Four days after her grandfather passed away, Israel-based Natasha Kirtchuk, an ILTV Channel news anchor and recent Duke alumna, went back to work to try to take her mind off her grief. 

Business seemed as usual. 

Kirtchuk, Trinity '14, was tasked with covering a Jan. 15, 2017 story about a pendant found in Sobidor death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland that looked just like that of Holocaust diarist Anne Frank. Researchers concluded the pendant—engraved with “Mazel Tov,” or “good luck” in Hebrew—belonged to Karoline Cohn, a teenager who was killed in the Holocaust. Experts now wonder if the Cohn and Frank were linked. 

Then one phone call changed everything.

It turns out Kirtchuk was reporting on her own relative—Cohn was her grandfather’s first cousin. “Armchair genealogist” Chaim Motzen saw the story and found Cohn’s family, so he called Kirtchuk and more than 100 others to notify them. Kirtchuk knew she had German-Jewish heritage, but didn’t know much about her family because her grandfather had a tough upbringing and didn’t talk much about it. 

“I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it. It’s not something that happens to a human being,” Kirtchuk said. “I knew that I had German roots, especially on my mother’s side, but I didn’t really understand the extent of my German-Jewish identity until I got that phone call.”

Motzen, who contacted Cohn's family about the pendant, wasn’t just a random viewer. A Nobel Peace Prize nominee for bringing solar energy to Rwanda, Motzen’s grandparents were Holocaust survivors. His grandmother lost all photos of his grandfather in the Holocaust, and asked Motzen to find a picture, which is how he learned to trace genealogy—something he now pursues in his spare time. 

His work ended up bringing together an entire family that Kirtchuk never knew existed. Nearly 30 of the family members came together in a reunion in Frankfurt, Germany, where Cohn lived before she was sent to the concentration camp. 

Some of the family members didn’t even know they were Jewish until they got Motzen’s phone call—one was raised Christian and even became a pastor. Another lived in the same neighborhood as Kirtchuk, unbeknownst to both of them. 

“She took control in the last few minutes of her life,” Kirtchuk said in a video documenting her experience. “She left her pendant to unite her family.”

At the reunion, Kirtchuk also met her grandfather’s third cousin, Holocaust survivor Ernie Heineman, with whom she felt a special bond. 

“In many senses, I connected the most with Ernie, because he was grandfather’s age and I was raw with emotion after grandfather’s passing,” Kirtchuk said. “It was interesting to meet someone who was my grandfather’s age but had such a different life experience simply because his family hadn’t gotten out of Germany in time. It was really touching to be able to see what could have been for the rest of my family.” 

During the reunion, the family also visited the last home Cohn lived in voluntarily in Frankfurt before she was sent to the concentration camp and paid their respects. The entire experience helped strengthen Kirtchuk’s German-Jewish identity and gave her a great new family, she said. 

“The people that I met I will probably be in contact with the rest of my life,” Kirtchuk said. “I had an immediate connection with everyone I met there. It was very surreal but there was an actual family connection, which is weird to stay. It will be long-lasting.”

Kirtchuk had always been connected to her Jewish identity—she was born in Israel before moving to Argentina. She came back to Israel for six months after high school to do volunteer work before coming to Duke, where she graduated from in 2014 with a Program II degree in a combination of public policy and political science. She worked for WRAL and Fox 5 before returning to Israel in 2015 to anchor ILTV's "Israel Daily" newscast. 

“People like to view Israel as a political issue, but for me, it has always been a home,” Kirtchuk said. “I grew up coming here every year as a child to visit [family]. Israel to me was the beach, ice cream, and parks—normal things in your everyday life. I wasn’t moving here for political reason or to make a point about anything. This story further strengthened my Israeli identity because despite all the political conflict that takes place, there is a need for a state for the Jewish people. My family’s story is a prime example of that.”