Shadows of the past

A new BBC series led by Rob Rinder takes Jewish people back to the places their families came from to confront the painful past. Jenni Frazer reports.


Just over 80 years ago, the Jews of Europe were getting their first wholesale glimpse of the horrors yet to engulf them, as Kristallnacht, the November 1938 industrial-level destruction and looting of Jewish property and businesses, exploded throughout Germany and Austria.

We know today all too much about the Holocaust — and yet for some families, the knowledge barely scratches the surface. In two remarkable programmes for the BBC, My Family, the Holocaust and Me, the barrister and TV presenter Rob Rinder makes some poignant and painful discoveries on his part and that of other Second and Third Generation members.

Some, like psychologist Bernie Graham, knew part of their families’ history, but not the whole picture; others, like retired GP Noemie Lopian, had been reluctant to press her mother about her wartime experiences; and sisters Louisa and Natalie Clein, respectively an actress and a musician, had never really known the full story of their grandmother’s heroism or their aunt’s heartbreaking incarceration. The stories are about death, says Rinder, but they are also about life and the triumph of survival.

If you think the title and subject matter has a certain resonance with the hugely successful Who Do You Think You Are? series, you would be right. Rob Rinder was the subject of a WDYTYA programme in 2018, finding out about the Holocaust experiences of his maternal grandfather, and the programme drew a massive viewership.

“There was an extraordinary response to that programme”, Rinder tells me. “Not only did people want to share their own stories, but there wasn’t even a peep of antisemitism on social media. And people also wanted to talk about trauma, perhaps if they suffered abuse as a child”.

Those involved with the making of the Rinder programme understood that there were many more things to say. David Vincent, the director of the WDYTYA programme, came on board for these two new programmes — and Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s chief content officer, said she was “honoured” to commission them.

Rob Rinder continues: “Because the number of actual survivors are dwindling, a conversation ensued about how best to tell the story of the Shoah and make it relevant. We thought that the most effective way was to do it through the prism of the Second and Third generations, and go on their journeys of discovery. We wanted to do something which would persuade people that they were learning something new”.

All the stories in the two new programmes, apart from Rinder’s own, take place in Western Europe. “That was important, because it was a critical reminder that this wasn’t an explosion of violence of one unassimilated community against another, in some backwater. [The Holocaust’s] dark roots fomented in the most advanced liberal democracies in the world, in Berlin, in Paris, in Amsterdam… that matters, because it is the most articulate, visible expression of the fragility of our own democracy, the idea that we could become complacent, when people who lived then didn’t believe that they would descend to that level of catastrophic horror.”

The programme-makers were also keen to explore people’s sense about their parents, not merely as parents or grandparents, but as vibrant individuals. As Rinder observes, “the second generation were parented by people who had experienced the most profound, unimaginable in many cases, trauma. As we learned in Who Do You Think You Are?, such stories don’t emerge as a coherent whole. People don’t generally sit with their children and say, I’d like to tell you what happened. The story appears in dark shadows, in the presence of ghosts.”

Rinder’s own (maternal) grandfather, Maurice Malenicky, when in hospital, would secrete small parcels of food, wrapped in paper napkins, around his room. The children and grandchildren of survivors frequently were confronted with apparently inexplicable behaviour, all relating to what had happened during the Holocaust.

The third thing that all the stories have in common, says Rinder, is an element of courage, heroism and chance. Each person, tracing his or her family history, discovers untold bravery — but also events that turn on someone being in the wrong place at the wrong time, of a matter of days or hours before someone is betrayed or sent en route to certain death.

Rinder’s own story is different from that of Bernie Graham, Noemie Lopian, and the Clein sisters. Most of his Who Do You Think You Are? programme focused on his maternal grandfather, Maurice, who was directly persecuted by the Nazis. For these programmes, he decided to find out about his father’s side of the family, beginning with a visit to his paternal grandfather, who died in April this year of coronavirus, aged 92, and to whom the programmes are dedicated. Though his grandfather was born in Stepney, his mother and her family had come over from Lithuania in the late years of the 19th century. Rinder’s journey takes him to the Belarus-Lithuanian border and a spine-chilling conversation — in Russian — with a woman who, as an eight-year-old, saw the Jews of her village murdered on an industrial scale.

The Jews — among whom were almost certainly members of Rinder’s extended family — were shot by Nazis and their bodies tipped into a pit. Giving testimony to Rinder, the witness speaks of the mound where the bodies were, and says she saw it moving for three days.

“I wasn’t told that the mound was still there”, says Rinder, who thought he was going to see a memorial of some sort. In profoundly affecting scenes he stands next to the “powerful, dark, ugly” place where the Jews of the area died. “I had the strong, visceral sense of this not being the only place like this in the world, but just the most darkly articulate expression of inhumanity I’d ever seen.”

The second programme features Rinder’s mother, Angela Cohen, who is chair of the 45 Aid Society, and nonagenarian Leon Rytz, believed to be the last survivor of the Treblinka death camp. It is Rytz who tells Rinder and his mother not just to say Kaddish at Treblinka for the individual members of her family, but for “Kol Israel” — all of the Jewish people.

For Angela the making of the films was an opportunity for her to visit Treblinka, which she had long wanted to do. “Nothing prepared me for what I witnessed there. I stood where my family would have got off the train, and was told that within 35 minutes they would have been murdered. I felt my knees buckle. But I did it, and I came back, and now I think my job is to teach it, to say what I saw, and to tell people what it’s all about”.

The Clein sisters’ story, based in the Netherlands, features female heroism from their grandmother, who worked for the Dutch Resistance, and allows them to discover what they never knew about their great-aunt, Else. “Under my skin, all my life there has been this feeling of lost culture, lost knowledge”, says Louisa, “and this process helped us unravel some of the mysteries which were never spoken about”. Natalie adds: “It gave me an enormous sense of pride to be part of that family”.

Noemie Lopian’s mother Renee was “always quite an anxious mum”, who had not previously shared her story as a child in the Holocaust, partly because she believed that the experiences of her husband, also a survivor, were much worse than hers. But making the films allowed Noemie to view her mother differently and understand more about her wartime history, including days spent in prison in Vichy France when she was only ten years old.

We see Noemie visiting the prison where her mother was held and then reuniting with her, proud and elegant, in a nearby café. Renee, her brother and sister, were saved by a 22-year-old French Resistance fighter, Marianne; but she herself was murdered by the Nazis.

And the last story is that of Bernie Graham, on the track of his uncle Bernhard, after whom he is named, who died in Dachau. “I thought I knew something, and then I found out something very different. I was under the impression that he had taken his own life, but then I discovered what had happened to him. I thought my grandmother had survived Auschwitz but had died soon after from malnutrition — and then I learned that she had gone to Sobibor, and had been murdered straight away.

“There was a lot of anger when I found out so much more, and I was able to share some of what I had discovered with my family”.

All the participants echoed Bernie Graham, who paid tribute to the kindness and supportiveness of director and producer David Vincent. And each one spoke passionately of the feeling of discovering the human beings behind the statistics, as though they had been given the opportunity to meet their families whom they never knew.

For David Vincent, the films enabled him “to give people back some of the dignity that was extinguished, and making them people once more”.


The first programme in My Family, the Holocaust and Me will be screened on BBC1 on November 9 at 9pm 

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