Jerry Springer: ‘I was a poor refugee’

Jerry Springer was born in a London Tube station during a Nazi bombing raid. As a child he dreamt of driving the 102 around Finchley. That's until he moved to New York and became a talk-show celebrity


Hopefully, one day they will get around to putting up a blue plaque to mark Jerry Springer's place of birth. If they do, many JC readers might see it on their way to work because Springer, one of America's most famous faces, was born at East Finchley tube station in North London on a cold winter's night in 1944, during a Nazi bombing raid.

It is perhaps not without irony that the infant Springer took his first breath amid a commotion and lack of dignity which would probably seem quite familiar to some his future talk show guests.

This fact, along with many grimmer ones, came to light during his search for his ancestry in the new series of BBC1's genealogy show, Who Do You Think You Are?

He lived the first few years of his life in East Finchley - indeed, his early ambition was not to be a celebrity, but rather the driver of the 102 bus which went past the humble block of flats where he and his family lived. His stay in this country was a short one - his future was in New York where he and his older sister Evelyn were brought up, and his past was in Germany, the country from which his parents escaped in 1939 only weeks before the Nazis closed and bolted the doors to fleeing Jews.

However, beyond this fact, he knew little about his family's background. Sitting in the opulent surroundings of London's Langham hotel, he recalls the difficulty his parents had in speaking about their past.

"I knew I had lost my family, but I had no idea how many and didn't know which camps because my parents wouldn't talk about it."

The making of the programme, which entailed travelling to Britain, Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland, was a big commitment, particularly as he did not know what was in store for him. What he did know was that what he was likely to uncover unpleasant facts.

"I knew I would find out what happened. This is the BBC and they have the tentacles to reach out around the world. That wasn't surprising. The shock was the impact of the story itself. I knew that my family had died in the Holocaust, but until you see the details - the signature on your grandmother's death certificate, the date on which her extermination was recorded and a photo of a gas van like the one she was killed on - it's just a line in a biography."

The cold facts written in blue ink on official German forms was particularly chilling and stark for him.

"Part of the horror of it all is the cold, unemotional, detached organisation of the Nazis, the fact that everything was written down, every detail since they came to power was recorded."

His experience in tracking down the fate of his two grandmothers - Marie Kalmann, who was gassed at the Chelmno death camp in Poland, and Selma Springer, who died at Terezin in what was then Czechoslovakia, led him to question the role not just of the Nazi hierarchy but also of the thousands of ordinary Germans, without whose active participation the Holocaust could not have been perpetrated.

"There was this idea that it was just Hitler, but it wasn't. How about the soldiers who were rounding up Jews to take them to the camps? What did they say to their wives and kids about what they did that day? What kind of a human being can that be? That cancer may not have spread to the whole of the society but a lot more people than will admit to it knew exactly what was going on."

And not just the Germans. Springer recalls an incident which was filmed but did not make it to the final cut of Who Do You Think You Are?

"It was in Lodz [in Poland]. We went up to a room where my maternal grandmother lived in the ghetto. There was no electricity, no toilets, no running water, no heat. They slept on the floor in the freezing cold.

"The woman who lives there now looks like a lovely old lady - very polite. I asked her if she lived in the same area during the war when she would have been about 15. She said: ‘Yes, we lived nearby'. I asked her if she ever talked about what was happening to the Jews with her parents at the dinner table. She said, matter of factly: ‘No, we didn't talk about it.' She wasn't defensive. In fact, it didn't even register on her radar."

However painful the experience, Springer is glad that he agreed to take part in the programme, particularly as he now has a concrete version of his family history to hand down.

"I feel much more connected to my family now. If I didn't make this trip, no one would know these people even existed. I wouldn't have been able to tell my daughter. So now I can say, this is your great grandmother and this is her yahrzeit. I have a complete family tree."

He regrets that, because of his parents' reluctance to speak, he did not probe them more deeply over family matters. However, he recognises that they were traumatised about their time in Nazi Germany and the still-mysterious circumstances of their narrow escape. So much so that they could not even bring themselves to take their children to see The Sound of Music in the 1960s because of its storyline of a family fleeing the Nazis.

Despite the fact that the Springers were reticent about the horrors they had escaped, young Jerry, or Gerald as he was called at the time, had a clear idea that he and his sister were different from other children during their time in Britain.

"My parents couldn't speak English very well but they refused to speak German to us because they didn't want us to speak German in the street. My mother hired a helper called Bridey and she spoke English with us."

He has other clear memories of his early years in London.

"I was three weeks short of my fifth birthday when I left. I remember everything totally. We lived at Belvedere Court, on the corner of Lyttleton Road, near The Bishop's Avenue. The Bishop's Avenue was all hoity toity but our block was full of refugees.

