Jane Seymour’s stage name suggests, in her own words, a “quintessentially English” identity. However, the star of Live And Let Die and Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman was born Joyce Penelope Wilhelmina Frankenberg. Her mother was Dutch, while on her father’s side of the family she has Polish-Jewish roots.
Jane is especially interested in the lives of two of her father’s relatives, her great aunts Jadwiga and Michaela, and their experiences during the Second World War. Knowing that her father, a medical doctor who served in the RAF, requested he be allowed to go to Bergen-Belsen to discover what happened to his Jewish cousins, she fears the worst.
Jane first travels to Warsaw where Jadwiga and her husband, obstetrician and gynaecologist Herman Temerson, lived in the 1930s in an upmarket, religiously mixed area of the city. This cosmopolitan life was swept away when Hitler’s forces invaded in September 1939. In October 1940, the Nazis created the infamous Warsaw Ghetto, an area of little more than one square mile where 400,000 Jews were forced to live.
By 1942, 80,000 had died of starvation and disease, but Jadwiga got out of the ghetto through a court building that marked the border with the rest of the city, and was probably sheltered in a house or apartment.
Herman escaped the ghetto too, but when the Nazis retreated from the ruined city, destroyed following an uprising by the Polish resistance, a German rifleman shot him as he looked out from a window. It’s a killing that seems both unlucky and shockingly casual. Herman was, suggests one source, “probably the last physician to perish at the hands of the defeated Germans”.
Jadwiga survived the war, but what about the couple’s children, Jerzy and Hanna? Hanna, one account suggests, was seen in Belsen, and likely perished in the Holocaust. “This is the cousin my father went to find,” says Jane. Jerzy, it seems likely, died earlier.
Next, Jane heads for Paris, where Michaela lived. In June 1940, following the German invasion, Michaela, her husband, Aron Singalowski and their two children headed to Marseille on the Mediterranean cost in Vichy France. Many chose to go to the port because they were trying to get away from the country by ship, yet Aron, who was director of ORT, a Jewish organisation promoting training and education, turned down one opportunity to leave.
As 1942 progressed, with the Vichy France regime cooperating with the Nazis’ racist and anti-Semitic agenda, Marseille became increasingly unsafe. In January 1943, after a journey that was most likely perilous and slow, Michaela and her family crossed the border into Switzerland as illegal immigrants. They were allowed to stay, helped by the fact Aron had capital and an income from his work with ORT. Others weren’t so lucky and were sent back across the border or, at best, lived in internment camps.
In 1946, Jadwiga joined her sister, allowed to visit Switzerland on a temporary visa. But Jadwiga didn’t survive the year. A newspaper report strongly suggests she committed suicide. There’s a reference in the same report to Jadwiga’s son, Jerzy, as having been shot.
The story of the women’s wartime experiences is complete. It’s not a happy ending, but Jane still sees having followed the sisters’ stories as a privilege. “I realise that in my family were two incredibly strong women that survived against all odds,” she says.