What a wonderfully inspiring, and timely, account of how Helena Bonham Carter’s maternal grandfather, a Spanish diplomat, saved the lives of tens of thousands of Jews trying to flee Nazi-occupied France, by issuing transit visas which enabled them to cross Spain to reach the safety of Portugal and its Atlantic ports. He sacrificed his career by acting without the authority of his government, and, as someone with a Jewish father and a Jewish wife – through whom Helena is related to the Ephrussi family of “The Hare with Amber Eyes” fame, incidentally – he may well have had concerns for his own safety; but he put all other considerations aside to do what he felt was right. So too did Helena’s paternal grandmother, who helped many Czechoslovakian Jewish refugees to enter Britain, and spoke out publicly against the Nazis to the extent that her name was placed on a Gestapo blacklist.
War heroes come in many different guises; and I hope this programme got the viewing figures it deserved, because plenty of people could learn a lot from the stories of Don Eduardo de Propper Callejon and Lady Violet Bonham Carter. Helena, who was able to meet the descendants of some of those whose lives they saved, must be so proud of both of them; and I think it’s probably done viewers good to be reminded that the world can produce people like them.
This was the first of a four-part series in which actors and actresses will be exploring their grandparents’ role in the Second World War. Like Who Do You Think You Are, it’s exploring history through individuals’ family history, and showing them talking to both relatives and experts, but it’s different in that it’s focusing on recent events, involving people whom the celebs concerned knew and loved – although, sadly, in Helena’s case, they died when she was very young. And, as is said in so many programmes about the Second World War, most people who lived through it didn’t talk about it: so many of us don’t know nearly as much as we’d like to about our relatives’ roles in the war. It’s also, like the recent Gary Lineker programme, reminding us about the contributions made by people in areas that are sometimes neglected: the Arctic convoys and the war against Japan are going to feature in the programmes to come.
The Propper de Callejons were part of the exodus of around two million people leaving the Paris area as the Nazis approached. They went, like the French government, to Bordeaux, and Eduardo Propper de Callejon signed up to thirty thousand exit visas at the Spanish consulate there. He was signing them day and night: his hands were seizing up and he was having to bathe them in salt water. Without him, most of those people would have been murdered by the Nazis. He saved their lives. One of those he saved was Ludwik Rajchman, who went on to become the founder of UNICEF, and we saw Helena meet his granddaughter, in a very emotional scene. She’s still got some of her family’s passports from that time, bearing Eduardo’s signature.
The Spanish government had ordered that no visas be issued without the passports first being sent to Madrid. Even if the authorities there had agreed to issue the visas – highly unlikely, given the pro-Nazi sympathies of Franco’s Foreign Minister – it would have taken too long: the Nazis were advancing rapidly through France. So Eduardo signed them anyway, and, as a result, he was demoted, and his career never recovered. We were told by Helena’s uncle and cousin that he never got over that, but also that he never sought praise or recognition for the heroic work he’d done. However, in 2008, 36 years after his death, he was recognised – thanks, interestingly, to the testimony of Otto von Habsburg, who’d also fled Paris for Bordeaux and was issued with a visa by Aristides Sousa de Mendes, the Portuguese consul, with whom Eduardo was working – as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem; and we were shown a video of the ceremony.
When I went to Lithuania, I was fortunate enough to be able to talk to a lady whose grandmother had saved her Jewish neighbours by hiding them throughout the Nazi occupation. If she’d been caught, she would presumably have been killed along with them. She was also recognised by Yad Vashem. You’d like to think that, in those circumstances, you’d have been that brave, but, in reality, most people would not – and I suppose you can’t really blame people for that, but you can have the highest admiration for those who were.
Meanwhile, in London, Lady Violet Bonham Carter, nee Asquith, a close friend of Winston Churchill, was giving public speeches against the Nazis well before the war had even begun. Her name was placed on a Gestapo blacklist, and she would have faced imprisonment and probably execution had Britain fallen. She also criticised the authorities here for not taking in more Jewish refugees, and personally sponsored refugees to enable them to enter the country. In another emotional scene, Helena met a woman – a Liverpool woman, by the sounds of it – whose family had been able to leave Czechoslovakia the day before the borders were closed, after Lady Violet agreed to act as their guarantors. Her own middle name was Violet, given in tribute to Helena’s grandma. Without her intervention, the family would probably have died in a concentration camp.
The Bonham Carters might well have decided to leave London when the Blitz began: it’s hardly as if they were working-class East Enders with nowhere else to go. But they stayed, and, not only that, but Lady Violet volunteered as an air raid warden – and we were reminded that around 2,500 air raid wardens were killed during the Blitz. On top of that, and being a governor of the BBC, she campaigned for equal way for female full-time air raid wardens, who were only getting paid 70% as much as men doing the same job.
What an incredible family. And it didn’t even stop there – we also heard about how Helena’s uncle, Mark Bonham-Carter, hit the headlines by escaping from a POW camp in Italy and walking 400 miles to reach the British lines. Sadly, his brother-in-law, who also escaped from a POW camp, was shot dead. Violet was hit very hard by her son-in-law’s death, but continued her work in both politics and the arts.
Channel 4’s history programmes aren’t always the greatest, but this one was superb – although, quite frankly, it would have been difficult to go wrong with an incredible family history like Helena Bonham Carter’s. Unlike the BBC, Channel 4 don’t generally bring current political events into programmes about the horrors of the Second World War era, and that’s a good thing – but I think it’s worth saying that, at a time at which hardly more than a day seems to go by without yet another parliamentary candidate having to be removed because of inappropriate remarks on social media, it really is particularly moving and reassuring to hear stories like these. You’re rather moved to wish that senior politicians had even a fraction of Eduardo and Violet’s integrity. If anyone’s reading this, and didn’t see the programme, you might want to try finding it on Catch Up: it really is worth watching.