Standing at the entrance to a former Nazi concentration camp in Serbia, Edwina Currie found herself feeling overwhelmed as she heard about one exceptionally courageous episode that took place here nearly 80 years ago.
For it was at Nis that 35,000 Serbs, Romanis and Jews were held, more than 10,000 people were murdered – and where on February 12, 1942, inmates organized the first mass escape of prisoners in occupied Europe.
“The old people in the camp ran and threw themselves at the guards and on the barbed wire, so that the young ones had a chance of climbing over their bodies to escape,” reflects the formidable former Tory MP. “Isn’t that just amazing? You think about such courage, such heroism, such sacrifice – and here we are, living in a country where people are now scrabbling around for toilet rolls.”
Currie, who resigned as junior health minister in 1988 over the infamous salmonella scare, is keen to put life into perspective while others panic over coronavirus, especially since embarking on a thought-provoking journey for BBC One’s Pilgrimage: The Road To Istanbul.
In the new series, Currie, 73, is joined by journalist Adrian Chiles, Olympian Fatima Whitbread, broadcaster Mim Shaikh, television presenter Amar Latif, comedian Dom Joly and actress Pauline McLynn.
Staying in basic hotels and sleeping in shared dorms, the group follow an ancient military route covering more than 620 miles, from Serbia’s capital city in Belgrade, through Bulgaria and the mountainous Balkans,
to Turkey and the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul.
With just over two weeks to complete their journey, the pilgrims visit historical monuments and see first-hand how religion has played a part in conflict over the centuries.
Each celebrity comes from a different faith background and for Currie it provided a chance for her to reflect on her Jewishness – something she admits “not talking about very much”.
Speaking this week from her home in the Peak District, where she lives with her second husband, John Jones, Currie tells me that she did have doubts about how physically demanding the walk would be – “like many Jewish people, I’m more cerebral than physical” – but was nevertheless intrigued enough to take part and reconnect with her Jewish background.
“I don’t talk about my Jewishness, but it’s very much part of who I am,” says Currie, whose family sat shiva when she married her non-Jewish first husband, Ray. “My family was from Liverpool, Ashkenazi and quite orthodox.
“My great-grandfather ran the mikvah in Liverpool for many, many decades. I always had this feeling of not wanting to upset or hurt anybody in the family. I’m now one of the oldest in the family, so it probably doesn’t apply any longer, but as a teenager, I wondered how I could move away from this very strong grip without disrespect to my parents.
“The obvious way was to go to university – and I never really went back, both emotionally, physically and in religious terms.
“But the love of family, of community, a sense of obligation to help other people, those are the things I was brought up with, always packed in my suitcase and taken with me.”
Despite describing herself as a “lapsed” Jew, Currie was clearly touched on her visit to Nis concentration camp and also took time out to acknowledge the Jewish new year, which began during the pilgrimage.
“On Erev Rosh Hashanah we found a hill, watched the sun go down in the west and dipped apples in honey,” she recalls. “That’s what my grandparents would have liked. It very much felt like my family was sitting there with me.”
Equally poignant for Currie was visiting a house that once belonged to a wealthy Jewish family and next door, a ruined synagogue, in Samokov, Bulgaria, where efforts are being made to restore the building and its “beautiful” frescoes to former grandeur.
She also heard in detail how Bulgaria’s Jews were largely saved from deportation during the Second World War, after the intervention of public figures, including Tsar Boris III. “They must have felt the Jews were the same as them – Bulgarians – which was extremely uplifting to hear,” says Currie. “The synagogue is ruined but the intention is there to do it up and have it as testament to a long standing and very successful community that was part of Bulgaria.”
Over the course of her journey, Currie reveals that she grew closest to Fatima Whitbread, a practising Christian, who she describes as “absolutely amazing”, as well as Muslim television presenter Amar Latif, who is blind.
“His psychological insights were remarkable,” notes Currie. “Because he was blind, he could read people very easily and was also tremendously cheerful all the time. You couldn’t be downhearted in his company.”
Looking back at her two-week journey, I ask Currie if she felt her sense of faith growing stronger as a result of taking part.
“Oh, the crew kept asking us that and they would have been thrilled to bits if we said yes, but I’m not sure my attitude shifted all that much!”, laughs Currie. “But then again, I am 73, so I’ve had plenty of time to live my life according to how I want.
“I did find myself arguing over miracles. I don’t believe in them, I don’t believe in magic, but I do believe in the goodness of man – and that there is maybe something bigger than ordinary, everyday life.”
- Pilgrimage: Road To Istanbul airs on BBC One tomorrow (Friday), 9pm