"I remember where I used to play, I remember my friend Melvin and I remember the circular tray that my mum gave me my food on when I was ill. I would use it as a steering wheel and pretend to be a 102 bus driver."

Within a few years, all thoughts of London transport were put behind him as he was transformed into a New Yorker following his parents' decision to make the move across the Atlantic.

"My parents and my sister mounted a great campaign to Americanise me. They got me into little league baseball and the boy scouts. I played guitar and went to a frat house in college. My parents sacrificed a lot for that. My dad manufactured and sold stuffed toys and my mother got a job as a bank clerk. They both worked until they were 70." His parents' experience had a profound effect on Springer's life, and particularly his choice of occupation. He was advised by his father to train as a lawyer, so that he would never have to rely on other people for his living.

He also became passionate about politics - his first job was as an aide to Democrat presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, a post which ended abruptly with Kennedy's assassination in 1968.

"I'm sure my interest in politics came from my past," he says. "We talked about politics at the dinner table. My parents were Democrats but they had a real distrust of government - for good reason. I became very active in civil rights. It was always assumed that there were good guys and bad guys and that the bad guys were the ones doing the discriminating. That hasn't changed in my life."

He had a stint as Mayor of Cincinnati before moving into the media as a television news anchorman and launching what was intended to be a heavy political discussion show. In 1991 it took a radical turn and, for Springer, an extremely lucrative, change of direction to become one of America's most controversial, and most watched, talk shows.

The epitome of so-called "trash TV" Springer invites members of troubled or dysfunctional families to discuss their problems in front of a studio audience, covering issues such as infidelity, incest, paedophilia and a comprehensive range of fetishes. At one point, the show was promoted with the slogan "an hour of your life you'll never get back".

Its place as a cultural icon was celebrated by a successful if also controversial musical, Jerry Springer the Opera, which played successfully in the West End. As host, Springer has been the target of the widespread criticism aimed at the show, which is about as far as it is possible to get from serious political talk show while still being a TV programme. His career may have not panned out as he planned, but he maintains he has no regrets.

"I always wondered why I hung in there when my show was getting so much criticism. I realised that people didn't like it not because of what was on the show, but because they didn't like the participants.
"If you look at the newspapers every day you will see that the rich and successful are doing exactly the same as the people who come on my show, and the papers can't get enough of it."

Indeed, he believes Princess Diana might well have felt comfortable on a set which has seen nearly as many punch-ups as it has conversations over the years.

"Diana went on international television to speak of her marriage break-up, her affairs and her suicidal feelings. With the exception of suicide, which is a bit too serious for us, we cover those same subjects, but no one called her trash.

"The people on our show are called trash because they're uneducated, they don't talk the Queen's English and the use the f-word. They didn't have the breaks that wealthy people have. My career may have changed but my constituency, the poor and underprivileged, has remained the same."

But surely a man who has held a political office and who still from time to time harbours desires to run for the Senate, must feel frustrated by his role as a glorified wrestling referee.

He considers the question. "Do I wish my career had taken another turn? No, because it's still my choice. I could still decide to run for office and I write occasional political columns. Most of my time I spend in politics, which is where I get my greatest fulfilment.

"We never made the decision to make the show crazy, but when it happened the company which owns the show said we won the lottery so we don't have a choice. I could quit but I can't change the show.

"Anyway it's only two days a week. And it enables me to do everything else. All of my career opportunities came about because of the show. I couldn't have made Who Do You Think You Are? without it."

He thinks for a while before adding: "I'm on the side of the people in my shows. Whether in politics or showbiz, these are my people. I came from a poor refugee family. I'm no different than they are, not at all. It's just that I got lucky and made some money. We're all the same, some of us just dress better."

Jerry Springer is in Who Do You Think You Are? on BBC1 on August 27 at 9pm. The Jerry Springer Show is broadcast on Living

 

Snapshot

BORN: In East Finchley tube station, North London, 1944.

FAMILY: Parents, Margot and Richard, refugees from Nazi Germany. Sister Evelyn. Emigrated to New York in 1949. Married Micki Velton, now divorced. One daughter.

POLITICAL CAREER: Gained a law degree in 1968. Campaign aide to Democrat presidential candidate Robert Kennedy. Unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1970. Elected to Cincinnati council but resigned after admitting to hiring a prostitute. Elected mayor of Cincinnati in 1977.

SHOWBUSINESS CAREER: Started in local news radio while still mayor. Moved on to TV with The Jerry Springer Show in 1991. Developed into a tabloid talk show featuring blue-collar guests revealing intimate personal details. In 2005, ITV1 broadcast a British version.

ON BEING JEWISH: "I'm proud... I'm the link in the chain of a wonderful family. I'm blessed."

    Last updated: 5:31pm, September 9 2008