Robert Rinder sought to “bring alive” the experiences of survivors and their descendants during an emotion-laden discussion of his critically acclaimed BBC documentary, My Family, My Holocaust and Me.
More than 300 people joined the event, hosted by The Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR) in association with the Jewish News on Monday night, to watch the TV personality and barrister reunite with other second and third generation Holocaust survivors who featured in the programme.
The panel included his mother Angela Cohen, with whom he travelled to Treblinka; psychologist Bernie Graham, who travelled to Germany to discover the fate of his namesake uncle; and Noemie Lopian, whose mother was saved as a child by a French family.
They were also joined by Emmerdale actress Louisa Clein, who travelled to Holland with her cellist sister Natalie Clein to trace their grandmother’s activities for the Dutch resistance.
Taking on the role of moderator, Rinder explained to the audience that one of the challenges of talking about the Holocaust is that “often it’s presented through the prism of black and white, because it’s beyond the reach of the fingertips of history. But tonight, we want to bring it alive.”
Reflecting on his participation in the programme, Graham said he was surprised by how his training as a psychologist could not prepare him for the emotion of discovering what had happened to his relatives in Germany.
“Professionally I went in with my eyes wide open, I’ve done clinical studies in trauma and post-traumatic stress injury. However, on a personal level, the eyes didn’t feel quite so wide open. I wasn’t sure what I was sort of letting myself in for and I find it a very, very powerful experience.”
He admits that after finding out his uncle Bernhard had died at Dachau, he experienced acute stress for some weeks afterward. “I really did struggle, I could not talk fully about what I had experienced,” he revealed.
Elsewhere, Clein became emotional as she revealed an event that was not featured in the programme – the “extraordinary moment” she walked into a house built by her architect grandfather as a way of thanking the Dutch resistance member who had helped him.
Clein also told the audience how her aunt, just like her mother, had been handed to another family to be looked after, so that her grandparents could go and join the resistance.
She said: “At the end of the war she was given back, aged probably around four. The family that looked after her turned around to my grandparents and said, ‘Six million Jews died. Why did you survive? And they said this because they had four years of looking after this baby and they didn’t want to give her back. As much as it’s a terrible thing to say, it was understandable.”
Lopian also found a renewed appreciation for her mother, Renee, after appearing on the programme. Although her father’s story was well-documented in his memoir, Die Lange Nacht, her mother seldom spoke about her experiences as a child survivor of Nazi persecution in France.
She said: “I think the reason I never mentioned my mum was because my mum never mentioned herself. Seeing what little Renee had experienced at the age of 10 gave me a whole other dimension of my mother.”
Meanwhile Cohen gave an emotional description of travelling to Treblinka with Rinder to say the memorial prayer for her father’s family, who were all murdered there.
“Nobody ever said kaddish for them and to me that was so, so important,” she reflected.
AJR chief executive Michael Newman said the event was important in helping to explore “the ripple effect, those concentric circles and the impact felt, which although is such a distance in time, is still for some in living memory and something that trickles down to the second and third generation.”
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