How a Genealogist, DNA and BeenVerified Helped Solve a Family Mystery

How a Genealogist, DNA and BeenVerified Helped Solve a Family Mystery
Photo courtesy of Troy Pappas

Amy Young
November 11, 2020

For more than a decade, BeenVerified has been helping people search for information about others. But sometimes, when combined with DNA analysis and smart detective work, the service can help people try to discover more about themselves, too. If you’re interested in having us try to help with your genealogy/family research, please fill out this form.

Troy Pappas, an athletic director and father of three in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, set out to find his biological father with Ken Waters—a consulting genetic genealogist at Family Tree AZ, in Mesa, Arizona.

Here’s how their quest unfolded, in their own words.

A family secret revealed

Troy Pappas: When I was a child, I asked my mother why I had green eyes when the rest of the family had brown eyes. She said a distant aunt had green eyes, and I believed her.

Still, there were other clues that there was more to my family tree. I remember hearing my grandparents argue about whether “we should tell him.” Many years later, when I was collecting documentation required by an assisted living facility for my mother, she screamed at me. “You have no right to dig into my past,” she said.

It wasn’t until 2015 that my sister told me a secret she couldn’t keep any longer: Before my mother died in 2013, she told my sister our father, Jim Pappas, was not my biological father.

I went numb. She said my biological father was a French pilot Mom met in Paris while on vacation from her job at Pan Am Airways. I called my brother, and he said our father had told him 20 years ago he wasn’t my real father. I called my father’s sister. She knew about the pilot, too, and actually met him. My mother’s parents also knew about it.

A DNA test furthers the mystery

Troy: I took an Ancestry DNA test. Even though the man who raised me was Greek, the results showed that I didn’t have a drop of Greek in me. Half of me was eastern European. The other half was German near the French border. My mother left me a mystery. When the pandemic started and we were spending a lot of time at home, I decided to solve it.

Ken Waters: If you’re told a particular family story, and that story is shared over and over again by relatives, you tend to believe it—until you take a DNA test and you’re blown away. It’s a cliché, but DNA doesn’t lie.

Direct-to-consumer DNA tests, like the one Troy took, take a saliva sample and analyze your genetic makeup to provide information on your ethnic heritage. After examining the results, I found that even though Troy was told by his relatives that his father was a French pilot and that he was part Greek, neither of these facts ring true. His biological father came from eastern European Jewish roots, most likely near the area of Vilnius, Lithuania, to Lida, Belarus. This was based on ancestral searching for the Jewish lines of interest.

Troy: I was shocked by his findings. I was not French-German, as I long thought. I was Russian-German.

Ken: People typically don’t realize this, but the list of possible people related to you who have had a DNA test is voluminous. If your family has been in this country for many generations, then you may have 20,000 or 30,0000 people listed in your results, including fifth, sixth and seventh cousins. I’m interested in the close ones—the first and second cousins. These are the relatives that always share the most DNA.

The detective work begins

Ken: DNA tests use centimorgans to measure the strength of genetic links. The higher the value, the likelier the match.

I started looking at the closest genetic matches. If there are children out there, they will pop out. But when you get down to cousins and cousins once removed, there will be strong indications—high centimorgans—but no proof.

So you have to do the legwork. The work, especially in this case, is made even more difficult with changes in names and spellings of a particular family line over time. For instance, one strong match, Abraham Zackowitz, had changed his name to Alli Zach. Realizing this change was a breakthrough that opened many new pieces of evidence. Spelling variations on his surname included Zechowitz, Zeckowitz, Zack and Zach. The Jackowitz name was also a challenge as it was shown as Jacowitz, Jackowitz, Jakowitz and Zachowitz. The sheer difficulty in following up with certain individuals clued us that a name change may have been involved.

The real art is when you have five people related to each other. They’re all cousins and aunts. And you start asking: What if this person is the son of this one? And what if these two people were the sons of that one? You start putting the pieces together.

I go to public records, including birth records. I use BeenVerified to identify people, relying heavily on a category called “Relatives.” More often than not, from there, I’d be able to pick up on who a person’s parents are. For Troy, I was able to eliminate all the names that were obviously maternal.

Related: Long-lost brothers, reunited by DNA

When you’re building a family tree, you have to be careful of confirmation bias. That’s when you think you found the answer and then you start looking only at clues to support it and disregarding the ones that don’t. It’s natural to want everything to line up, but if it doesn’t, you have to backtrack. At one point we had spent a lot of time on one person who seemed a good fit, but only after stepping back and looking at the big picture, did it become obvious that we had to refocus my search on another line.

