Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner talks to Fiona Leckerman about the tragedy that befell her family in Lithuania, which is the subject of a BBC One documentary commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day
Standing in a forest not far from the Lithuanian city of Plungė, Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner turns away from the camera and quietly says of the woodland area where her ancestors were brutally murdered by the Nazis: “It’s contaminated; it makes me feel sick.”
This is one of many poignant moments in the BBC One documentary A Story of Remembrance, commissioned as part of the Holocaust Memorial Day coverage that marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
A Story of Remembrance documents the stories of three remarkable women, each affected by the Holocaust. Beloved children’s author Judith Kerr, Auschwitz survivor Kitty Hart-Moxon and Senior Rabbi to the Reform Movement Laura Janner-Klausner, each share their personal accounts and, in doing so, reinforce the necessity of remembrance.
Kitty Hart-Moxon who survived two years in Auschwitz, after the liberation of the camps, moved to London to stay with her uncle and was not encouraged to discuss the horrors of her experience. This metaphoric gagging in effect hardened her resolve to tell her story.
She says: “I believe it is my duty to say what happened. I need to speak for those who died.” Judith Kerr talks of her survival: “I do know my entire life has been a gift, I suppose it is for everybody, but I might so easily not have had it.” Her novel, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, is now on the curriculum in German schools, a testament to her father, whose books were burnt by the Nazis.
Rabbi Janner-Klausner travelled to Lithuania to discover her family’s fate. She explains: “We need to remember the past and what happened and keep teaching it. Genocides have happened again and we have to be vigilant.”
In the documentary, she explains how her father, Lord Greville Janner’s dementia was the impetus for her to pick up the baton in the continuation of telling the Holocaust story. Having visited the mass graves of the entire Jewish community destroyed in Plungė, Rabbi Janner-Klausner says: “It gave a teeny indication of the putrid physical brutality there.”
Children were torn away from their mothers’ arms and, to save bullets, their heads were smashed into tree trunks. In the documentary, the camera lingers on these trees and the magnitude of Rabbi Janner-Klausner’s reaction is felt by the viewer. While in Plungė, she met with the only remaining Jewish survivor, who passed away 10 days after the documentary was finished.
Recalling their meeting, she says: “It was like having an electric wire connecting my father and me and his son. It was overwhelming and amazing.” The experience has reinforced Rabbi Janner-Klausner’s desire to help minorities. “We have to try to listen to the silence – who is silent in different spaces?” she says. “If they are saying one narrative, what is the alternative? We have to try and amplify the quieter voices.”
The documentary has allowed her to place the lost pieces into her family puzzle and furthered her desire to “challenge anti-Semitism here by trying to understand it in its correct proportions,” she says and affirms: “We are very lucky to be living in Britain today and we need to appreciate that.”
A Story of Remembrance is not simply three women retelling their personal Holocaust experiences, but it has given each the opportunity to express, in essence, the need to carry on. Of this future, Rabbi Janner-Klausner says: “We need to talk about what is hard, we need to continually be vigilant and question racism, anti-Semitism and anti-Muslimism.”
• A Story of Remembrance airs on BBC One on 28 January at 10.45pm