He may have found fame milking the emotions of guests on his talkshow, but it’s Jerry Springer himself who’s moved to tears this month, when he learns the fate of his family during the Holocaust in an episode of the TV series Who Do You Think You Are?
Born in London in 1944 to refugees from Nazi Germany, Richard and Margot, the America’s Got Talent host grew up to become, amongst other things, Mayor of Cincinnati.
But on a journey in search of his humble roots, he discovers that both his grandmothers – Selma Springer and Marie Kallman – weren’t as fortunate as his parents who escaped from Berlin in 1939.
“We all have these faded pictures,” he reflects, “but we didn’t know these people because they were exterminated before we were born.”
After meetings with the Association of Jewish Refugees in London, the 64-year-old embarked on a heart-wrenching trip to Poland where it emerged that his mother’s mother, Marie - or ‘Prisoner 368253’ as she would be known - was one of the first Jews to be killed in 1941 in the infamous ‘gas vans’ in Chelmno extermination camp. The vehicles, which held up to 60 people, were driven into the woods, where - after being gassed to death - the bodies of hundreds of Jewish victims would be dumped in mass graves.
As Jerry learns of this, he solemnly weeps at the memory of his perished grandmother, and recites a prayer, standing in one of the train wagons, that was used to transport Jews to the camps just 60 years earlier.
His grandmother, Selma, died of hunger in the show camp Theresienstadt. The 72-year-old was one of thousands of victims of disease, overcrowding and starvation. Jerry muses: “There’s no good news in any of this but at least she was spared the horror of gas chambers or death camps”.
There is one glimmer of light for Jerry during the show, when he learns that he has a number of Israeli relatives who he never previously knew existed. He even meets one of them, his great-aunt’s great-grandson, Yaron.
“What I was getting out of this was closure,” muses Jerry, “and I was concluding, what I’d thought for a long time, that there are no happy endings. Then I met Yaron and I snapped out of it.
“If you have family it always goes on – this is the lesson of all of this: hold on to your family because it’s all you have, because there will always be someone to continue it.”
Jerry isn’t the only famous Jewish TV presenter featured in the series. Esther Rantzen explores the myth of a troublesome great grandfather, Montague Levenson, who was charged with fraud, and fled to America, after a shooting incident that left a woman dead. Rantzen says: “He broke the mould, the respectability, the almost claustrophobic respectability that I thought my family was bound by.”