My Family, The Holocaust And Me With Robert Rinder Review – Remarkably Moving TV
In 2018, Robert “Judge” Rinder took part in the BBC series Who Do You Think You Are?, discovering the story of his maternal grandfather, a Holocaust survivor who found a new life in the Lake District as one of the 300 Windermere children. It was a gripping episode – tragic and hopeful – and one of the best the series had done yet. In My Family, the Holocaust and Me (BBC One), a two-part series, Rinder delves further into the stories of his ancestors and helps other descendants of Holocaust victims and survivors to find out the family stories they had previously heard only in hints and whispers.
It is a remarkably moving endeavour, although, given its subject, that is hardly surprising. Rinder sets out to learn what happened to the family on his paternal grandfather’s side. When he visits Harry Rinder in his flat in London, the camera cuts briefly to a photo on the side, of Robert in his wig and robes. His grandfather was an “original cockney”, born in Stepney in 1928, and his grandfather, in turn, was from Lithuania. They do not know what happened to that side of the family, but Harry gives his blessing for his grandson to visit Lithuania, and the town where the family once lived, to investigate.
Rinder is a wonderful host and an enthusiastic interviewer, which must stem in part from his legal training. He is skilled at asking the right question at the right time and getting to the heart of a story. In one of the many incredibly moving segments in this first episode, he visits Voranava in Belarus, the site of a massacre of 1,800 Jews in May 1942. He meets an old woman there who witnessed what happened; she tells him, with increasing strain, her recollections of the horrific event. Rinder kisses her on the cheek and thanks her for telling the story, insisting, through tears, that it is important for her to have done so, in order for the world to hear about it.
As well as uncovering more of his own story, Rinder helps other families investigate theirs, using the Who Do You Think You Are? Template of historians talking people through documents that unlock long-held mysteries. In Plymouth, he meets a psychologist called Bernie, named after an uncle who died in Dachau. They have an honest and heartfelt discussion about the legacy of the Holocaust and the trauma felt by the children and grandchildren who grew up knowing the suffering that their relatives had endured. “I feel, in some ways, that I was born into a state of bereavement,” says Bernie.
Bernie flies off to Frankfurt, visiting Germany for the first time, to find out what happened to his grandparents; there was a vague notion that his grandmother Sabina died after Auschwitz had been liberated. “It’s going to be very hard,” says the historian who talks him through the documents that reveal what happened to his grandmother and how his grandfather Solomon lost an eye. Bernie says that he never talked about it. “Most of the survivors didn’t speak,” says the historian, as she delivers blow after blow.
Rinder also talks to two friends of his, sisters Louisa and Natalie, whose grandmother Hermine had been part of the resistance in Holland. She had a certificate signed by Dwight D Eisenhower, commemorating her work, framed on her wall, but she, too, never talked about what happened or what she had done. It was, they explain, “forbidden territory. They just shut the door.” They knew Hermine had a sister, Elsa, but they never knew what had happened to her. They go to Amsterdam to find out, following a trail of breadcrumbs that reveal the full story of Elsa’s life and death. She was a dancer, a teacher and a seemingly strong and defiant woman; hers is an astonishing tale that turns, unbearably, on a single day. It is a story I suspect I will never forget.
As survivors of the Holocaust diminish in numbers, this is a vital history lesson. It is also a collection of memorials, a way of recording and remembering ordinary lives as well as incredible ones. As Rinder says in the introduction to the programme, these are stories about death, “but they are also about life”. That comes through with absolute clarity. These lives, having been excavated by documents and witnesses and memories, are revived in some way, their tales passed on to another generation, their humanity, as Rinder puts it, returned to them. It is desperately sad, inevitably so, but it is also beautiful.