Jerry Springer: The holocaust and my family

His name will always be synonymous with his TV talk show, but there's more to Jerry Springer than spoof operas and fighting dwarfs. James Rampton meets a fiercely political animal who's coming to terms with a painful family history

I Married My Horse. Pregnant by a Transsexual. Honey, I'm a Call Girl. Here Come the Hookers. My Boyfriend's a Girl. I Refuse to Wear Clothes. Jerry Rescues a 1,200 Pound Couple. When Past Guests Attack.

These are some of the more memorable titles of episodes from The Jerry Springer Show. The programme, which has been running for 17 years to audiences of up to 25 million in the States and is now syndicated to more than 40 countries, has been held up as the dictionary definition of car-crash TV. One of the most watched clips on YouTube, for instance, is of two dwarfs having a huge punch-up on the show, while the studio audience whoop and holler their approval. It makes the Roman Arena look like a model of restraint.

Jerry Springer himself has been accused by critics of taking "the dumbing-down of America to the furthest extremes" and of being "a million-dollar pimp who seduces the worst of American culture". It's a show so tasteless that an entire opera was built around its trailer-trash crassness. So I'm bracing myself before meeting the man one columnist has dubbed "the King of Sleaze".

But upon entering the smart hotel, I encounter someone refined, cultured, immaculately tailored and possessed of a razor-sharp sense of self-irony. To pre-empt anyone else taking the rise out of him, Springer is always the first to send himself up. With a laugh, for example, he recollects bumping into the actor portraying him in the West End production of Jerry Springer: The Opera. "I offered my condolences. No one should have to go through life looking like me. I told him, 'You poor thing, have you considered surgery? It's the pinnacle of your career – and you have to play me.' Imagine having to put that on your résumé – 'I was Jerry Springer.' Oh great!" In a similarly self-deprecating moment, the presenter went on stage at the end of the first night of Jerry Springer: The Opera and simply said: "I'm sorry".

Meeting him, then, is quite a surprise. But Springer is full of surprises, as I am to find out. He starts by explaining to me that there are in fact two Jerry Springers. There is "Jerry Springer", the almost cartoon-ish vulgarian who hosts the talk show and fails to intervene as the dregs of American society hurl abuse and heavy items of studio furniture at one another. And then there is the Jerry Springer with no quotation marks, the man who exists away from the TV show bear-pit, the quietly spoken, shrewd operator who uses the profile the programme gives him to further his liberal politics.

Today I'm meeting the latter version. A canny man, he is quick to acknowledge the duality. "The public Jerry Springer is a persona which deserves to have the piss taken out of it," he says. "The show couldn't work without the persona we've created. I've always separated the private from the public. There is no tension and no fake ego. Away from the screen, I have this wonderful life, and yet I can go to the office and become this larger-than-life celebrity who gets into trouble. I never combine the two personas – because that would destroy them both."

It is the thoughtful Springer who also makes an appearance on Who Do You Think You Are?, BBC1's genealogy programme, which goes out on Wednesday. He reveals an unexpectedly sensitive side and is reduced to tears as he explores what happened to his family during the Holocaust. His parents had to leave Germany in such haste, they were not able to take their mothers with them. So now he is attempting to find out what became of the grandmothers he never met.

He begins his emotional journey by coming to this country, where he was born in East Finchley Tube station during an air raid in 1944. His German-Jewish parents fled here on 1 August 1939, just a month before the border closed at the outbreak of the Second World War. (Later, in 1949, the Springer family emigrated to Queen's in New York.)

Springer then travels to what was then Landsberg in Germany (and is now Gorzow in Poland), where his father ran a shoe shop before the War. During the 1930s, Jews in that town were subject to increasingly hostile discrimination – they were banned from public transport, parks and libraries and were not allowed to own pets, telephones, cars or bicycles. In the local archive, Springer reads a newspaper from 1933 ordering people not to visit Jewish businesses, lawyers or doctors. "Bastards!" he says, the anger clear on his face.

Springer goes on to discover that in 1942 his maternal grandmother, Marie Kallman, was dispatched in a cattle train to Chelmno extermination camp, where she was among the first to be gassed to death. As Springer wanders around the trains wreathed in barbed wire that have been kept at a nearby station as a memorial to the victims, he sobs and says a prayer.

Meanwhile, he finds out that his paternal grandmother, Selma Springer, was deported to Theresienstadt, a Jewish ghetto near Prague. The Nazis put out propaganda films claiming that the ghetto was like a holiday camp. In fact, it was squalid, hideously overcrowded and rife with disease. The starving Selma died there in 1943.

