"It was like meeting someone I'd known for all my life," Marysia Galbraith says of her first encounter with Pini Doron after learning their grandmothers were sisters

Marysia Galbraith
The photo that connected Marysia and Pini
| Credit: courtesy Marysia Galbraith

A Christian woman living in Alabama and a Jewish man from Israel were able to reconnect their families after discovering that they were related through a shared photograph taken during World War I.

Pini Doron tells PEOPLE he started building his family tree more than 20 years ago as the older generations were dying.

Eventually, Doron, 75, joined MyHeritage, where he continued to piece together his family history and connect with long-lost relatives while holding onto a family photograph that was taken during WWI.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Marysia Galbraith, an Alabama-based cultural anthropologist, blogger and author of Being and Becoming European in Poland, was looking to piece together her own roots in 2011.

"I realized if I really wanted to learn about my mother's family, I needed to probe the secret that my mom was actually born Jewish," says Galbraith, 56, who grew up in a Christian family. "I found this out by accident in my 20s, but never really pursued it because my mother and grandmother didn't want to talk about it."

"I had almost nothing to go on. I wasn't even sure of my grandmother's maiden name," she adds. "But as a researcher, I have ways to figure things out and slowly started doing a lot of late-night internet searches."

Marysia Galbraith
Marysia Galbraith and Pini Doron (far left) with extended family at a reunion in Poland
| Credit: courtesy Marysia Galbraith

Two years later, Galbraith stumbled upon Doron's family tree on MyHeritage, where she noticed some of her family members.

"I contacted him and said, 'I think I see my grandmother,'" Galbraith recalls. "Pini said he wanted proof, but I didn't know what that would be so I sent the photograph from WWI because that was all I had."

After receiving the image, Doron said he "was shocked because I have the same picture."

"I phoned her immediately from Israel and we had a long discussion to find out how we're related," he shares. "And that was the beginning of how we started knowing each other without knowing each other."

As it turns out, the pair discovered that Doron's grandmother, Rachel Piwko Kolski, and Galbraith's grandmother, Halina Piwko Bereda, were sisters that ultimately lost contact following WWII and the Holocaust.

"Halina came to America and had been converted to Christianity after WWI and my grandmother [who was Jewish] came to Israel," Doron explains. "At that time, there was no telephone and some not-so-friendly relationships between them, but we didn't know why."

Marysia Galbraith
Pini Doron's grandmother, Rachel Piwko Kolski
| Credit: courtesy Pini Doron

To get to the bottom of it, Galbraith and Doron dug through family archives, spoke to relatives and reflected on their childhoods, attempting to piece together what happened that caused the familial divide.

Together, they determined that once Halina married a Christian man and moved away, the families lost contact — in part due to the tension that stemmed from Halina rejecting her Jewish heritage.

"My grandmother was an extremely charismatic and dynamic person who wanted to live life to the fullest and I think she felt constrained by her conservative family and culturally in Poland at that time" Galbraith speculates.

"It wasn't just a rejection of religion, it was choosing the life that she wanted to live," she adds. "I don't think that she really wanted to reject her family, but she was kicked out of her family for the choice that she made."

Halina did, however, manage to help her sister Rachel, as well as Rachel's daughter and grandson, escape from the Warsaw Ghetto, created by the Nazis between 1940-1943 during WWII, while she was living freely as a Christian in Warsaw.

Not only did Halina bring her family to safety, but she also helped them obtain false papers — which gave them false Christian identities and allowed them to live on the other side — and found them places to live, Galbraith says.

Marysia Galbraith
Marysia Galbraith's grandmother, Halina Piwko Bereda
| Credit: courtesy Marysia Galbraith

Since they first connected, Doron and Galbraith have stayed in touch and even organized multiple family reunions in New York, Israel and Poland. The pair first met in person in 2015 at a reunion hosted by Doron at his home in Tel Aviv.

"[Marysia] immediately melted into the family," Doron recalls of their first encounter. "We talked and talked and talked."

"It was like meeting someone I'd known for all my life," says Galbraith. "The extraordinary thing is how I felt embraced by not only Pini but his whole family without any questions. That meant a lot to me."

"There was a lot of [previous] tension and complication because of the split in the family, but we don't feel those boundaries or traumas," she adds. "It's somebody else's history and we're just happy to have found each other."

The duo has also managed to get in touch with other relatives — thanks to the family tree on MyHeritage and that life-changing photograph.

"The photo is like my calling card back to the family," jokes Galbraith, who is currently working on a memoir about discovering her Jewish-Polish roots.

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Now, as the families cherish these new relationships and continue their search for other relatives, Galbraith and Doron can't help but feel a sense of purpose for themselves — and for future generations.

"I want my children or grandchildren to one day go into that tree... and learn that what we have now didn't start from nothing," Doron says. "We have these homes and cars and travel five times a year, but it didn't start like this. That is our history and something they come from."

Adds Galbraith: "It's been really grounding because I feel like when you grow up in a family that doesn't talk about their past, there are big gaps in their knowledge and a sense of disconnection. From filling in these gaps, I finally feel like I know not only where I came from, but also who I came from."