda received her results, it confirmed all of her suspicions. Next to the word “mother” was a name she’d never seen before: Marianne Meyer. This meant a woman named Marianne had sent her DNA for testing through 23andMe and the site had linked mother and daughter. But who was Marianne?

Marianne (below, left) was the woman who raised Denice! Through 23andMe, Linda and Denice made contact and quickly set up a meeting. Both women were eager to try and sort out how the mix-up came to be. The story was almost too much to believe.

It turned out, both Denice and Linda were born at Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota, on December 19, 1945. They were born only 31 minutes apart and somehow were switched at the hospital. Unfortunately, all of the doctors and nurses at from that day were long gone, and no true record of events existed that could explain the mix-up.

Although the women would never learn how this switch came to be, they didn’t mind at all. In fact, they were grateful to be presented with a whole new family they never expected! For Linda, the discovery was even more touching because the woman who raised her died tragically when Linda was just 17.

Incredibly, Marianne had no idea about the switch that took place at Bethesda Hospital those many years ago. At 99 years of age, Marianne finally got to meet the daughter she gave birth to!

Linda and Denice reacted to their circumstances in the best way possible: with open hearts! The two women, though not related by blood, knew they’d always be linked by their life-altering experience.

The first meeting between Linda and Denice gave them the opportunity to sort though all kinds of memories and discuss all the ways they’d felt like outsiders. That, in itself, was a satisfying conclusion to their story…

After they made their shocking discovery, both women decided to organize a massive family reunion so that their respective families could meet and get to know each other for the very first time!