Many families can trace their bloodlines back a generation or two, but with a little research, people can now find long-lost relatives, solve family mysteries and uncover connections they never knew they had.
In 2006, Oprah had her DNA tested for the PBS series African American Lives, and she says the experience was life-changing. "I've got to say, when it happened to me, it was absolutely empowering to know the journey of my entire family," she says.
How would your self-perception change if you found out your great-great-great grandmother was a queen? What if Albert Einstein was your great-uncle? More celebrities are discovering this for themselves in the new reality series Who Do You Think You Are?
Former Friends star Lisa Kudrow is one of the executive producers of this series, which originated in England. Lisa says she first discovered the show while working in Ireland. "I didn't know who any of those famous people over there were, and I didn't care," she says. "It was riveting, and I just felt like, 'Well, why don't we get to have a show like this here?'"
Lisa worked behind the scenes to bring this show to the States, and over time, celebrities signed on to have cameras document their genealogical journeys. In the first season, stars like Emmitt Smith, Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, Susan Sarandon and Brooke Shields learn about their roots andlearn even more about themselves along the way.
"It's changed everything about who I thought I was," Sarah Jessica says. "Everything."
Lisa also documented her search for the show. Before digging into her family's history, Lisa says she knew her father's parents were Eastern European Jews, but she wanted to know more.
"Most American Jews from Eastern Europe, they have a Holocaust story," she says. "I wanted to find out my family's story." One day, Lisa sat down with her father, Lee, to find out more.
After World War II, Lee says a distant relative showed up at his Brooklyn home to relay tragic news. His name was Yuri Barudin. "Yuri told our family that he was playing in the woods, and he could see that [the Nazis] were shooting, and he was watching his family being cut down by the Nazis," Lee says. "They killed all the Jews in town. My grandmother was one of them."
Lisa says the story of how her great-grandmother Meri Mordejovich died still haunts her father. "He was a child when this relative came over," she says. "I want to find out exactly what happened to my great-grandmother's family."
Lisa's family thought the relative who witnessed the massacre, Yuri, was dead, so Lisa took matters into her own hands. She flew to Ilya, Belarus, the town where her great-grandmother lived and died, to piece together the past.
Local historians helped Lisa find records that documented her great-grandmother's murder. Next to Meri Mordejovich's name, the ledger stated that she was a Jewish housewife from Ilya who'd been killed and burned.
"I knew my great-grandmother was murdered," Lisa says. "But to hear the words 'killed and burned,' that's worse than I thought."
Then, Lisa visited the place where her great-grandmother and countless others were shot and buried. "How do you prepare for the last moment of your life, knowing what's coming?" Lisa says. "You watch the people before you and know that's your fate, while you're naked and humiliated and waiting for your turn to get shot."
Lisa's search unearthed the tragic, final moments of her great-grandmother's life, but that wasn't all. Miraculously, she discovered that Yuri, the distant relative they'd assumed was dead all these years, was alive and well.
After surviving the Holocaust, Lisa says her father thought Yuri joined the Polish Navy. Then, he traveled to New York to tell Lisa's father's family that everyone they loved had been murdered by Nazis. "They begged him to please stay, and he didn't," Lisa says. "They never heard from him again and had heard he died."
Lisa says she thought she was going to find out how Yuri died. Instead, she found him.
After tracing her roots back hundreds of years and learning more about the men and women who came before her, Lisa says she felt a sense of pride. "I'm delivering their story to people, and they're not forgotten," she says. "Now, there are witnesses."