Every Jewish grandparent knows what it is to ‘kvell’. It means to delight in and praise a loved one’s success, and barrister Robert Rinder, best known as ITV’s Judge Rinder and for his whirl on Strictly four years ago, reckons his path through life has been all the more joyous thanks to four adoring grandparents – that’s a lot of kvelling.
‘I was immersed in, saturated with, some may say asphyxiated by, the full force of Jewish grandmotherly unconditional love,’ says Robert, 42. ‘Remember Beattie, the character Maureen Lipman played in those BT adverts? She was nothing compared to my grandmothers. I could do no wrong. There is no poetic way of saying this, but I could do something dubious on the floor in front of them and they’d call it art.’
His life was infinitely shaped by his grandparents, who celebrated his successes – whether it be in the courtroom or when he ‘went all jazz-hands’ (his words) on Strictly in 2016. Both sides of his family have always been eternal optimists, determined to see goodness and positivity, he says.
Robert visited his paternal grandfather, then 91, in east London before he headed off on a rather epic filming trip for a his new documentary last year. ‘Pappa Harry greeted me, as he always did, by asking, “What good news, son?”’
TV’s Judge Rinder (pictured) took his mother to Treblinka concentration camp as part of his new documentary exploring his links to the Holocaust
He wanted his grandfather’s blessing for the journey he was about to go on: to discover what happened to his paternal ancestors who came from Lithuania. They both knew, vaguely, what had happened (their fate had been the same as six million other Jews), but Pappa Harry joked that Rob might discover they were descended from Russian royalty, which made his grandson laugh.
‘He always made me laugh,’ says Rob.
The past tense is significant. Robert’s grandfather died in April after contracting Covid. He lived long enough for Robert to return from his filming trip, however.
‘And he saw the film, for which I am so grateful. He wanted to live long enough to see that, and I’m so glad he did.’
What a film, too. My Family, The Holocaust And Me (a two-part series on BBC1) is, in some ways, a continuation.
In 2018 Robert went on BBC genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are?, exploring the story of his maternal grandfather, Polish-born Morris Malinicky, who was the only member of his immediate family to survive the Holocaust.
Morris’s parents and five siblings were killed in the Nazi death camps, and Morris was one of 300 orphaned refugee children who were offered sanctuary and a new life in the Lake District.
The episode received eight million viewers and won a BAFTA, and Robert has now teamed up with the producer who made it to tell the stories of other families, including former Emmerdale actress Louisa Clein, and delve into the secrets of his own family.
Judge Rinder said that the most painful thing in the world is seeing your parent cry, and he that after leaving the camp neither he nor his mother (pictured right) could speak
Robert travelled to the extermination camp Treblinka, near Warsaw in Poland, where Morris’s family was wiped out. He took his mother, who wanted to say the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, where her ancestors had died. Rob says it was one of his most profound experiences.
‘It’s perhaps the most painful thing in the world to see a parent cry,’ he says. ‘On the way home we couldn’t speak.’
There are still eye-witnesses to that awful day, where those who were to perish were conscripted to dig the trenches into which their bodies would fall. Robert’s three-times great-grandfather and his two-times great-grandfather’s brother were among the dead.
Robert, one of the most eloquent voices on our screens, struggles to find the words to describe this one. ‘I spoke to an old lady who had been a witness. She watched these men, women and children be marched through the town, lined up and shot.
‘They were in the mass grave, some not even dead, when the next line of people went in on top. She spoke of the earth moving. Even after four days, the earth was still moving. Standing there was one of the most intense experiences of my life.
Rinder’s three-times great-grandfather and his two-times great-grandfather’s brother were among those who lost their lives in the Holocaust
‘It was just a piece of earth, but it was somehow the most articulate expression of human evil I’ve ever come close to.’
Robert speaks Russian, and jokes that he requested a Russian-speaking partner for Strictly so that even if he was rubbish he could improve his language skills ‘and maybe talk Pushkin. It didn’t work. One day my Russian-speaking partner Oksana and I cut through Highgate Cemetery so I took her to the grave of Karl Marx. She said, “Was he a dancer?”’
The documentary shows him comforting the old woman who’d seen the shooting in Russian.