Troy: My family thought I was obsessed, but I felt that time was of the essence, and the people we wanted to contact were getting older. I often found myself staying up past midnight to work on this project.

Ken: I’ve found that working on genealogical projects—this one in particular—is like reading a detective novel. It’s hard to put down.

Ken: We dug into US Census records as far as 1920, which showed, for instance, that 28-year-old David Zechowitz and his wife, 26-year-old Pauline, had immigrated to the United States from Russia in 1904 and became naturalized in 1915. Census records show in 1920 they had a 7-year-old son, Abraham, and lived in Kings County, New York. By 1940, Abraham had a wife, Sylvia, and a 2-year-old son, Stanley. About two years later, he registered for the draft from the Bronx.

Looking back to the 1930 Census, I saw that Sylvia—at the time, age 12—was the daughter of Israel Zemsky and Mary Zemsky, both of whom also immigrated from Russia. Sylvia had a 15-year-old brother, Harry, and a 5-year-old brother, Seymour, all born in Brooklyn, New York.

I carefully divided the top DNA matches into the two obvious family lines: Zemsky and Zachowitz, and the rest of the clan. I then analyzed the DNA strength levels that led me to believe that Troy’s father was either a son of Abraham Zachowitz and Sylvia Zemsky or the son of Seymour Zemsky.

By further analyzing the DNA strength levels, I concluded that Troy’s grandparents were probably Abraham and Sylvia.

Related: How to find your birth parents

Mother was wrong about the French pilot?

Troy: Ken had the name and location of my closest DNA match—Steve Zemsky, a second cousin in a Baltimore suburb. I tracked down his information and called him. Amazingly, he decided to help me in my search. He was a former economist with the US Treasury and was used to tracking down information. Ken, Steve and I scoured immigration, marriage, property, military and death records.

We found and contacted more relatives, and many were willing to share stories with me. I have found over the years that a friendly, genuine introduction works well, and I also shared the information I had gathered from my own search, new paternal relatives and Ken’s efforts. My sincere, family-oriented approach worked. In total to date, 12 members of my paternal family have reached out to me—by email, phone, Facebook and even LinkedIn.

The original family story, though—about a French pilot—did not pan out. I think now that my mother had a relationship with my biological father and then soon after had a relationship with a French pilot. She incorrectly thought that the pilot was my biological father. But I’ll never know for sure.

Ken: Based on the findings, there is a very strong indication that Troy’s biological father was Stanley Paris Zack, who was born in New York in 1937 and was originally named Stanley Zechowitz. With the help of a yearbook photo, we saw that he was at the University of Florida in 1957. In 1959, he was known to have dated at least one Pan Am stewardess, who became his first wife. Around that time, Troy’s mother was also working as a stewardess for Pan Am.

With the help of BeenVerified, we also found the last known address of Stanley Zack to be Boca Raton, Florida. He died in April 2014 in Orange County, California.

Meeting my new family

Troy: This process was an emotional rollercoaster for me. We found promising leads where backstories and DNA analysis commingled—just to find out that our hunches were not right. I was relieved when I finally learned who my father was. I was thankful that his relatives shared stories about him. I was glad that Ken and a paternal relative shared pictures of him with me. I will never know if he knew I even existed. I suspect that he did not. I will never know how he knew my mother. But I do know the answers to the two questions I set out to find. My children wanted to know their paternal heritage. It’s Russian Jewish. I wanted to know who my biological father was. Now I know.

With this new awareness, I am even more thankful for the man I knew as my father my whole life. He married my mother fully knowing that she was five months pregnant and carrying the child of another man. He raised me as his own son—a magnificent show of love. And I’m thankful to my sister and brother. Their love and support never wavered when they learned that I was really their half-brother. To me, they are my brother and sister, no half about it.

It’s a very small world some days. I now have a 90-year-old aunt 10 minutes away from me. Another aunt and her family lived a couple of miles away from me in Connecticut. In high school on Long Island, NY, I ran a track race against someone who turned out to be my cousin.

I also learned that one of my relatives won a Tony for best Broadway play, and another relative who performed on Bruce Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball” album. Interestingly, my paternal grandfather—who changed his name from Abraham Zechowitz to Allie Zack—was a boxer in New York City.

No, I didn’t get to meet my biological father. But I ended up discovering others—and was introduced to a large, colorful, candid paternal family I didn’t even know I had.

Disclaimer: The above is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.