Oscar-winning actor Sir Ben Kingsley, who has portrayed important figures from the Holocaust, including Otto Frank and Simon Wiesenthal, has spoken about how an anti-Semitic comment made by his grandmother when he was just nine-years-old spurred him on to prove she was wrong.
Sir Ben, who joined Professors Robert Eaglestone and Barry Langford from Royal Holloway’s Holocaust Research Institute in Egham, discussed the Holocaust on film in a deeply personal and heartfelt question and answer session last month.
Sir Ben spoke of his memories of seeing documentary footage of Holocaust survivors at Bergen-Belsen on television, aged nine; a formative moment of shock and grief that has since led him to help tell vital stories of the Holocaust through film.
“I remember my heart stopped beating and I was alone in the house. I was shattered by what I’d seen,” recalled the actor, who attended Manchester Grammar School, where, he said, “most of my friends were Jewish”.
A few days later, his maternal grandmother said: “Hitler was right; he should have killed all the Jews.” Sir Ben told the audience:
“I was given a very sharp close-up of European anti-Semitism. Something in me said: ‘I’ll have an answer for you one day.’ I was able to have some sense in my own family of what Simon Wiesenthal had to confront.”
Over the years, the actor has portrayed Wiesenthal, the survivor who searched for Nazi war criminals in Murderers Among Us (1989); Itzhak Stern, the Jewish accountant who helps his employer save Jewish lives in Stephen Speilberg’s Schindler’s List (1993); and Otto Frank in the 2001 film Anne Frank: The Whole Story.
He also won an Oscar for playing the Indian leader in Ghandi in 1983.
Sir Ben described the sense of responsibility and privilege he feels in sharing tales of the Shoah.
“When we attempt to describe the Holocaust, the language fails,” he explained. But, he emphasised the importance of remembering the Holocaust, saying: “We must tell tales.”
He spoke of his admiration for Wiesenthal, whose office was in Vienna after the war.
“I got to know and love him truly. He told me of the liberation of Mauthausen concentration camp – he was there. It seems incredible that I was with one of the witnesses of the Holocaust. He had extraordinary strength and moral clarity.”
He spoke about Liam Neeson, who played businessman Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List.
“I loved my fellow actors. Liam was a beautiful man, a mensch to work with. The director [Spielberg], of course, was a genius,” he enthused.
Portraying Stern, Sir Ben felt a deep sense of responsibility. “[During filming] I had in my pocket a photo of Anne Frank and I used to take it out of my pocket and I’d say: ‘I’m doing it for you.’”
He was also impressed by Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. Sir Ben recalled: “I first had the great opportunity of standing next to him in the wings of a theatre in, of all places, Berlin. He was to deliver a speech and he was asked to speak to the audience and Elie Wiesel walked on stage and I think they stopped breathing and they froze.
“His opening remarks were: ‘My dear young Germans: ‘I know it’s very difficult being you.’ It was extraordinary and said with poise, dignity, infinite wisdom.
“The Holocaust is an indigestible lump of history that may never be forgotten, that will never be forgiven and will never be understood.
“To have Elie acknowledge that lump that has yet to be absorbed because it can’t but we must try, I admired him for those words.”
Robert Eaglestone, professor of English in the Holocaust Research Institute, said: “Sir Ben captivated the audience with his candid, sincere insights.
“Spanning discussion of Holocaust film, his superb craft as an actor and his meetings with survivors, all heard his message of the importance of storytelling in ensuring that through film we continue to remember the Holocaust”.
Langford, the institute’s professor of film, said: “Sir Ben’s portrayals in seminal works such as Schindler’s List are not just lessons in first-class acting, but are a manifestation of his desire to use his craft to ensure such horrors do not happen again.
“His insight into the creation of these characters, from his personal meetings with those he has bought to the screen to working with directors such as Spielberg, truly brought to life the passion with which he approaches this most troubling yet compelling and vital of subjects.”
The event was introduced by Sir Andrew Burns KCMG, former UK Special Envoy for post-Holocaust issues 2010-2015.