Discovering that your grandfather Morris lost all his family in the Holocaust, but also that your great-grandfather Israel died in a British asylum as a consequence of childhood trauma, would be enough to leave many people feeling a little hopeless.
Not, however, Robert Rinder, he of the daytime courtroom TV series, the shiny floor of Strictly and now Who Do You Think You Are?. At the conclusion of his episode of the genealogy series, he describes himself as “peculiarly optimistic”.
“I recently watched the episode for the first time and thought, what an odd thing to say,” he admits. “But it was an honest response. Despite these appalling narratives, I’m surrounded by a family that have come through it all.”
At the heart of this family is 94-year-old Lottie, Robert’s maternal grandmother, the widow of Morris (who died in 2001 and whose five siblings and parents died in the Treblinka death camp) and daughter of Israel, who died in 1946 having fled what is now Latvia 30 years earlier because of the pogroms.
Lottie now has advanced Parkinson’s but is still, by all accounts, an extraordinary woman. “Even among my friends, she’s an adjective for benign sweetness,” says Rinder. “She’s a walking smile, Prozac in woman form. Morris’s early life was unspeakably hard, but my grandmother decided to meet the world generously and with joy. She has succeeded.”
Neither Lottie nor Morris spoke at any length about the latter’s grim experiences in the Polish city of Piotrkow, the first ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe, or the factories where he was set to work and half-starved. Nor did Rinder ever really ask, despite having visited Piotrkow with Morris in 1988, aged 20.
“I was too young to take it in,” he says now. “This time I wanted to get a deeper sense of how he became this extraordinary character. He was completely permeated with a sense of judging people by what they do, not what they look like.
“There’s something profoundly affecting about having been close to someone who has experienced the true impact of tyranny.”
Morris and Lottie on Honeymoon in Cliftonville
Morris survived the war, latterly in Theresienstadt concentration camp, albeit irrevocably changed. “In his bedroom, in hospital, in cupboards and drawers there were little handkerchiefs with food dotted around everywhere,” says Rinder. “That relationship to food of a survivor who was so hungry for so long… I found that very moving.”
Morris was one of 300 Jewish orphans who were sent from Theresienstadt to Windermere in the Lake District after the war ended. And the contemporary parallels of Morris finding refuge in a foreign land are not lost on Rinder.
“These boys and young men arrived at Windermere and had enormously productive families infused with this brimming love of England. It’s not surprising – imagine the Lake District being your first view of England, and to be welcomed so warmly by this rural community. We all came to benefit from that.”
Rinder hopes the impact of the episode will be threefold: prompting discussion and consideration of the Holocaust, the treatment of mental health and how we respond to refugees in the 21st century.
Despite depressing recent headlines regarding all three, his optimism doesn’t, on reflection, sound so peculiar after all. “I’m intrigued and a little bit tentative about the response [to the show],” he says.
“For me, it’s about working at how to be a better advocate, using these stories to destigmatise mental illness and counter the creeping shadows of hate and prejudice. I feel really strongly about democracy under the rule of law, but also how fragile that is, how we have to nurture, protect and love it.
“So much of that is informed by my grandfather.”
Who Do You Think You Are? is on Monday 9.00pm, BBC1