Growing up in the dark shadow of trauma: Robert Rinder on the legacy of Holocaust

Barrister and TV presenter Robert Rinder tells us about his two-part documentary dealing with the legacy of the Holocaust and its impact on his family – and why it’s vital to talk about the trauma

Robert Rinder (right) in My Family, The Holocaust and Me

How did My Family, the Holocaust and Me come about?

Robert Rinder: It grew out of Who Do You Think You Are? [in a 2018 episode of the BBC genealogy series, production company Wall to Wall researched the stories of Rinder’s relatives lost in the Holocaust], and the extraordinary response it generated. I was probably the least famous person to appear in that series, but it attracted a wave of viewers. One good news story is that there wasn’t a peep of anti-Semitism on social media – just an outpouring of conversation, curiosity and a desire to know more.

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How did you attempt to reconcile yourself with the trauma your relatives went through at the Treblinka extermination camp?

Doing Who Do You Think You Are? breathed life into the story of this family who had been murdered in Treblinka, but there was still a sense of a lack of completion. Although I think there’s no such thing, in this historical context, as closure, it seemed important to be able to go to Treblinka and say Kaddish, the Jewish memorial prayer. That somehow mattered: to give the dead an element of honour, burial and memory, and being able to do something for them to restore their humanity. That was one of the most profound moments.

So many people knew their parents had gone through the Holocaust and grew up with this shadow of trauma

Drawing on your family’s own experiences, how do you respond to psychologist Bernie Graham’s idea of being born into “a state of bereavement”?

I remember my mum describing growing up around people who weren’t there anymore; there was a sense that things could be taken away. There are so many people who knew that their parents had gone through the Holocaust and grew up with this dark shadow of trauma. That inevitably informed their parenting and coloured their childhood, but they knew nothing because it was too big and too difficult a subject to talk about.

Is there a sense that this kind of research can be a way of passing on not just information but – and this seems an awkward way of putting it – better mental health?

That’s a good way of putting what is a really, really important question – the answer to which is ‘yes’. What it does is enable a conversation, and it’s that conversation that allows some people to say, “Aha, now I understand why certain things affect me. Now I understand why my parents acted in a certain way.” It gives you, perhaps, a greater level of understanding, which I think imbues you with the capacity to think about yourself and to forgive them – and to restore their humanity as well.

The new two-part series My Family, the Holocaust and Me is set to air on BBC One on Monday 9 November at 9pm

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This article was first published in the October 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine