In Series 6 Episode 37 of ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ on SBS1-TV, Australian broadcaster Andrew Denton traces his fascinating family history. Known for his inquisitive television interview show ‘Enough Rope’ on ABC where he delves into the lives of world famous people, in this episode the tables turn and we get to dive deep into Denton’s Jewish Polish ancestry.
Denton reveals he always had a vague idea of his Jewish origins but that as he gets older, he has had a stronger desire to find out where he “sits in the puzzle.”
From London to Poland to Israel, Denton goes on a journey to discover the missing pieces of his Jewish roots. The truths confront and challenge him yet provide him with clarity about his heritage.
Over a generation ago, Denton’s family anglicised their name from Ditkofsky to Denton to avoid the anti-Semitism that prevailed throughout Europe at the time. Denton’s father, Australian writer and broadcaster Kit Denton, became separated from his Jewish religion when he married Denton’s mother, Lee Pearson, of Irish Catholic heritage, and became a proud atheist.
Denton begins his journey in Melbourne, where he visits his two sisters who have been safeguarding their family’s ‘Pandora’s box.’ Together they rummage through old books, photos and memoirs, a few of the first pieces of the puzzle.
When Denton reads a letter written by his grandfather, Harry Ditkofsky to his father Kit, expressing his turmoil about him marrying outside the faith, it starts to become clear to him how important Judaism was to his ancestors.
Denton travels to London to see his father’s sister, and discovers his grandparents were devout Jews who kept Shabbat, ate kosher and spoke Yiddish. There is further understanding of how much upset his father caused his religious grandfather and what being Jewish meant to his family.
Denton’s grandfather Harry had been born to Jewish Polish parents, Israel and Sarah Ditkofsky, who pressured Harry to become a rabbi. He refused, and not dissimilar to his son Kit, he rebelled against his Jewish upbringing.
Denton sets off to Poland to discover more about his great grandfather. Israel was born in a small Polish town called Suchowola, which was then under Russian rule. Over two million Jews escaped Poland, 120,000 of whom fled to England. Israel, in his 20s in the 1890s, was one of the lucky few who moved to London early enough to escape the anti-Jewish sentiment that was arising in his hometown.
Another revelation comes from the family’s “Pandora’s Box.” Denton comes across a rabbinical document that discloses his great great grandfather, Asher Mayer, was from a distinguished line of rabbis. Like Harry, Israel walked away from his destined rabbinical future to pursue a different life.
As the Jewish aspects of Denton’s heritage are revealed, he realises just how significant family, history and religion were to his ancestors. Denton reflects on his great great grandfather’s memoir, in which he reminds his son Israel, “No matter where you are, you have a place in this world even if it doesn’t feel like you do.” It seemed there was a trend snaking down Denton’s paternal line — for the young men to to diverge from their parents’ expectations. However, as his great grandfather, grandfather and father grew older and reflected on their actions, they came to reassess the importance of family and passing on traditions. In the Dentons’ “Pandora’s Box,” it was beautiful to discover how each father had written a concerned, touching letter to his son about the family’s Jewish roots, passing on the essence of the message from their rabbinical ancestor Asher Mayer.
However, nothing could prepare Denton for his trip to Suchowola. He finds a town that once thrived with equality and harmony, Jews and Poles, turned into a ghost of an emptied ghetto. By _??__, all the Suchowola Jews—men, women and children—had been rounded up by SS troops and Gestapo, deported by train to Treblinka and led to the gas chambers.
Confronted and shaken, Denton is devastated to find out all his forebears who remained in the town, like thousands of other towns’ Jewish communities, had been completely wiped out. “Suchowola represents the heart of the Holocaust,” Denton noted.
In learning about his great grandfather Israel, Denton sees the pieces of the puzzle fit together and form a clear picture of his Jewish ancestry, where he stands and the importance of his Jewish Polish heritage.
It seems as Denton climbed down his family tree through each father figure who estranged himself from Judaism in his own way, his connection to Judaism strengthened. Judaism was at the core of his father’s ancestors lives, and it was the passing down of stories through his father’s books and grandfathers’ letters that made it possible for his buried family history to reveal itself.
Our Jewish heritage will always be part of the present, as long as we keep passing down our history, stories, family recipes and the traditions that make up who we are — as Jews, as families and as a united, thriving community.
See the full episode here.