Although he has lived in America most of his life, Jerry Springer was born in Golders Green, London, in 1944. His Jewish parents escaped Nazi Germany just three days before the outbreak of the Second World War, but both Jerry’s grandmothers perished in the Holocaust. “This is not just family history,” says Jerry, “this is world history.”
All knowledge of his earlier antecedents was lost with his grandmothers, so Jerry first sets out to discover if he can trace the Springer line further back. He visits Landsberg (now Gorzów, part of Poland), where his father once owned a successful shoe shop. At the town’s archive Jerry learns more about the rising tide of anti-Semitism that, in 1937, forced the family to flee to Berlin.
Two generations earlier the Springer family were in nearby Neustettin, now in Poland but once part of the German Kingdom of Prussia. At local archives Jerry learns how his great-grandfather, Abraham Springer, struggled against – but ultimately overcame – a campaign of hate directed at the town’s Jewish community. “My family [were] victims of anti-Semitism for the last 150 years, but there he was at the centre of it, fighting back,” says Jerry. “I’m proud.”
Next Jerry turns to the most painful chapter in his family’s past – the fate of his two widowed grandmothers, Selma Springer and Marie Kallman. He first seeks the help of his Berlin-born cousin Erica, who describes the family’s attempts to help Marie escape to America. They failed and she was sent to the ghetto in Lodz, Poland, and it is here that Jerry heads next.
An emotional journey
In Lodz he learns more about Marie’s life in the ghetto, and follows in the footsteps of his ancestor’s terrifying final journey. At Radegast Station, where thousands of Jews were crammed into train carriages that took them to their death at Chelmno Extermination Camp, Jerry is overcome with emotion.
His paternal grandmother Selma Springer also died in the Holocaust, but Jerry has no idea where or when. In Germany’s Potsdam Archive he finds the answer – a record of her deportation dated 1942 shows that Selma was sent to Theresienstadt, a Jewish ghetto outside Prague.
In an attempt to hide the brutality of the “final solution” from the international community, Nazi propagandists publicised Theresienstadt as an idyllic community with a holiday camp atmosphere, but the reality was far different. “This is part of the fraud – that’s what’s disgusting about this place,” says Jerry. “Not just the starvation, not just the loss of liberty, the torture. The hell of this place is that it perpetuated the lie.” Most of Theresienstadt’s inhabitants were killed at Auschwitz, but Selma was spared that final horror – documents reveal that she died, aged 72, in the ghetto hospital.
In the midst of these sad discoveries, there is a chink of hope when Jerry has the opportunity to meet with a relative he never knew he had – the son of another Springer who escaped within days of his own parents. “If you have family, it always goes on. That’s the lesson of all of this,” says Jerry. “Who do I think I am? I’m a link in the chain of a wonderful family.”