WHY I ADORE SUZANNA
One of Rob’s closest friends is Good Morning Britain’s Susanna Reid. They visit Ibiza together every year, which sounds dazzling.
‘We holiday like old people,’ he says. ‘We like our lunches. The only nightclubs we go to are the ones that shut at midnight.’
So how did they meet? ‘She was one of the very first TV journalists to interview me and I thought she was amazing.
‘I had a complete crush on her, because of her cleverness. I was impressed by this funny, intelligent person who saw the world as I did.’
He sounds smitten. ‘The only problem is she’ll never bitch about anyone!’
One of Rob’s closest friends is Good Morning Britain’s Susanna Reid
‘I had to consult with the translator when we went through the records from that day. I heard the figure 1,800, referring to the number of victims. I thought my language skills were letting me down.’
It will surprise many that massacres of this scale happened in towns and villages, rather than behind barbed-wire fences. ‘The death camps were almost created to make the act of mass killing more humane – because of the psychological toll it was taking on the killers,’ says Robert.
It might surprise many too to discover that someone like him can find so many hideous Holocaust stories in his own family tree. ‘It’s not at all unusual to find these stories on both sides of the family,’ he says sadly.
That families like his are still discovering exactly what happened (and, more accurately, are still questioning what happened) is significant, he says. ‘For too long there was a culture of silence. Families didn’t want to delve there, but I think we have a responsibility to.’
The film has a stark message: the mound of earth he was standing by was ‘not the only mound like this in the world,’ he says. ‘And maybe there will be others in the future. We have a responsibility to bear witness.’
It’s tricky to shift on to lighter topics, but Robert makes it easy. When he was a practising barrister (he now only acts in an advisory role), his work involved the heaviest of topics: international money laundering, fraud, war crimes. ‘We’d have been unlikely to meet, unless you were a war criminal,’ he jokes, lightening the mood.
His progression from barrister to Strictly star was very quick. ‘One day I was making applications in The Hague for international arrest warrants, and two years later I was wearing Lederhosen, doing the Viennese Waltz.’
The key to his new media career was Judge Rinder. At a chance meeting with a TV executive, Robert suggested a British Judge Judy, with himself at the helm. Some are sneery about the show and, to be fair, some of the disputes are giggle-inducing (like the woman complaining that the contents of her handbag had been eaten by a goat), but he defends it.
‘A few may have a veneer of pantomime, but others will be about someone losing their house, not having child maintenance paid. Subjects people should have access to legal advice for.’
He became a sudden star, but he says fame came at an age where he was able to take it with a pinch of salt.
As part of the documentary, Rinder spoke to an eyewitness who watched a group of people be marched through Voranava and be mass executed
‘I remember having come from doing very serious and challenging work – an international inquiry at a very senior level – where expecting someone to make me a cup of tea would have been unthinkable. Then I came into Judge Rinder and all these wonderful young excited runners were asking me what coffee I wanted. I had to say to my producer, “If this carries on, I’ll be Kim Jong-Un in a week.”’
He’s sharp, camp and hilarious. He did (no surprises) study drama before deciding on a law degree, but bailed out because a friend was so much better than he was.
That friend was Benedict Cumberbatch, who later applied for a licence so that he could perform the ceremony when Robert married his then partner Seth Cumming. The marriage ended in 2018, however, and Rob is now single.
Ironically, he tells me that he’d love to be a match-making Cilla Black figure himself. He has history here too, and is terribly proud of the fact that his match-making skills have so far led to five weddings (in Jewish folklore, three gets him into Heaven, he jokes).
One of his ‘brides’ is the actress Brooke Kinsella, who he paired up with his lawyer mate Simon Boardly.
Whatever he does next, his grandparents would be proud, he says. His courtroom days saw him defending members of the fascist National Front party – did his grandparents applaud this too?
‘Very much. My maternal grandfather was passionate about free speech. He used to go to Speakers Corner and listen to anti-Semitic bile, and he’d say, “In this country, a man can say what he wants.” It mattered to him. All my grandparents had a generosity of spirit which I think comes from living in the presence of tyranny. We have to learn from them.’
My Family, The Holocaust And Me With Robert Rinder, Monday, 9pm, BBC1.