Something happened during the childhoods of my father Lord (Richard) Attenborough and his younger brother Sir David Attenborough that had a profound effect on them for the rest of their lives.
Their father Fred, then principal of Leicester University College, and their mother Mary, a suffragette and founder member of the Marriage Guidance Council, were providing their Leicester home as a staging-post for German Jewish children, who, having been smuggled out of pre-war Germany, were on their way to join relatives, usually in the United States.
On the day war broke out, they had two German Jewish girls staying with them, Helga and Irene Bajach. At that point no further transportation was possible. So my grandparents ‘adopted’ them. Two shy, terrified young refugees , neither speaking a word of English.
My grandmother gathered together her three sons, Richard, 14, David, 12 and John, 10, and explained that, while they were a family of five, they were now a family of seven.
She then added: “It’s very possible that over the coming months you will think we love Helga and Irene more than we love you. But you know that’s not true. It’s just that at this moment, they need our love more than you do.”
They lived as a family for the duration of the war, when the girls then travelled on to America to join relatives. They both eventually got married and had families of their own.
By sheer coincidence, my father and I found ourselves directing in New York at the same time, a couple of blocks away from one another, in 1984: me on Broadway, him on location in a Broadway theatre, shooting A Chorus Line.
We were there over Christmas, so my father invited Helga and Irene and their husbands to New York to celebrate. I remember us all having Christmas lunch in a restaurant called Maxwell’s Hammer, Helga grabbing me and insisting, “Sit next to me darling and I’ll tell you all about your father as a little boy, a very naughty little boy!”
My Jewish wife, Karen, and Helga then corresponded for many years and became very close. Helga memorably visited London once with her husband, Herman, and my father gathered the entire Attenborough family together, the three brothers with their children and grandchildren, at our home to celebrate their visit. A great occasion.
Sadly, both Helga and Irene eventually died of cancer. Their father was murdered in Auschwitz. Their elder sister, Jotta, who had been a year too old to obtain a visa to escape to England, miraculously survived the war in Germany and then travelled to the States to join her sisters.
She is still alive, aged over 100.
Most recently, Helga’s daughter, Bev, and her husband and children came on a pilgrimage to England to meet their mother/grandmother’s ‘English family’ and to visit the places where she’d lived. We all gathered together in my uncle David’s garden in Richmond one sunny afternoon for a very moving and unforgettable tea.
My father was sadly no longer alive to enjoy the occasion, but I shall always remember him telling me that Helga and Irene joining his family taught him one very simple truth – ‘I am my brother’s keeper.’
- Michael Attenborough is a theatre director