Family history programmes are becoming increasingly popular, and they do work very well: they personalise and humanise history in a way that text books and ordinary documentaries can’t do, especially when talking about the murder of millions of ordinary people. Many Holocaust survivors, and Second World War veterans, went to their graves without talking about what had happened: there was so much that the people in this programme didn’t know about their own grandparents and great aunts/uncles.
A lot of Holocaust programmes only focus on the death camps. That’s understandable, but it means that other aspects of what happened are overlooked. This programme didn’t: we did hear about the horrors of the camps, but we also saw Robert “Judge” Rinder visiting the site of an Einsatzgruppen massacre on the Lithuanian-Belarusian border, and we saw Louisa Clein (Maya in Emmerdale) and her sister Natalie looking into their grandmother’s involvement in the Dutch resistance, and how she gave her children up to foster parents for their own safety. And it really was very well done.
The mass grave where hundreds of people, including some of Robert Rinder’s relatives, were buried, some of them still alive, is still there. There’s something particularly sad about those little villages. I’ve been to Babi Yar/Babyn Yar, but so many of the Einsatzgruppen massacres took place in little villages, or in forests, and nobody goes to visit the sites: how many people go to visit small villages on the Lithuanian-Belarusian border? And that way of life, going back to the Middle Ages, was wiped out for good: communities in cities were to some extent rebuilt, but not those in villages.
This is highly recommended, and there’s another episode next week, which I’ll certainly watch.
We had three family stories in this. Robert Rinder himself was looking into the history of some relatives on his father’s side. His maternal grandfather was a Holocaust survivor, but his paternal grandfather, who featured in the programme but sadly died with coronavirus earlier this year, was a Cockney born and bred. However, some of his relatives died in … ah, the wonders of Eastern European moving borders. It was part of Russian-ruled Lithuania, which was in Poland in the inter-war years, and was then split between Lithuania and Belarus, even though most of the surviving population’s Polish … so the village where they actually lived is now in Lithuania, and the village 20 miles or so away, where they were murdered, is in Belarus. He was able to speak to an elderly lady who actually remembered the massacre, remembered hearing the screams. She talked about how the ground was still moving as they covered it up: people were still alive. And the grave’s there – and it’s huge. So many people, just gunned down.
We also saw a man called Bernie Graham visit Frankfurt, where his grandparents had come from. His grandfather had survived, and been reunited with Bernie’s mum, who’d come to England on the Kindertransport: his grandmother hadn’t. He’d never been to Germany before, because he’d felt uncomfortable about it. There’d been some sort of family rumour that his grandmother had died after the liberation of Auschwitz, but she hadn’t: she’d died in Sobibor. He heard her story, and he also heard about the brutality suffered by his grandfather. His grandfather had lost an eye, and he’d often said about how that was down to the Nazis, but hadn’t talked any more about it.
Bernie, named after an uncle who’d taken his own life in Dachau, said that he felt that he’d been born into a state of bereavement: his friends would talk about their grandmas and aunties and uncles, and he didn’t have any.
And we saw Louisa Clein and her sister Natalie visiting Amsterdam, to learn about their grandmother, and her sister who hadn’t survived. The grandmother’s story was not what you’d expect at all: she’d been involved with the Dutch resistance. They knew that, because she’d received a certificate from Eisenhower after the war, but they didn’t know the detail, and they heard about how she’d helped Allied airmen to escape, which was fascinating. And she’d given her children up to foster parents, and that saved their lives.
But her sister had died. She’d been taken to a transit camp in Westerbork after refusing to wear an “S” symbol, and then deported to Sobibor, where she’d been killed. They were able to speak to a man whose father had been this great-aunt’s boyfriend, and had actually gone to Germany to try to find her after she’d been deported. There was a system whereby some Dutch Jews were sent to another place in the Netherlands, at Barveneld, where they were able to live relatively normal lives and she’d have stood a good chance of survival. Having been a teacher, she was considered important enough to be put on this list – but the news came one day too late. She’d been deported the day before. You couldn’t make it up. So sad.
They said that they’d known very little about her: their grandmother didn’t talk about her. And that now they felt that at least they knew about her life, and what she was like. And that was what this programme was really doing: it was taking individuals, it was humanising the worst period of human history. This was their grandma’s sister, a teacher, a dancer, someone who was stubborn enough to refuse to wear an “S”, who had a boyfriend who was so devoted to her that he went into Nazi Germany to try to find her, and at least now they knew all that. It was very powerful.
This really was an excellent hour’s TV. Not everyone feels comfortable watching programmes like this, but they are very well worth watching.