‘The monster was, and still is, hate’

Psychologist Bernie Graham on his involvement in new BBC documentary My Family, The Holocaust and Me, and why he thinks such stories are particularly important now. Our editor Jon Sutton asks the questions.

How did the programme come about?  

Following the success of Rob Rinder’s BAFTA winning Who Do You Think You Are the BBC wanted to explore further the experiences of second and third generation Holocaust survivors. I believe they placed an ad in both the Association of Jewish Refugees and the ‘Second Generation Network’ newsletters asking for people to contribute. I responded, offering some of the family information I had, but had no thoughts of appearing in any programme. Cutting a long story short, we had a good few telephone calls and exchanges of emails and then they asked me to do an interview on camera. I must admit to being a little surprised when they selected me for the programme.

Why do you think it’s an important programme to make? 

As the number of first generation survivors diminishes, it becomes increasingly important that we do not forget their experiences during the horrors of the Holocaust. Hopefully, such programmes can also help discourage and negate Holocaust denial. The programme is also a warning for today and the future with the rise of hate and intolerance throughout the world. Whether it’s racism/antisemitism, Islamophobia or homophobia, we must try to do all we can to stem this tide.

Many people have trauma in their family history. Do you think there’s something about the Holocaust, other than sheer scale, which makes it different? Rob said: ‘Its shadow, its dark impact, has affected everything, it has shaped my entire family’. 

Maybe it was the systematic industrialised nature of the Holocaust and the careful recording of it by the perpetrators. It was also the first genocide captured on film. Additionally, it could be because it was the intention of the Nazis to completely eradicate a ‘race’ and other groups of ‘undesirables’. The timescale of this mass murder, some 10 million men, women, and children in under five years, is unprecedented in history. 

This Holocaust was also personal – my family were murdered in this genocide and I felt I was born into a state of bereavement. As a child I remember hearing an awful lot about dead relatives and family friends. Having said this, I see parallels with the Slavery Holocaust: 12 million Africans were ‘shipped’ across the world into slavery with 2 million dying during transport. I recently delivered a seminar for the National Black Crown Prosecutors Association on Transgenerational Trauma focusing on the slavery and Nazi holocausts with more planned for the future.

Do you think that being a Psychologist was of relevance to this programme, in terms of why you went into it or how you reacted during it?

Yes and No: Yes, because I have undertaken clinical training around Post Traumatic Stress Injury and have worked with many traumatised clients: survivors of child sexual abuse, refugees and veterans… so I had a level of professional awareness of what I was entering into. No because this was a very personal exploration of my family’s history. I’ve explored the impact of the Nazi Holocaust on my family and myself in my personal therapy, and Wall to Wall Productions / BBC provided an excellent psychotherapist offering ongoing support. But I don’t believe anything can prepare you completely for such encounters with the past. It would be amiss of me not to acknowledge the support I also received from the Wall to Wall film crew while filming in Germany – they couldn’t have done more. The day in Dachau was particularly difficult, but the almost hourly text message support I received from my dear friend Simon Weston CBE helped me enormously. Now there is a man who understands trauma.

You seemed to be reacting as if the events you were being told about were happening at that very moment. 

The documentary was made by some of the BAFTA award winning members of the Who Do You Think You Are production team who made Rob Rinder’s original programme. In keeping with their production MO, uncomfortable detail is presented in real time to elicit a genuine and immediate reaction. I was also asked if I would sight read documents without any preparation to enable this.

In the programme the Clein sisters commented on seeing beautiful images of their relative, hearing about a man who travelled across countries to be with her, and coming out of that with pride… these stories are adding humanity in the face of inhumanity. 

I could find no light in the revelations presented in the programme. However, my parents (both Kindertransport refugees) exhibited incredible resilience during their lives of which I am so immensely proud.

I was struck by the contrast with Rob’s grandfather, who just said ‘I know what happened [he didn’t]… what happened to millions of others. I really don’t know what you’ll find.’ Do you think that urge to know more is more common in second and third generations of survivors’ families? 

I think it would be hard to generalise. Within my own family some are particularly interested, others less so. I think those who don’t appear to want to know more may find it all too painful and just want to put it behind them.

Are there still things you want to find out? If so, why? Do you still have that sense of wanting to hear more, but having concerns about that too?  

We have little information on the detail of the fate of my father’s family: of the seven members of his immediate family only two survived. We believe they were murdered in Treblinka and Belzec concentration camps. I want to find out more because exploring their fate enables me to know them at least a little and in doing so giving them some life. Concerns? Definitely. However, nothing I may endure comes close to what they did. 

When Rob stands by the graves, he reminds us of the importance that these people are remembered, that we know they had brothers and sisters who delighted in them. ‘It’s giving them part of their humanity, which was deprived.’ He says maybe that’s enough for now, but he goes on to remind us that is not the only place of earth like this in the world, and that the hardest part is maybe there will continue to be more. How do you think Holocaust stories specifically can help us to avoid history repeating itself? 

I would concur with what was written in the book The Reader; there is no catharsis in such places. However, through remembrance and education we can enable future generations to at least be aware of the horrifying consequences of hate and ignorance and hopefully they will do all they can to avoid repetition. We just have to hope.  

Now that you know the stories, has it changed you?

Yes, it has changed me. I have learnt, as I say at the end of the programme, that ‘the monster’ was not Germany, it was and still is hate. Hatred of anybody, this isn’t just about Jews. 

- The first episode airs on BBC One at 9:00pm on Monday 9 November. 

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