JENNI MURRAY: Why am I so wary to talk about my Jewish heritage?

Fearful of racism, her father hid the truth from her until she was 14. Now JENNI MURRAY shares her family history with readers for the first time and asks…Why am I so wary to talk about my Jewish heritage?

  • Jenni Murray candidly shares the painful history of her father – who was Jewish
  • The columnist opens up about her first visit to Auschwitz in Poland
  • She explains family members’ feel to hide their faith and background out of fear 

I’ve always been reluctant to speak or write about my Jewish heritage, primarily because my father, who died nearly 20 years ago, would have hated me making it public. Even now, all these years on, I’m wary about being open about it. But it’s time.

Lord Mann, the Government’s independent adviser on anti-Semitism, is absolutely right when he highlights the fact that it’s no longer enough to teach children about the Holocaust. He says we need to teach secondary school pupils about modern anti-Semitism.

Teenagers need to question why there have been conspiracy theories accusing Jewish people of bankrolling and causing the war in Ukraine. Why Putin has been compared favourably to Hitler and why President Zelensky has been verbally attacked for his Jewish identity.

Just as young people need to understand the history of slavery and how it influences modern racism, they need to understand what lay behind the Holocaust and how it continues to affect the Jewish population.

Hesitant: Jenni with her parents in Blackpool in 1951. The columnist candidly opens up about her first visit to Auschwitz in Poland

To be clear, I’m not really Jewish. My father was Jewish because his mother was Jewish. It’s handed down the female line. My father, who was in no sense a religious man, married out.

Because my mother had no Jewish background, officially I have no claim to the Jewish faith, but I feel it deeply, and have done since the age of 14 when my father revealed to me what, until then, he had kept a closely guarded secret.

Until 1964 I had just been plain Jennifer Bailey, christened and confirmed in the Church of England.

There was some Welsh in the family — my maternal grandfather was Walter Jones. His wife was Yorkshire through and through, and my paternal grandfather was Bailey — mostly Yorkshire, with a bit of Irish thrown in. I knew his wife, my granny, had been called Field before she married.

We often went round to hers for dinner on a Friday night, but no one explained the significance, and there was never evidence of any religious celebration.

In 1964 my father was working as an electrical engineer at a chemical plant in Silesia, in the south-west of Poland. I was there for the Easter holidays. We lived in a small flat in a town called Blachownia, and one afternoon when Dad came home from work, he made an announcement.

‘I want to take you to Auschwitz,’ he said. My mother went crazy. ‘Under no circumstances. Jen is far too young to be exposed to such horror. No. You will not take my daughter to such a place.’

It was the first time I had heard my parents have a real row and a serious disagreement. My father stuck to his guns and told me we would go the next day. My mother could choose to stay at home, but he thought it was important that I knew what happened there.

I will never forget the drive through the bleak Polish countryside and the feeling that, beside me, my strong, always calm father was shaking with what felt like fear. There in front of us was that now infamous gateway with the words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ — work makes you free. I had enough German to know what it implied, but I was soon to learn what it really meant.

Columnist Jenni Murray, pictured, explains family members’ feel to hide their faith and background out of fear

The Nazis had no intention that anyone shipped to this place, loaded into overcrowded trains, would be made free. Most would die. A significant number would be murdered on arrival without ever being forced to work themselves to death.

My father and I walked in shocked silence around the huts where the workers were housed. Nothing but slats of wood on which to sleep. No breathing space between the occupant of the lower bunk and those above.

We saw the gibbet where hangings took place. We walked around the huts where the beginnings of a museum had been set up. There were piles of human hair, small suitcases taken away on arrival, shoes and clothes removed from those headed for the gas chambers. So many things that had belonged to small children. There were photographs on the walls.

The final place to which we wandered were the ovens where bodies were burned day and night. I’ve never felt such chilling horror.

As we headed for the gate to leave, my father was white with shock. We walked again under those terrible words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ and he whispered something I heard, clearly: ‘There but by the grace of God.’

I asked him what he meant, and he explained that Grandma Bailey was Jewish. She had come to England long before the war. Her name had been Feld, which her father had changed to Field, not wanting a German name. That meant, he said, that he, too, was Jewish but that I was not, because my mother wasn’t.

‘But,’ he said, ‘I don’t think Hitler would have worried about that. It was the race he wanted rid of.’

It was a lot to take in for a young teenager. I couldn’t understand why he’d never told me before. He explained he’d wanted to hide it.

He didn’t want me to suffer racism as he had with a name like Alvin, brothers called Reuben and Aaron, and uncles who worked in the schmatter (clothing) trade in Leeds. It was, he still believed, dangerous to be Jewish.

It was something my mother had clearly agreed with. When I was pregnant in 1983, my parents took my partner David and I for lunch. The new baby’s name came up, of course. ‘Well, David, I don’t suppose you’ll be going for Alvin, Reuben or Aaron. You do know there’s a little bit of Jewish in our family, don’t you?’

‘Of course,’ said David. ‘Why would Jenni not have told me that? It’s not a problem, is it?’

Their shame and fear lasted a lifetime.

I am not religious, but I feel my Jewish genes. They are part of my race. They took me to Israel in my early 20s, against the advice of my parents who were afraid for me, but I wanted to know more.

Young people must know that anti-Semitism still exists and it is racism. And racism is wrong whether the victim is black, brown or, in this case, white but Jewish.

So while I’ll be celebrating Christmas this Sunday, I’d still like to wish all my fellow Jews Happy Hanukkah — our festival of lights.

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