In the hush of the hotel drawing room, Springer tries to make sense of why the Holocaust was allowed to happen. "We are all born as empty vessels which can be shaped by moral values," he says. "You could dress up the Nazis and teach them how to speak and assume that they would take moral decisions. But the truth is that these people had no moral compass. What you saw in Germany then was a moral vacuum, where very few people had the courage to stand up and say to the Nazis, 'You want me to do that? Are you crazy?'"

Making the programme clearly had a deep effect on Springer. First of all, it gave him an insight into what his parents suffered. His father's shoe shop in Landsberg was regularly attacked. "Everyone talks, quite rightly, about the horror of the Holocaust," he says. "But think of the fear from 1933 onwards, the constant terror of knowing that tonight you might get a knock on the door and the Gestapo might take you away. I can't imagine that was anything other than horrific."

After the War, Springer's parents, Richard and Margot, lived permanently with the after-shock of the Holocaust. "One of the reasons I wanted to make Who Do You Think You Are? was to find out what happened to my family, because my parents didn't want to talk about it," he sighs. "They'd talk about the War in general terms, and then stop in mid-sentence. It was too painful for them. They wouldn't even watch The Sound of Music because of the Nazi uniforms in that film. You don't want to make your parents uncomfortable, but I wish now that I had sat them down and said, 'Tell me all about it.' But survivors always say, 'Once you open that door, you can never shut it again. If I let you into that room, you'll never leave'."

He carries on: "I can quite understand their reticence. It would be as if, at your age, someone came to your house, arrested your relatives and forced you to flee to Pakistan. You didn't speak the language or know a soul, but worst of all, you had no idea what had happened to any of your family. How would you lead a normal life after that? My parents were determined to live an independent life in America, but they only managed to appear normal by suppressing all that horror."

Having made Who Do You Think You Are?, Springer feels that his family is a paradigm for what has happened to Jewish people in Europe over the past couple of centuries. "You know when you read those historical novels and there's a fictional character placed in the middle of major events? He's a friend of Churchill's or he worked for Stalin. That was my family. Whatever happened to Europe in the last 200 years, my family was in the middle of it.

"In Neustettin during the 1880s, my great grandfather, Abraham, was the head of the first Jewish temple in Europe to be burnt down in 700 years – that was the start of all the recent anti-Semitism. The next generation had rocks thrown through their windows and were sent to the death camps. Then the next generation escaped to America. It's like my family has been in the middle of a historical novel."

Springer admits that the War has left a huge mark on him personally. For a start, it has bequeathed him a lasting affection for this country. "Britain saved my parents' life. They were real Anglophiles. I'm an American, but I have a phenomenal love for this country. I'm always looking for work here – not because I need a job, but because I'm looking for an excuse to come here. I'll always be grateful – Churchill is a human god, and I wouldn't be here talking to you if it wasn't for him."

Beyond that, the Holocaust has had other far-reaching consequences for Springer. "It made me profoundly liberal," observes the presenter, who in the 1960s worked as an aide to Robert Kennedy. He gives the fees from the South African broadcasts of his TV show to Aids charities, and has set up a scholarship for disadvantaged youths at the Keliman School in Chicago. "It was instinctive for me to be involved with civil liberties. You don't have to be lectured about tolerance when your family has been through the Holocaust."

****

Springer, who studied political science at Tulane University and then law at Northwestern University, broadens his argument out into a liberal defence of The Jerry Springer Show. "The Establishment say 'get rid of these people' and call them trash. And yet wealthy people live exactly the same lives – only they have more money and speak the Queen's English. We're all alike – it's just that some people dress better. Princess Diana talked about bulimia and cheating and suicide – all the things that are discussed on my show – and nobody called that lovely lady trash. Some people just like to assume that they're better than everyone else, so they dismiss the guests on my show. But we can't buy books and magazines fast enough to read about it when the rich and famous do exactly the same things.

"It's a stupid show and I've never said anything else. But there's something in me that enjoys defending it against the elite who get so bent out of shape about it. It's funny watching them huffing and puffing when, in reality, they behave in exactly the same way as the people on the show."

Springer gets equally indignant when critics accuse the show of being responsible for the Downfall of Western Civilisation As We Know It. "I'm amazed I'm that powerful," grins Springer, who also fronts the ludicrously successful America's Got Talent. "Western civilisation has been around for thousands of years, so I suppose it must be time to give another system a shot. It's obviously not fair that we're always number one! I must say, I thought that the Holocaust was a bit more of a threat to Western civilisation, but call me crazy.

