The British actor and director Richard Attenborough died yesterday at the age of 90. To American audiences, he’s best known for having directed the acclaimed 1982 bio-pic Gandhi, and his star-turn as scientist and CEO John Hammond in Jurassic Park (i.e. the dude who reanimates the dino-DNA and gets them all into the mess to begin with). He got his showbiz start in the film unit of the British Royal Air Force during WWII, and was one of the most popular actors in Britain in the immediate post-war period.
Though Attenborough wasn’t Jewish, his family (which includes the legendary naturalist and journalist David Attenborough) has a touching and intimate Jewish connection: for seven years, they were the foster family to two Jewish sisters who fled Germany in the Kindertransport in 1939. In 2009, Attenborough told The Daily Mail about the arrival of Helga and Irene Bejach, and the profound impact they had on his family:
I will never forget when Helga and Irene first arrived at our home. They were two pale waifs with their pathetic little cases, aged ten and 12. They looked sad and ill. They were also nervous wrecks.
Their house in Germany had been smashed by Nazis with guns and their father taken away. After the girls had been with us for three weeks, my brothers David, John and I were called into the study by our parents.
… We realised, even though we boys were all quite young ourselves, how shocked and frightened the girls were. My parents always stood up and were counted wherever they saw an injustice being done. And the Kinderstransport was a great example of caring for human dignity, for racial tolerance and for compassion.
The three of us boys had no hesitation in taking Helga and Irene into our family. We really did see them as sisters, virtually from the time we were told they were going to live with us.
Initially, they were very reclusive, but they grew into attractive and confident young women. They helped shape our lives… We loved them and cherished them – and were so proud of them.
Read the full interview here.
(Photo: Lord Richard Attenborough attends the Galaxy British Book Awards held at the Grosvenor House Hotel on April 9, 2008 in London, England. By Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)