A desire to fulfil his late grandfather’s dearest wish took Blue Peter presenter Joel Defries on an emotional journey for the programme broadcast for HMD on Tuesday.
Mr Defries’ ancestors came to the UK from Holland, Poland and Lithuania — the earliest in the 18th century. He was born in London, but spent some of his early years in New Zealand, joining grandparents who had emigrated there. His grandfather had always hoped that Mr Defries, a non-practising Jew, would get to know more about his Jewish background.
For the programme, Mr Defries, 23, looks at modern Jewish life in Britain as well as learning something of his own family history. He started off in the East End, where relatives had lived and worked and great-grandfather Leonard Reinstein had been secretary of Sandys Road Synagogue. He sat in on Shabbat preparations at the home of Edgware Synagogue’s Rabbi David Lister and attended the batmitzvah celebrations of Leanne Kingsley at Hampstead Garden Suburb shul.
But the highlight was meeting survivor Freda Wineman, and accompanying her when she returned to Auschwitz for the first time in over 60 years. When the Nazis invaded France, she and her family spent several years in on the run. But they were caught and deported to Auschwitz.
In the programme, she recounts the three-day journey to the death camp, and how, on arrival, both her parents and younger brother were murdered. She survived typhus and transfer to a number of other camps before her repatriation to France at the war’s end.
“Going to Auschwitz was a real eye opener,” Defries confided. “Meeting Freda gave me an insight like no other and I felt privileged to go back with her.”