My Family, the Holocaust and Me, episode 2 – BBC 1

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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.

 

My Family, the Holocaust and Me – BBC 1

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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.