thu 13/08/2020

Return to Belsen, ITV review - Jonathan Dimbleby retraces his father's journey to a nightmare world | reviews, news & interviews

Return to Belsen, ITV review - Jonathan Dimbleby retraces his father's journey to a nightmare world

Return to Belsen, ITV review - Jonathan Dimbleby retraces his father's journey to a nightmare world

Are the terrible lessons of the Holocaust in danger of being forgotten?

Jonathan Dimbleby at the Belsen site

When the notorious Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany was liberated by the British 11th Armoured Division on 15 April 1945, the BBC’s reporter Richard Dimbleby was there to record the occasion. It was Dimbleby’s report for BBC radio, describing how he’d been plunged “into the world of a nightmare”, that alerted the wider world to the scale of the horrors which the Nazis had been perpetrating in the camps. The BBC producers in London were so appalled by Dimbleby’s account that they were proposing not to broadcast it, until he threatened to resign if they didn’t.

There were some unmistakeable similarities between this ITV film and BBC Two’s Belsen: Our Story, broadcast in January, not least the presence in both of Belsen and Auschwitz survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch. However, the Dimbleby connection was the unique selling point of this offering, since it was presented by Richard’s son Jonathan (who published a biography of his father in 1975). As well as bringing in survivors to tell their own stories, many of whom were only children when the British arrived, Dimbleby wanted to explore the way witnessing the Belsen slaughterhouse had affected the liberators. The former Corporal Ian Forsyth, 21 in April 1945, was left so traumatised that even now he can barely speak about it – “I can’t get rid of it,” he said, reduced to a pitiful state of tearful misery (pictured below, Dimbleby with camp survivor Zdenka Fantlova).

Jonathan Dimbleby & Belsen survivor Zdenka FantlovaEvidently Dimbleby Snr was deeply affected too, since he never once talked to Jonathan about it. His reports from the scene have been preserved as part of the official Holocaust archive, as if his sonorous and authoritative voice might put a stamp of authenticity on the records, to future-proof them from Holocaust deniers or neo-Nazis who might spring up later. High-quality documentary film from 1945, shot in seemingly higher resolution than many feature films of the era, recorded the fields of corpses and bodies being bulldozed into pits with an unblinking objectivity that was far more devastating than any emotional voice-over or manipulatively mournful soundtrack could have been.

Richard Dimbleby exhorted his listeners “to vow with all your heart that such things will never happen again”, but his son’s film left us with a twinge of doubt. We heard German historian Stephanie Billib warning that “extremists” are working busily to minimise the enormities of the Holocaust. As the last Belsen survivors are dying off, Dimbleby concluded, “anti-semitism and racism seem to be everywhere in the ascendant.” Warm words and good intentions won’t be enough.

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