Case Studies

INTERVIEW: DNA analysis reconnects murdered victims of communism with their family, 23. November 2019

We met Rafał Michliński from the Institute of National Remembrance of Poland at the international Conference "Necropolis of Communist Terror". The work he is doing has a great value for remembrance and historical science - Rafał and his colleagues are dealing with the identification of the remains of victims of communism in Poland. Using DNA, researchers are able to connect remains of murdered victims to their living loved ones. 

Rafał Michliński. Picture:

CC.ORG: My first question is a bit more general: where do you work, what is your department working on and why did you become a part of this organisation?

R.M.: I work for the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) in Poland. I work in the Identification Department in the Office of Search and Identification. Why? Because I feel it is very important to honour the victims of totalitarian regimes in Poland.

Can you tell me a bit more about the organisation and its history? For how long has it existed?

In the very beginning there was a commission for the investigation of Nazi crimes. Later, over many years, other branches came together to form the IPN, the Institute of National Remembrance, the main commission of establishing crimes against the Polish nation in general. We now have over 2000 people in the whole institution, in every single voivodeship (a regional area in Poland – ed.) there is a regional chapter. We work as a central office in Warsaw and cooperate with similar institutions in other countries.

What are your main tasks and methods?                                                                                                                    

We are trying to finish the unknown stories of people who vanished. What we actually do is find out about the circumstances, such as why and when they got lost and what happened next, how they died etc. In general, we are looking for the victims of communism. For example, there are no documents about the underground soldiers who were killed, no relations to put together the whole story. We are trying to find the exact place where people were buried, then research the documents proving their identity, carry out DNA profiling to make sure that the person’s identity is correct. That way we can give them real names, since they were buried as unknown soldiers, killed somewhere in a forest or in prison.

How many people, according to Polish historians, vanished during communist repressions in Poland?

It’s very difficult to give an exact number. There are many sources and different historians count this in a different way. In general, there were approximately 1 million who died during the WWII, and focusing on the time of Communism, there were about 100 000 total who died or disappeared.

Can you describe a classic case: you know that somewhere near a small city is a place where someone, a victim of the communist regime, could be buried. What kind of chain of events follows if you have the resources to go there? What do you do?

First of all, we have to find proof in documents and find a possibility to investigate in the soil. Therefore, the first thing we do is research in the archives. If the place was shown by some relatives to other people, who have in turn shared this memory with us by showing us the site, it has to be investigated by the archaeologists. If bodies or skeletons appear, an anthropologist must be called, who has to do their part of the job.

Do you personally also go somewhere with your team and participate in excavations?

Yes. We excavate and search for the remains. After taking them from the ground we also take the DNA from the skeletons. If we already have some information about the identity of the person we have found, then we match it with the DNA of the relatives. The DNA from the relatives is sent to the laboratory and then we wait for the results. Afterwards, if the results are positive, we call the families. Twice a year, an identification conference takes place at the Presidential Palace in Warsaw, where the names of the victims we have found are made public.

How are analyses of the DNA and the search for the match carried out? Do you use partners from outside your organisation?

Yes. They are done by our partners. It depends on the situation and on the material provided by the relatives. Sometimes you have to make an empty DNA profiling in the case of matching from son to father. It depends as every single case has a different way of profiling in searching for the right connection, but it’s the lab’s job to find it.

In order to connect the remains with their living family members, you first need to have the DNA of the living person. Does it mean that people have to actually reach out to you and give their DNA sample? How do you motivate people to come to the organisation and give a piece of their private information? Not everyone wants to give out their genetic information.

There is a huge need in Polish society to give real names to the people who were killed in WWII and during the time of Communism. Many of the families are still waiting for their relatives who are actually still lost. One of the things they can do to find them in such a case is to give their DNA. They are highly motivated and know exactly what will happen to their DNA and what how we’ll deal with it. They are guaranteed privacy. In some cases, they can be seen in on social media, where we share our results if people have been identified. This motivates others to give their DNA to do the same with their lost family members.

How many times a year are you able to tell a relative that we have found your granddad or dad, please come and get the certificate?

We have to go back to the beginning of the process, because of the two main obstacles. When we have found a skeleton, we either don’t have the documents to prove the name, or we have no information about any living relatives to carry out the DNA identification. Every year, we get many calls from people, asking us to provide the paperwork or save their DNA; altogether about 250-300 calls a year. In general, people are willing to give us their DNA.

How many people are reconnected with the remains of their loved ones?

