BEHIND THE SCENES OF JANE SEYMOUR’S EPISODE
Jane Seymour’s episode was a harrowing tale of two Jewish sisters’ survival in Nazi Europe during the Second World War. Claire Vaughan spoke to Jane and the crew about their research and experiences
The actress discusses her WDYTYA? experience, which revealed her Jewish family’s escape from the Nazis
Ispent nine months in Birkenau and Auschwitz and elsewhere depicting some of the events that actually happened to my family,” Jane tells me. She’s talking about her 1988 role in War and
Remembrance as Natalie, a Jewish woman living in Nazi-occupied Europe during the Second World War. It’s incredible to think that 27 years later, while making Who Do
You Think You Are?, she would discover just how close to Natalie’s experiences those of her relatives were.
Award-winning actress Jane Seymour (born Joyce Frankenberg) found international fame as Solitaire in the James Bond film Live and Let
Die. She now lives in Malibu and has starred in many acclaimed television dramas, including Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman.
Jane’s father was Jewish and her mother Dutch. Her WDYTYA?? journey began with a photograph of her father’s extended family taken in the 1930s. She was particularly interested in two sisters in the picture, her great aunts Jadwiga and Michaela, who she knew survived the war. “I knew of my grandparents and great aunts and uncles but I never really knew much about them.”
Researcher Alice Fraser says: “Jane’s paternal grandfather left Poland as a young boy and settled in London. He left behind siblings and we knew that two of Jane’s great aunts were living in Nazioccupied Europe when the Second World War broke out – one in Warsaw and one in Paris – and we knew they’d both survived the war. So this posed the question of how does someone Jewish live through Nazi occupation and survive? That was our starting point.”
Sue Hills, the director of Jane’s episode, says: “I was very keen to make it a film about women because their lives are so rarely well documented in history. We hear many stories about the awful tragedy of the Holocaust and here are two women who survived – even though they only survive in a certain way because of the trauma and the horror they went through – it was still a story of survival.”
Before the war, Jadwiga, her husband, Herman Temerson (a gynecologist), son Jerzy and daughter Hanna lived in Warsaw. In 1940, a year after the Germans invaded, they were living inside the ghetto created by the Nazis to contain the city’s Jewish population. The family managed to escape before the Jews were arrested and sent to their deaths in concentration camps. Though they had help from Poles living on the ‘Aryan’ side of the city, sadly all but Jadwiga perished. Herman was shot dead in 1944 as he watched the retreating Germans from a window. Jadwiga had no idea what happened to her family until after the war.
As Alice explains, Jadwiga’s story was very challenging to research. “The records were so dispersed, plus it’s very difficult to trace the people in Warsaw because so many tragically ended up in Treblinka death camp where no names were recorded. We were comparatively lucky in that Herman was a prominent doctor, which meant he left more of a paper trail. After the war, people felt moved to record what happened to him – he was clearly a notable person in the community.”
Meanwhile, Michaela and her family were living in Paris. France declared war on Germany in 1939, but then as Germany’s invasion force began the push toward
Though the family got out of the ghetto, all but Jadwiga perished
Paris, three-quarters of the population left in what became known as ‘the Exodus’. Jane’s relatives headed away from the occupied north of France to Marseille, in the south, which soon came under the control of the Nazi-backed Vichy government. For Jane, this brought back memories of working on War and
Remembrance, as her character Natalie made the same journey to Marseille.
Michaela’s husband Aron Singalowski worked for an organisation called ORT that provided vocational training for Jews. This was to both help and hinder the family as they began their long journey to freedom. The records show that they initially managed to get all the paperwork they needed to get into the US, but they didn’t go – it’s likely that Aron felt tied to the other Jews trapped in Marseille.
As the Germans closed in, Jane tells me how frustrating she found this. “When they got the exit visa I thought ‘Thank God, get out of there’, and then I was handed another document that said they didn’t go. It drove me crazy – I was like, ‘Please, please, really, for the children, you gotta go’. At the same time I could appreciate Aron’s position.”
