At first sight, it was nothing special, an ordinary bag buried underneath piles of clothes in a cupboard.
But when Lady Zahava Kohn opened the sack, which she found in her late mother’s bedroom following her death 15 years ago, she was overwhelmed to find it filled with reams of papers, letters, cards, ration cards and notes collected during the Holocaust and hidden ever since.
Among the items were pieces of paper detailing her mother and father’s jobs and duties while held at the Westerbork transit camp in Holland, as well as the German concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, where they were imprisoned along with their daughter until its liberation in 1945.
Her mother had never spoken of her hoardings, nor of the Holocaust whatsoever. Indeed, it was her discovery of the bag that prompted Kohn to finally start speaking about her own experiences as an imprisoned child during the Second World War.
Hers is just one of the compelling stories that will be aired this Sunday on BBC One for a Holocaust Memorial special edition of Antiques Roadshow. Launched in partnership with the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation, and prompted in part by David Cameron’s Holocaust Commission, the episode sees regular presenter Fiona Bruce meet survivors and their families alongside a panel of experts, including the children’s author and former child refugee Judith Kerr. Further interviews are conducted by broadcaster and UKHMF board member Natasha Kaplinsky.
The idea to ask people to bring objects came from journalist Jenni Frazer, inspired by Yad Vashem’s Gathering the Fragments project, in which its experts assess artefacts brought by Israeli families.
The items featured on the BBC show are as haunting as they are varied. They include jewellery, family heirlooms, plates and bowls used inside camps, and — particularly harrowing — a child’s sports shirt, to fit a six-year-old, emblazoned with a yellow star.
Given that the artefacts and their stories are so monumental, and so vital to historical narrative, the BBC has deemed them priceless. In a break with tradition for the show, nothing has been valued.
Kohn, who attending the filming in November only two weeks after her husband, Sir Ralph Kohn, passed away, credits finding her mother’s stash with awakening her own memories as an eight-year-old imprisoned in Westerbork and then Bergen-Belsen. She has since put her recollections to good use, working with her daughter Hephzibah Rudofsky to develop a learning programme for schools called Surviving the Holocaust. Together, they present the pieces to pupils across the country, working to offer a more personal insight and story to the children’s history lessons.
Rudofsky said she was delighted that the BBC had chosen to make a Holocaust special, as it promised to offer an “incredible snapshot” into a time in history that, although still gravely significant today, risks losing its rawness as the years progress.
“There is a richness to the show, a tapestry of all these stories that they are going to collect and present,” she said. “We met other survivors and their families at lunch after filming and everyone had such incredible stories to tell. It is great for this to be on TV.”
Fiona Bruce, who has hosted Antiques Roadshow since 2008, said the educational aspect of the special had been pivotal to its conception.
“I hope people will learn more,” she explained. “As the years go on and the immediate intensity of that time begins to be silenced, it is more important than ever that these stories are told. You only need to look around at what is happening in the world today, where conflict continues, horror and barbarism continue. It is so important to talk about the human cost of these things.”
The day of filming, the broadcaster said, was “brilliant, extraordinary, one that I was very much looking forward to be a part of”. She came away from it “feeling humbled, moved, uplifted and inspired. It was a day I will never forget.”
She remembered a pair of striped trousers, brought on to the show by a woman whose late husband had worn them during his time at Auschwitz, as acting “like a lightning rod, taking you right back to the darkest time in our history.
“Many would have burned those trousers, but he chose to keep them as they were so much a part of him,” she said. “You couldn’t help wondering what he had seen, endured and felt while wearing them, and here they were in my hands. That was an extraordinary moment for me.”
One particularly affecting lot featured on the show is an old German board game, now held by the Wiener Library, Europe’s premier Holocaust archive, in London. The game, named Jews Out, features traditional Jewish businesses pictured on a board alongside typically demonised caricatures of Jewish families. The player is tasked with landing on enough Jewish sites in order to round them up and place them in “holding”; once six are collected, they are shipped away to Palestine.
Bruce said it was this game in particular that stuck with her long after filming concluded.
“When I saw it, I thought we had to make a proper recording of it because it is just so horrific,” she said. “I had never come across anything like it before. What I found so utterly chilling about it was that it was used to teach children to hate.”
She also described another lasting memory from the day having come from a woman holding “a tiny square of gold on her, as big as a fingernail”.
“She left the camps aged eight, with her grandmother as her only surviving relative,” Bruce said. “On her birthday, her grandmother wanted to give her something, so she had some gold that she had hidden from the Nazis in the back of her mouth removed.
“On it, she had engraved a four leaf clover on one side and the date and her grandmother’s name on the other. This woman had this square, wafer-thin piece of gold on her person all her life, and I think she will go to the grave taking it with her.
“As a testament to the indomitability of the human spirit and of the triumph of love over hatred, I don’t think you can find a more powerful symbol than that.”
‘Antiques Roadshow’, BBC One, Sunday January 15 at 7.30pm