How Holby tackled a story from the Shoah

Sacha Levy (Bob Barrett) at the bedside of the ailing  ex-Nazi (played by Julian Glover)

Sacha Levy (Bob Barrett) at the bedside of the ailing ex-Nazi (played by Julian Glover)

Viewers of prime-time BBC One hospital drama Holby City are being gripped by a storyline involving a Jewish doctor and a patient with a Nazi past, which the programme makers have included to put antisemitism in the spotlight. In the episode screened on Tuesday, the surgeon, Sacha Levy - portrayed by non-Jewish actor Bob Barrett - discovers that the patient was a guard at Majdanek and decides he cannot complete the surgery. As the story continues in coming episodes, Levy and the patient's granddaughter develop an unlikely bond.

Talking on set at Elstree Studios, Holby producer Simon Harper says that diversity is an important element of the show. "But people don't tend to talk about antisemitism and you don't have many Jewish characters on screen. And, to my mind, Jewish identity is not often explored.

"Kate Verghese, the story producer, said: 'What if a Jewish doctor was faced with a Nazi war criminal as a patient?' Then the German government announced they were giving it one last push to find people who committed atrocities. And it was totally plausible to depict a sweet old man who turns out to be something sinister".

It helps that Harper is "fascinated with the Second World War and 20th century history. I think it is because I'm British but grew up in Belgium and France, countries occupied by the Germans. I went on school trips to concentration camps."

Simon Harper

Simon Harper

Barrett points out that "not many actors will get to play a character whose ethnic background is different to their own. And It is unbelievably important to me that the character is Jewish." For the current story, the moral dilemma is challenging. "I'm a doctor who loves his job but can't perform surgery on the patient when I realise who he is."

He had been helped in the role by his "great friends in the Jewish community of Catford. There are about 100 Jewish families in the area and I've got to know them very well. I've been to Friday-night dinners. Being around them I learn so much."

Harper adds that "a consulting charity" is always brought in to ensure authenticity and, for the Shoah-related storyline, it was the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET). Cast and crew also heard from survivor Kitty Hart-Moxon. Barrett says: "She had that look in her eye, as someone who had been witness to something so terrible. You can read all the books you want to prepare you but nothing compares to that."

Harper points out that the Holby audience "is a massive social spread. I guarantee some people watching will be like: 'What is the Holocaust?'"

HET representatives were shown the script and had been invaluable on the detail. "We thought about the [Nazi] character coming face to face with a survivor but HET pointed out there were very few Majdanek survivors so that was unrealistic. They were so brilliant at getting us into the heads of these real cases.

"It is quite upsetting when Joe [the patient] says these hateful things about Jews in the episode. But that is how it was and how someone like him would be. They helped us understand the psychology behind that.

"We couldn't have him making a final act of repentance. It would have been wrong - and not right on the victims."

The next episode is on May 22 at 8pm.This week's programme is on iPlayer. A related educational resource is part of the iWonder guides on the BBC website

Last updated: 3:05pm, May 15 2014