On Television

Memories of a massacre

Rinder’s documentary is the kind of television at which the BBC excels, says Adam Lebor

This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


When a man reaches a certain age, his thoughts to turn to the three G’s — grandchildren, gardening and genealogy. In my case — 59, since you ask — as my teenage children are still at school it’s too soon for the first, and while I love a beautiful garden I don’t have the patience to nurture one.

But I have spent a good part of my career digging out information, making connections, mapping networks and then writing about them, so genealogy definitely appeals. Every family has its stories — and secrets — some shared, others not, but we all want to know more about who we really are and where we came from. Nowadays ancestry websites make it incredibly easy to find a treasure trove of information with a few clicks on the keyboard. Like everyone, I have four potential lines to explore.

On my mother’s side, I know that my grandfather, Ernest Abra, fought in the First World War in the Middle East and that his wife, my grandmother Ethel, lost two brothers in the conflict. We have a splendid photograph of grandfather Ernest sitting on his horse at Baghdad railway station.

On my father’s side both my grandparents, Barnett and Lily, were born in what was then Russia and came to Britain to escape the Tsar’s pogroms and build a new life. Like many east European Jews, they settled in the East End until they were bombed out, then relocated to north London.

A couple of hours digging online brought forth a rich haul: census records, registers of births and deaths, newspaper announcements of betrothals and marriage

A couple of hours digging online brought forth a rich haul: census records, registers of births and deaths, newspaper announcements of betrothals and marriage. What little we knew about our family origins in Russia was that the Lebors supposedly came from a place today called Ashmyany, now in Belarus, about 35 miles south-east of Vilna, the capital of Lithuania.

I have a rare family artefact from those times, a Hebrew book called Chayei Adam, by Rabbi Avraham Danzig, a treatise on the laws of daily conduct and Jewish observance. The thin, fragile paper has turned brown with age but the Russian lettering Vilna, 1868 is still clear. It may have originally belonged to my great-grandfather, Abraham Judah.

One of the most fascinating documents I found was the March 1912 naturalisation certificate of my paternal great-uncle, Israel (Isidore). Buried in the formal but touching legalese of Israel’s oath of allegiance to King George V, and the declaration that he was “hereby naturalised as a British Subject,“ entitled to “all political and other rights, powers and privileges” and subject to the same obligations as a natural-born British subject, was something new.

Israel was a subject of Russia, but his birthplace was listed as Divenisok, in the province of Vilna, just over 20 miles south-west of Ashmyany. Nowadays the town is called Dieveniskes, the last sizeable settlement in a finger of Lithuanian territory surrounded by Belarus.

I recently watched a new two-part BBC documentary called My Family, the Holocaust and Me. Presented by Robert Rinder, the programme tells the story of three British Jewish families who have been affected by the Holocaust: Rinder’s own, that of Bernie Graham, and sisters Natalie and Louisa Clein. The Cleins want to know more about the fate of their great-aunt Els, a brave woman who was active in the resistance. Els was caught and eventually killed, like much of Dutch Jewry, in the Sobibor extermination camp.

Bernie Graham wants to understand more about his grandfather, who survived Buchenwald, where he was tortured and lost an eye. But it was the fate of Rinder’s family that gave me a sharp intake of breath. His relatives, he learns, came from Dieveniskes.

Rinder’s documentary is the kind of television at which the BBC excels: intelligently presented, sensitive and non-sensational, letting the power of the material, and its horror, stand on its own.

The fate of Lithuanian Jewry is well documented. About 90 per cent of the 160,000 Lithuanian Jews were killed, often with extreme brutality. The SS had plentiful helpers among the local police and auxiliary forces. In Kaunas, a man known as the “Death Dealer” beat local Jews to death with an iron bar while spectators watched.

Intelligently presented, sensitive and non-sensational, it lets the power of the material, and its horror, stand on its own

In summer 1942 the Jews of Dieveniskes were marched to Voranava, a small town now in Belarus. There they were lined up and machine-gunned into a ditch, now a long mound on the edge of town. The most moving part of the programme, one quite hard to watch, is Rinder’s interview with Helena Sheshko, an elderly lady who as a child witnessed the massacre. After the grave was filled in, the earth, she recalls, kept moving.

I know nothing of what happened to any family members who may have stayed behind in Dieveniskes or Ashmyany. My searches so far on various Holocaust databases have turned up no leads. Jewish wartime genealogy is generally a bleak affair. We have now hired a researcher in Vilna to go into the archives.

Part of me fears what she will discover, but it is our duty to try and find out. If and when we learn the names of our relatives and their fate, we will at least be able to mourn them.

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