"We're not out there touting the show as having redeeming social value. It's not as if I've found a cure for cancer. I know everyone likes to put this cultural importance on it, but from the start, I kept it tongue-in-cheek because when you take TV into real life, there are consequences. Everybody shakes hands at the end and tomorrow everything will be just fine. People don't wake up saying, 'The Jerry Springer Show! Oh my God, I'm going to have to jump out of the window!'"

Springer, who has been separated from his wife Micki since 1994 but remains very close to their daughter Katie, claims that his talk show has no negative consequences. "Absolutely not. If you want to see people having an effect, watch the news. A show in which people shout at each other about relationships pales in comparison to genocide, say, or the catastrophe of Aids in Africa. So many people in the world have really serious problems that I have difficulty getting concerned when critics start yelling about a TV show. Ultimately, it's like complaining about a meal in a restaurant – it's not going to change the world. Get over it!"

The show has certainly never inhibited Springer's political commitments. He has been very active in campaigning for the Democrats in this year's race for the White House. He was supporting Hillary Clinton, but has now thrown his weight behind Barack Obama.

"There has been a wall of criticism of the States in recent times – some of it justified – but it strikes me as amazing that just seven years after 9/11, someone called Barack Obama, an African-American with an Islamic name, could become President. To me, that indicates a very open society. No matter what the government does, people are cool. We Americans can be boisterous, but instinctively we come out on the right side. Good for America. I feel proud of that."

He thinks Obama will win the election in November, "By a landslide. The issue goes beyond Obama – there is just a tidal wave of people saying "enough" to Bush and moving in a different direction. [John] McCain may simply be on the wrong train. History tends to move like a pendulum, and it's swung towards liberalism now."

Springer believes that Obama can help repair America's tattered global image. "I think it will be a great benefit. It may be wishful thinking on my part, but even though it's currently popular to say bad things about America, I think deep down most of the world doesn't hate my country. Are people around the world angry with America? Absolutely and quite legitimately. But do they go to bed at night thinking America is going to attack them? No. Everywhere is safe." He adds with a smile: "Except perhaps for France!"

Politics – which Springer describes as like "a religion" to him – really fires him up. He is still livid, for instance, about the war in Iraq. "That never made sense to me, even if Bush was telling the truth about Weapons of Mass Destruction – in fact, particularly if he was telling the truth about Weapons of Mass Destruction. Why the hell would you bomb a country that could fire back? That would be insane! Bush did real damage to America's reputation around the world."

He is equally incensed by the British government's decision to lock up terrorist suspects for 42 days without charging them. "You can't have the government determining how long people are imprisoned for," Springer fumes. "That's the job of the courts. Habeas corpus is a right that goes back to the Magna Carta, and governments can't infringe upon that."

Does this burning political passion mean that he is likely to seek election again? Springer has in the past talked openly about standing for the Senate. "It's possible," he concedes, "but it's not absolutely necessary. I feel I get more of a voice talking to people like you. My current profile gives me a phenomenal platform. People encourage me all the time to enter formal politics – they know I'm liberal and outspoken – but I think I get on TV more now talking about these issues than I would if I were a Senator. That's the advantage of celebrity."

The other advantage is being able to explore your family's roots on a documentary as moving as Who Do You Think You Are?. "Of course," Springer sighs, "I'd have preferred not to have provided the material for this programme. But I hope that people watch it and that it provokes discussion.

"Above all, I hope people remember that the Holocaust happened in our lifetime and was carried out by people who looked just like us. It's so easy to pass it off as a tribal thing that happened 800 years ago. Wrong! It happened in the most civilised society in Europe, a culture that had great music and literature."

He underlines that this story must never stop being recounted. As The Diary of Anne Frank – the biggest- selling book in the world after The Bible – has proved, the tale of one person's suffering can have more impact than an account of the slaughter of millions. "The story has more effect when it's about an individual," Springer says. "When you say six million people were killed, it loses its force, because people can't get their heads around that number. But when you personalise it, it has a far greater impact. You can immediately imagine your own grandmother in that situation."

Springer likes to sign off each episode of his talk show with a summary of what we've learnt. So what might we take away from Who Do You Think You Are? He pauses. "I hope the programme makes you think about one thing," he replies. "How can we stop this happening again?"

'Who Do You Think You Are?' is on BBC1 at 9pm this Wednesday

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