Anita Smolik holds a framed coy of her father Herbert Smyle’s war photo at her home in Naperville on Thursday. She recently found out a relationship her father had as a soldier during World War II produced a half brother, who now lives in Canada. (Mike Mantucca / Naperville Sun)
Anita Smolik flips through old black-and-white photos of her father in search of clues to her family tree, a tree that recently sprouted an unexpected new branch.
"That’s at my father’s bar mitzvah," she says, pointing to a photograph of 13-year-old Herbert Smyle holding a scroll.
"And this is him Germany. The back says he’s in Berchtesgaden," she says.
The Naperville woman’s genealogy was turned upside down recently when she learned she has a half-brother living six hours away in Ontario, Canada.
A familial match to her DNA was the key that unlocked a mystery that has preoccupied the Canadian family for years.
"It’s like a dream," Smolik said of the circumstances that confirmed the two share the same father.
The flurry of conversations and emails between Smolik, 69, and half-brother James Sloma, 70, started shortly after Smolik’s daughter sent a DNA sample off to Ancestry.com to be analyzed.
Smolik’s daughter, who lives abroad and asked her name not be used, said she had been fascinated by the results a friend received and decided have her DNA tested, too.
Besides providing people with information on their ethnic background – as the television commercials tout – Ancestry also searches its network of members to identify blood relatives.
And that was how she came into contact with Amy Sloma of British Columbia, Canada.
Quest for dad’s father
For years, Amy Sloma knew little about her father’s side of the family.
Unlike her mother Christine, who was one of 13 children, her father was an only child.
It was after the death of her grandmother, Janina Sloma, in 2009 that Amy Sloma decided to search for more information on the missing half of her family tree.
James Sloma said he doubted his daughter would ever find anything.
"We had no name. It’s hard to find someone without a name," he said.
The only information he knew was his biological father was an American soldier.
James Sloma said his mother, born Janina Baran, grew up in Poland and became a slave-laborer at age 17 on a farm in Germany after her father was killed in a concentration camp during World War II.
He said his devout Roman Catholic mother spoke little about his father, other than to say he was an American soldier she met at a dance.
The war in Europe ended in May 1946 and U.S. soldiers returned home.
The young woman would give birth to a son in August 1946 and later married Kazimierz Sloma, a Polish prisoner of war.
James spent the first five years of his life in a displaced persons camp in Heilbronn, Germany, before the three would immigrate to Canada in 1951.
With such vague searchable information, the Sloma family turned to genealogical testing through 23andMe and Family Tree DNA. It was through that that they learned the man who was raised Catholic was half Jewish.
Over the next four years, Amy Sloma researched relatives in Romania and reached out to a distant uncle in Israel, who provided a family history.
A breakthrough occurred in August 2016. Amy Sloma contacted a first cousin she found through DNA testing information. That cousin confirmed her father and an uncle served during World War II, but her father was not in Germany.
The cousin said her uncle, Herbert Smyle, might be the one she was looking for, though she’d lost touch with his family.
Amy Sloma finally had a name; now she just needed proof.
A few weeks later Amy Sloma received a notice from Ancestry.com that came as a complete shock. Because she’d been researching and studying genetic markers for the past five years, Amy Sloma knew she’d hit the jackpot.
"All I remember saying to my father is I think I’ve found his half-niece," she said.
The Smolik family link
It was September when Smolik’s daughter decided to have her DNA tested.
After receiving the test results, she first received an informal and open-ended email from Amy Sloma, who mentioned they were related.
After agreeing to communicate, a second message arrived that went into more detail of Amy Sloma’s quest and asked if a grandfather or great uncle fought in World War II.
Anita Smolik said her daughter contacted her immediately. Both knew Anita Smolik’s father, Herbert Smyle, served in Germany. He enlisted in March 1943.
"He always spoke about having a Polish girlfriend during the war," Smolik said. "We didn’t know she got pregnant."
Smolik said Smyle returned from the war in May 1946 and got engaged to her mother on May 31. They would marry sixth months later and Smolik was born 11 months after that.
Smolik agreed to talk to Amy Sloma and have her DNA tested through Family Tree DNA.
Results validating Smolik and James Sloma are half-siblings arrived in the mail earlier this month.
"The match date was on my birthday," Smolik said.
Although she was certain she’d be a match, Smolik waited until after she received official confirmation to make the announcement on social media.
Meeting for the first time
The reason for the Smolik’s sudden look back through scrapbooks and old photos is because the siblings are planning to meet for the first time in Naperville at the end of the month.
In addition to sharing information about her father, Smolik said she wants to show James and Christine Sloma around Naperville, her hometown since her husband had a job transfer from New Jersey in the 1980s.
Smolik’s only other sibling, a brother, lives in California and won’t be able to attend the get-together.
Amy Sloma is thrilled her five-year quest is over and her father can learn more about his family.
"I told Anita you sound like someone I should have known all my life," she said.
The opportunity to unite with his half-sister continues to amaze James Sloma.
"It’s beyond belief. I’m an only child; I guess not anymore," he said.