Robert ‘Judge’ Rinder comes from a large Jewish family and he has always been close to his 94-year-old maternal grandmother, Lottie, someone he calls “the quiet centre of our family”. As he begins his research on Who Do You Think You Are?, Robert wants to know more about two important figures in Lottie’s life, her father, Israel Medalyer, and her husband, Morris Malenicky.
Morris was a Holocaust survivor who died in 2001 in London, aged 78. He had registered his family’s deaths in the Holocaust in 1942, in which he lost his parents, his four sisters and his brother, killed by the Nazis at Treblinka extermination camp in Poland.
To understand in more detail about how Morris survived, Robert travels to Piotrkow, Poland, his grandfather’s birthplace. Here he meets historian Netanel Yecheili in the apartment block where Morris grew up. This settled life changed in 1939 when the Germans invaded. Unlike his family, Morris was not killed but set to work, first at a glass factory and later at a munitions factory at Schlieben in Germany, near the Buchenwald camp.
Visiting the site, Robert meets a friend of his grandfather who was also forced to work at Schlieben, Ben Helfgott. Conditions were horrific, and the workers were starved. “[Morris] didn’t look like a human being,” Ben recalls.
As the Allies advanced, Morris was transferred to Theresienstadt in the Czech Republic. When the camp was liberated, the Red Cross found hundreds of orphaned children. In August 1945, a Jewish charity called the Central British Fund offered to take 1,000 of the youngsters to the UK. Morris was among those selected, although it seems he lied about his age to qualify for evacuation.
After arriving in Windermere, Morris slowly built a life for himself, even coming clean about his real age as he prepared to get married. “It’s been a real privilege, a real gift, to walk that path with him,” says Robert of following Morris’s journey.
Turning his attention to his great grandfather Israel Medalyer, Robert sets out half-suspecting that he committed suicide, perhaps because of shell shock. The true story goes back further in time. While Israel served during the First World War, his service record reveals that he was never sent to the Front.
Nevertheless, he died at a mental health facility, Friern Barnet Hospital, where he was admitted suffering from “Melancholia” – depression. He was sectioned in 1932. So what might have caused this? The answer lies in Israel’s native Latvia, once part of Russia, where as a child in 1905, a year of revolutionary protests, Israel witnessed appalling violence meted out by the authorities. It seems likely that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Reflecting on his relatives’ contrasting experiences, Robert says, “I guess despite the darkness we’ve been through, I feel like I’ve come through a tunnel. Surprisingly I feel perhaps peculiarly optimistic.”