I think part of the idea behind this series was to show that the events of the Holocaust, whilst they were 75/80 years ago, are still having a big impact on perfectly ordinary British people leading perfectly ordinary lives; and it got that across very well. The lady whose family were arrested by the Nazis only a few hundred yards from the safety of the Swiss border, near the ironically idyllic setting of Annecy – it sounded like a story from a book or a film, but it was real life – spent her teenage years in Manchester and went to my old school, so that was certainly pretty close to home for me. We also saw Bernie Graham, who featured in the first episode, and Robert Rinder’s mum Angela Cohen saying memorial prayers for uncles and aunties who’d been killed in concentration camps, and being overcome with emotion: these were immediate relatives whom they should have known and loved and who should have played a big part in their lives.
And we saw Robert and Angela meeting Leon Ritz, the last survivor of Treblinka, and hear him saying that anger wouldn’t do any good and that you had to look to the future. Finally, we heard Robert say that he’d feared Treblinka would rob him of his optimism, but that he was still able to feel hopeful.
These two programmes really were very well done. Personal history programmes can sometimes be more effective than ordinary documentaries, and these were a prime example of that.
We learnt last week that Bernie had always been told that his young uncle had taken his own life in Dachau. This week, we learnt that that wasn’t the case: he’d died in the terrible conditions there. At that point, the ashes of Dachau victims were being sent to their friends and relatives, and so there was a grave for Bernie to visit, in Frankfurt where his uncle had come from. He was able to say the Kaddish, the Jewish memorial prayer, there, as Angela was for her aunts and uncles at Treblinka, and it clearly meant a lot to both of them and to Robert … but so, so distressing.
The mum of Noemie Lopian, the lady from Manchester, who’s still alive and whom we met later on in the programme, had been a young child in France during the war. She and her siblings had been sent away by their desperate parents, in the hope that the Resistance could get them into Switzerland. They’d been part of a group of 32 children accompanied by young Jewish French Resistance member Marianne Cohn. Only a few hundred yards from the border, they were arrested and imprisoned in the border town of Annemasse. We saw Noemie actually visit the prison where they’d been held.
Marianne, who’d already saved the lives of many children by getting them into Switzerland, was raped, tortured and murdered. The children were eventually freed, due to the intervention of the local mayor, and were helped to escape to Switzerland. Noemie’s grandparents survived in hiding, and were later reunited with their children. So that was a positive story, but, as she said, her mum had been through a horrific ordeal, and she felt that hearing the detail and seeing where it had happened gave a new dimension to her feelings for her.
It really was a very emotional programme, all in a very natural way about very unnatural events. I don’t always have a lot of praise for the BBC these days, but well done to them and to Robert Rinder and everyone else involved. These two programmes were superb.