“It was very poignant when Jane learned about Aron’s attempts to get his family out of France,” says Alice. “The French National Archives preserved his visa applications and they show him making desperate attempts to get visas, he’s turning to every embassy in Marseille and every time the document comes back it’s stamped in big red letters ‘visa refused’ reflflecting the sense of entrapment that the family must have felt.”
Eventually the Germans occupied Vichy France and Michaela, Aron and their two daughters had to flee to Switzerland on foot. A week later, the Germans rounded up many of the Jews in Marseille and sent them to concentration camps. A document Alice tracked down shows the family were arrested as they tried to cross the border illegally. Initially they were sent to an internment camp, but were later released because of Aron’s job. They spent the remainder of the war in Switzerland.
Once Jadwiga’s war was over, she joined the many Jews desperately seeking what was left of their families. Jane says: “She found out that her sister had survived in Switzerland and somehow they got her a visa to go and visit.” But it was too much for Jadwiga and with the realisation that she had lost everything, she killed herself. “I went to the actual spot where they found her body,” says Jane. “After all that she went through, to then kill herself, I found that just heartbreaking.
“It was hard to stop crying. Just really harrowing,” she says. “I could vividly imagine – by being in the places, and seeing and touching the actual documents and having the experts tell me – exactly what happened and, specifically, what happened to my relatives.”
“The history was so powerful in this episode,” says Sue. “We hear terrible stories about the Polish people ‘helping the Germans, building the camps’, but here we have a story about Poles who helped the Jews and resisted the Germans. With France, we always get stories of the French Resistance but here we have a story of French collaboration. It was fascinating to see a different side to the common historical themes you get.”
The records used to research Jane’s story were spread far and wide. “We went to archives in Israel, America, Switzerland, Germany, Poland and France,” says Alice. “They were just all over and I think that reflects the nature of the events we were dealing with.
“The 1936 Paris census return and the Warsaw 1939 phonebook allowed us to locate Jane’s great aunts in those two cities just before the war broke out. Once the war gets going the records get harder to find but the Warsaw Ghetto Database ( bit.ly/1KJjUsL) was incredibly useful. This showed up Jane’s great aunt and her husband living in the ghetto, giving us their addresses. Herman was advertising his practice in the newspaper inside the ghetto.
“We also used the International Tracing Service Archive, preserved in the Wiener
Library in London ( bit.ly/1N3jbSG). This shows families trying to find each other after the war. We scoured those records and found Jadwiga applying to stay in Switzerland.”
The film revealed how Jane’s great aunts survived the war, but she tells me how their brother, Lewin, had made his own escape in the early 1900s. “My grandfather Lewin was being held in Plock on the border of Russia and Poland, when he was 14 for distributing the Bund, a socialist newspaper. Jews weren’t allowed to be socialists; he was arrested and sentenced to be sent to Siberia. The story goes that my great grandfather bribed somebody and got my grandfather off and sent him to England.
“Lewin didn’t speak a word of English, had no education and ended up in the East End where the one thing he could do was be an assistant to a barber. But he moved on to selling razor blades, then to having a factory that made razor blades and eventually he had a wholesale company.”
“If my great grandfather hadn’t stepped in, I wouldn’t be here to tell the story!”
Another piece of Jane’s story didn’t make it to the screen but you can watch this unseen footage by visiting our website ( whodoyou
thinkyouaremagazine.com). Alice explains: “We were able to forward trace Herman Temerson’s family and found that he had a niece, Malgorzata , and she was alive and well and living in Warsaw! She had an amazing story about being smuggled out of the ghetto as a baby with just her nanny, and being adopted by a Polish Catholic couple. It was amazing to find her and also for Jane to meet her and hear her story.”
“The horror of the aftermath of war will stay with me,” says director Sue. “You’ve got these survivors, but are they really survivors?”
The final word has to go to Jane: “It was life-changing for me to step into the shoes of relatives, and to realise that, but for the grace of God, me and my children would have walked the same path.”
The Frankenbergs in 1930. Jadwiga is on the far right, Michaela is seated second from the left