As he wryly reflects at the start of his episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, Stephen Fry’s public persona is so English that people assume he’s got “ancestors made largely of tweed”. That’s not how the actor and writer sees his heritage. Every family, he says, has a dominant figure. When Stephen was growing up, this was a role occupied by his maternal grandfather, Martin Neumann, a larger-than-life Jewish émigré from Eastern Europe who had the apparently infuriating habit of punning in two languages.
It was Martin’s expertise in the sugar industry that brought him to the UK in 1927, accompanied by his wife and daughter. Having worked at Europe’s largest sugar beet factory, in Surany, Slovakia, Neumann was recruited as an advisor at a newly established factory in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. But what happened to the rest of Martin’s family?
Before he heads to Europe, ultimately to uncover a mournful story of the Holocaust, Stephen is first keen to learn more about his paternal grandmother, Ella Florence Pring. He suspects he may find a dark secret as he heads for the Family Records Centre in Islington.
In the event, it seems more a case of the family not referring to Ella’s past because she came from such a desperately poor background. Stephen’s 2x great grandfather, Henry (1827-96), for example, was an inmate at the workhouse in Lewisham. Stephen’s great grandfather, Albert (1869-1923), died of tuberculosis.
Next, Stephen heads for Vienna and military archives held in the city. Here, he discovers more about Martin Neumann’s experiences in the First World War. Aged just 18, Martin volunteered the Austro-Hungarian army and won a medal for his service on the Eastern Front in Romania. “He really was a kid,” marvels Stephen.
When the conflict ended, Martin visited distant cousins, the Brauns, in Vienna. He was generously received, in part perhaps because he brought food at a time of shortages. Martin subsequently married Rosa Braun, Stephen’s grandmother. Seeing the apartment block where the Brauns lived, Stephen discovers a plaque that features the names of his great grandparents, Samuel and Berta. It’s a monument to those who lived in the building and were taken to the concentration camps during the Holocaust. Samuel and Berta were among 65,000 Viennese Jews deported to a ghetto in Latvia in 1942.
But for the job opportunity that took him to East Anglia, Martin could easily have shared their fate. But what was Martin’s life in Europe like? To learn more, Stephen heads to Surany, cruising down the Danube, where he visits the now closed and desolate sugar factory where Stephen worked.
In a 1926 old photograph, Stephen’s delighted to see that Martin looks a little like a young Einstein. Less happy is the town’s Jewish cemetery, now locked and surrounded by a concrete wall to prevent desecration and robbery. It’s here that Stephen’s great grandfather, Leopold Neumann, is buried.
More disturbing still is the history of the town’s Jewish population. Surany was once part of Hungary, a country that fought with the Axis powers in the Second World War. More than 600 Jews from Surany were murdered in the Holocaust. They included Martin’s sister, Reska, her husband, Tobias Lamm, and the couple’s young children.
Stephen has long thought his mother’s cousins died at the hands of the Nazis, but seeing documentary evidence of their fate still affects him deeply. “Seeing their names there and that f***ing word, Auschwitz, it does something to you,” he says. “I tell you, it’s quite terrible.”
Back in England, Stephen tells his family of the “malevolent history” that he’s found. “I’m so lucky simply to be alive,” he says.