So far, since the founding of our department of research and identification in 2016, we have made about 150 identifications. We match the DNA of the relatives with the remains we have found. About 10-15% of the bodies have been identified in the past years.

Can you remember what you or your colleagues have heard from the relatives who get the news? If there is a 100% match, what kind of reactions or emotions do you usually hear?

It’s a very touching moment and very hard to explain. What we hear is that people are grateful. Obviously it’s very a sensitive moment – they were waiting for their brothers, fathers, grandfathers for many years, sometimes more than 50 or 60 years, so it’s very touching. Some people actually don’t believe that it has happened. They were waiting for a long time and finally, usually our boss, professor Szwagrzyk calls them and tells them that we finally have your father or grandfather. And it’s worth it. I can say that the whole process, the archival, archaeological, anthropological and genetic investigation, the whole process is worth the time when we hear a “thank you” from the relatives in the end.

How does time influence your work? Let’s imagine that in 50 years a great-great-great-grandchild comes looking for his relatives and there’s documents that prove that they are related. Are you able to carry out the same research in 50 years time or is it already too far in the chain of generations to make a concrete match?

I believe it would still work, but it’s a question of having a specialist in genetics. However, as science is still developing and we are gaining the DNA profiles from the relatives, anything could happen in the coming years. For example, we can see how in the last 10 years we have been able to investigate by matching the remains we have found with the DNA of the relatives.

Sometimes you must end up at a site with no remains to be found and yet you have still contributed all the hard work and time there. How do you overcome the motivation crises when you see an empty excavation site?

Even if the ground was empty, it still proves that this place is not the one we are looking for. There are many chances and many other places in close proximity that we are still able to work on, so we never give up when we couldn’t find a body we were looking for in that exact place. We are just moving on to the next investigation. Nothing has gone wrong; we have just spent our time and energy.

What do you think about international cooperation in your field? Today (7 November 2019), we are having a conversation during a break at the International Conference “Necropolis of Communist Terror” in Tallinn. How do you view the work of your colleagues from other countries?

We are very thankful that we could participate in the International Conference of the Necropolis of Communist Terror. It’s a great idea to cooperate with other institutes and organisations from Europe and around the world. For example we cooperate with colleagues from Georgia, we are looking for the victims of terror from the Stalin era (1937-1938). Our crew has been there three times so far to help and to share our experience. There is a great need to cooperate, to gather, to learn from others’ experiences and compare the ways we can deal with our current problems. Every small step, that helps us get together as post-communist societies who are still looking for the victims with the aim of helping people who are searching for their family members, is good and worth the effort.

How do you look upon the general level of knowledge about the crimes of communism in the world? What sorts of problems do you see in this regard?

Your question is actually the answer. In general, as we discussed before, many people don’t see anything wrong with communism. That’s the problem. There are some, who say that it was ok, there might have been some victims but actually the system was not as bad as people say. What makes me happy is the fact that many young people are reading books and looking for information, visiting museums, participating in conferences, going through documents as they are interested in this history and about what really happened in the time of communism in the Baltic countries and in Central Europe. So generally the level of knowledge is growing, many people are interested in what really happened during Communism. It’s a good thing to find the truth even if it is a very sad story.

Nowadays, not many people care about the crimes of Napoléon or other atrocities of the distant past. Is there a similar destiny for the experience of communist dictatorships, if democracy will continue and there is nothing destroying free societies, will we simply stop visiting memorials in 50 years and stop this research or do you disagree with this?

It’s a challenge for us and the next generation, it’s your job and mine, it’s the job of all of our colleagues who have come together from all over Europe and the world to show and prove that what happened was wrong and to learn from the past, to make sure that this history of totalitarian regimes does not repeat itself in our countries.      

Do you have a personal connection with this topic? Did someone from your family suffer due to communist terror?

No. Personally, I have no relations affected by the communist terror. Actually, the brother of my grandfather died in Auschwitz. It’s a different totalitarian regime, but the story is still alive among the members of my family. And that’s it. It’s a very sad story and very touching for us. We honour that person and commemorate him very often. For us he’s a symbol of this very sad past.

You are familiar with the comparison of the Nazi and Communist regimes. Sometimes people are saying that one was worse and the other not as bad. How do you react when you here such things?

The first thing is to have a conversation with those people. However, I personally think that both were actually the same, because they also collaborated at some point. Both regimes killed many people and did many wrong things to our societies. It’s therefore impossible to say which regime was better or worse, because both of them were just as bad.