Family Secrets bring closure


Jackie Young during our interview, 2015

Jackie Young, one of our interviewees, who has spent much of his life trying to find information about his birth parents, left BBC viewers in tears in May, when he was reassured through DNA testing that both his parents were Jewish. He was subsequently reunited with some of his family. The following article about this experience recently appeared in the AJR Journal.

Jackie Young, 79, arrived at Theresienstadt when he was nine months old and stayed there for two years and eight months. After liberation he was adopted by a British couple who never told him of his past.

Jackie knew nothing of his past or even that he was adopted until, as a young man, he was preparing to get married to his fiancée, Lita, and needed proof of his Jewish identity before the marriage could go ahead at his local synagogue.

It was only then that he found out about some of his past — his birth in Vienna, his miraculous survival of the Holocaust, his adoption, and the name of his biological mother, Elsa. But of his father there was no record, with the field on his birth certificate left empty. He began to wonder how it was that he had survived and was nagged by the worry that his father may have been a Nazi who used his influence to keep him from the death camps.

Speaking on the BBC programme DNA Family Secrets, broadcast in May, Jackie said: “It’s the stuff of nightmares to find out I’m not English, these aren’t my parents and I came from a concentration camp.”

To discover more of his identity, the BBC show asked Turi King, a professor of Public Engagement and Genetics at the University of Leicester, to examine Jackie’s DNA.

When the results came back, she was able to tell Jackie that he is “99 percent Ashkenazi Jewish” meaning that “almost certainly, your father was not a Nazi.”

The researcher also found that Jackie had two living relatives, descended from his great-aunt and – uncle. The programme then showed Jackie being introduced to these long-lost cousins in London, at an emotional meeting. As compelling as this programme was, the BBC team were not the first people to show interest in Jackie’s story. In fact, Dr Bea Lewkowicz interviewed Jackie back in 2015 for the AJR’s Refugee Voices Archive. She recalls the interview vividly: “Jackie’s interview was one of the first of 2015, when we re-started to interview refugees and survivors from the Holocaust. We were warmly welcomed by Jackie and Lita and after some time Jackie started telling us his incredible story. It was not an easy interview, as Jackie got very emotional about not knowing that he was adopted and finding out that he had been born in Vienna and had come to Britain as a very young child survivor. It was clearly important for Jackie to try and find out something about his birth family.”

What was so unusual in Jackie’s story was that once he started looking, he found much information. After his arrival in the UK he was taken, together with the other five very young child survivors, to Bulldocks Bank, a hostel in the rural village of West Hoathly in Sussex. For one year they were under the care of Anna Freud and Sophie Dann, who wrote a detailed account entitled An Experiment in Group Upbringing, 1951.

Jackie was then adopted by a Jewish couple and Bea finds it remarkable that there was no proper follow up psychiatric care in place, given Jackie’s deep childhood trauma. In his Refugee Voices interview Jackie told her: “You can’t lose a family, cannot have a family killed, without it having had a major effect on your life. I wish it didn’t, and my [adopted] mother constantly asked ‘Can’t you just put it away? Forget it?’ I used to reply. ‘Look, if you were my birth mother, would you want me to forget about you?’.”

Jackie also quoted the Roman philosopher, Cicero “Memory is the treasury and guardian of all things,” explaining his constant search for history. He hoped the laying of Stolpersteine in Vienna for his mother Elsa and his grandfather Leopold might bring some kind of closure, but his search continued. The BBC DNA Family Secrets programme assisted him and when Jackie met his distant cousins from his father’s side in London, the viewers were privileged to witness a profound moment, when Jackie came closer than ever before to encountering a tangible piece of his history and his lost family.

Jo Briggs with Dr Bea Lewkowicz