Lord “Dickie” Attenborough, the Oscar-winning director and prolific movie-maker who died on Sunday aged 90, grew up with two German-Jewish kindertransport refugees his parents rescued in 1939.
Helga and Irene Bejach, who lived with the family for seven years before moving to America, were lovingly described by Attenborough as his “sisters”.
Speaking to the Daily Mail in 2009, he reflected on how they “helped shape our lives… we loved them and cherished them” .
He told the newspaper: ” I will never forget when Helga and Irene first arrived at our home. They were two pale waifs with their pathetic little cases, aged ten and 12. They looked sad and ill. They were also nervous wrecks.
“We realised, even though we boys were all quite young ourselves, how shocked and frightened the girls were. My parents always stood up and were counted wherever they saw an injustice being done. And the Kinderstransport was a great example of caring for human dignity, for racial tolerance and for compassion.”
Lord Attenborough remained in touch with the women throughout the decades. Irene died in 1992 and Helga passed away in 2005.
It was Lord Attenborough’s epic movie Gandhi, arguably one of the least obvious successes in the history of the cinema, that marked the highlight of his remarkable career, clinching eight Oscars, including best film and best director.
His breadth of canvas and eye for detail were at their most impressive here, with Attenborough displaying a knack to control some 400,000 extras at the re-creation of Gandhi’s funeral.
As an actor he was respected enough for top directors Satyajit Ray and Steven Spielberg to lure him out of self-imposed retirement to appear, respectively, in The Chess Players and the blockbuster Jurassic Park.
His highly emotional and effusive character was one of the most lampooned in the art world, where he was known as the “original luvvy” who was easily moved to tears.
But, above all, his deep passion and unflagging energy as actor, director, producer, fund-raiser and chairman of numerous charities were genuine, and his good-nature was renowned in a notoriously tough world of clashing giant egos which he inhabited.
His public image belied a steel-like determination that took him from a powerful character actor in films such as Brighton Rock and 10 Rillington Place to director of conventional pieces such as Young Winston and A Bridge Too Far and ultimately Gandhi and Cry Freedom.
But tragedy was to strike. On Boxing Day 2004, his elder daughter Jane Holland, as well as her daughter, Lucy, and her mother-in-law, also named Jane, were killed in the south-Asian tsunami.