May 21, 2019

Mail-Order DNA Test Reveals 60-Something Women Are Half Sisters

Dr. Melinda Wagner and Miriam Carmona are newly discovered sisters. Photo by Orit Harpaz

Last year, 63-year-old Agoura Hills resident Miriam Carmona took one of those popular mail-order DNA tests. She was hoping to maybe discover relatives on her mother’s side. Originally from Poland, Carmona’s mother was one of the only members of her family who survived the Holocaust. 

Meanwhile, across the country in New Jersey, 61-year-old Melinda Wagner took a similar test. Wagner was adopted when she was 4 months old through the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. She took the DNA test hoping to find out more about any potential medical history she might have.  

On Oct. 1, 2018, the women learned they shared 26.8 percent DNA and are, in fact, half-sisters.

In a Skype interview with both women, Carmona told the Journal their father, Yurek Litmanovich, was part of the last group to escape the Warsaw Ghetto via sewage lines. He eventually settled in Tel Aviv, where he and his wife raised their family, before later moving to Los Angeles. 

“Our father was an amazing guy: generous, philanthropic, loved by everybody,” Carmona said. However, he died in 1979 at the age of 57. 

“The women point to their bowlegs and bouncy, almost dance-like way of walking, their unfortunate shared susceptibility to migraines, and ears that stick out.”

When Wagner came to Los Angeles to meet her half-sister in person for the first time late last year, their first stop was their father’s grave at Hillside Memorial Park in Culver City. Carmona is convinced that had their father known about Wagner’s existence, he would have wanted her in his life.

Stories about long-lost relatives turning up or unknown relatives coming into each other’s lives don’t always go smoothly. But Carmona and Wagner have completely embraced each other, as have their extended families. 

In January, Wagner, her husband, and oldest son flew to Los Angeles for the wedding of one of Carmona’s twin sons at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. Wagner’s younger son, a student at Cal State Fullerton pursuing his master’s degree in music performance, has grown close to Carmona and her husband. They even gave him a key to their house. And although the women “discovered” each other only a few months ago and had no inkling the other existed before that, they have formed a fast friendship. They have spoken every day since they learned of each other’s existence and are looking forward to getting together again this spring.

WATCH: Wagner and Carmona Meeting at the airport.

“It’s so amazing,” Carmona said. “The connection I feel with Melinda is almost spiritual. She’s like my soulmate.”

“I feel like we’re twins separated at birth,” Wagner added.

The women point to their bowlegs and bouncy, almost dance-like way of walking, their unfortunate shared susceptibility to migraines, and, Carmona said, “ears that stick out.” They even share similar tastes. A video of them meeting for the first time at Los Angeles International Airport shows them dressed nearly identically, as if planned (it wasn’t). In addition, both have dedicated their lives to helping others. Carmona is a recently retired school psychologist; Wagner is a dentist who does a lot of volunteer dentistry.

For Wagner, the connection has provided some answers. She always wondered how she and her husband parented a son with perfect pitch who became an accomplished bass clarinet player when both of them are, in her words, “tone deaf.” Then she walked into her sister’s home and saw, in the corner of the living room, a piano, a didgeridoo and a bass clarinet. Carmona has played multiple instruments over the years and plays the piano by ear. One of her sons played the clarinet and still picks it up on occasion.

Carmona too has made discoveries. “I always assumed my music gift came from my mother’s side,” she said. “Meeting Matt [Wagner’s younger son] and his giftedness, I realized it is from our father’s side.”

Carmona admits to moments of sadness in the wake of the discovery of her sister. “I wish she was in my life for at least the last 20 years,” she said. “We could have done more activities. But I can’t look back. I have to look forward. Everybody is telling me, ‘Your timing is perfect.’ ”

Both women said they are incredibly grateful that they finally met. “When people ask me how I describe my sister,” Wagner said, “I say, ‘take all the nice things about me. Take away the anxiety. Take away the impulsivity. Just imagine me without my faults, and that’s my sister.’ ” 

And in true sisterly fashion, Carmona responded, “It’s so not true.”