Rinder is a great host and enthusiastic interviewer, which must in part stem from his legal background. He is adept at asking the right question at the right time and getting to the heart of a story. In one of the many incredibly moving segments of this first episode, he visits Voranava in Belarus, the site of a massacre of 1,800 Jews in May 1942. There he meets an old woman who witnessed what happened. past; she tells him, with increasing tension, her memories of this horrible event. Rinder kisses her on the cheek and thanks her for telling the story, insisting, through her tears, that it is important for her to have done so, for the world to hear about it.
In addition to uncovering more of her own story, Rinder helps other families investigate theirs, using Who Do You Think You Are? model of historians speaking to people through documents that unlock long-standing mysteries. In Plymouth, he meets a psychologist called Bernie, named after an uncle who died in Dachau. They have an honest and heartfelt discussion about the legacy of the Holocaust and the trauma felt by children and grandchildren who grew up knowing the suffering endured by their loved ones. “I feel, in some ways, that I was born in a state of mourning,” Bernie says.
Bernie flies to Frankfurt, visiting Germany for the first time, to find out what happened to his grandparents; there was a vague idea that his grandmother Sabina had died after the liberation of Auschwitz. “It’s going to be very hard,” says the historian, speaking to him through the documents that reveal what happened to his grandmother and how his grandfather Solomon lost an eye. Bernie says he never mentioned it. “Most of the survivors did not speak,” says the historian, as she delivers one after another.
Rinder also speaks with two of his friends, his sisters Louisa and Natalie, whose grandmother Hermine had been part of the resistance in Holland. She had a certificate signed by Dwight D Eisenhower, commemorating her work, framed on her wall, but she too never spoke of what had happened or what she had done. It was, they explain, “forbidden territory. They just closed the door. They knew Hermine had a sister, Elsa, but they never knew what had happened to her. They travel to Amsterdam to find out, following a breadcrumb trail that reveals the whole story of Elsa’s life and death. She was a dancer, a teacher and a seemingly strong and provocative woman; hers is an astonishing story that turns, unbearably, in a single day. It’s a story I guess I’ll never forget.
As Holocaust survivors decline in numbers, this is a vital history lesson. It is also a collection of memorials, a way of recording and remembering ordinary and incredible lives. As Rinder says in the program’s introduction, these are stories about death, “but they are also about life”. This is done with absolute clarity. These lives, having been excavated by documents, witnesses and memories, are revived in a certain way, their stories passed on to another generation, their humanity, as Rinder says, returned to them. It’s hopelessly sad, of course, but it’s also beautiful.