Helena Bonham Carter Grew Up Knowing She Was 'Unmistakably Jewish' – Kveller
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Helena Bonham Carter Grew Up Knowing She Was ‘Unmistakably Jewish’

We spoke to the actress about her grandfather's Holocaust heroism and her role in the movie "One Life."

One Life

If you’re an avid film-watcher, it’s highly likely that you have witnessed Helena Bonham Carter in one of her complicated, often larger-than-life, empowered female roles, and fallen a little bit in love with her. Maybe it was Lucy in “A Room With a View,” or Marla in “Fight Club,” or the voice of the Corpse Bride in “The Corpse Bride.” Maybe you’re in love with her complex villains, like Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd,” Bellatrix Lestrange in the “Harry Potter” franchise or even the very complicated Princess Margaret in “The Crown.”

One thing is for sure: Any TV or movie project becomes instantly infused with magic when Bonham Carter arrives on screen, with her wild hair and her sharp cheekbones and her ability to channel every character so magnetically and perfectly.

That’s definitely true about the biopic “One Life,” in which Bonham Carter steals the show every time she takes the screen as Barbara Winton. Barbara, who went by Babette or Babi, was Nicholas Winton’s mother, a German immigrant to Britain who helped her son rescue 669 children — most of them Jewish — during World War II.

There’s something about the character that feels very regal, but also very familiar for viewers who have their own Jewish mother. There’s her care and worry for her son when he first goes to Prague to try to help refugees: “Everyone in Prague is trying to get out, and my son is trying to get in,” she bemoans in a thick German accent.

When he tells her he must do something, in what feels like true Jewish mother fashion, she replies: “I was never in doubt about whether the cause is just, only that Prague is safe.”

She later helps him work with the British foreign ministry, and manages his work on what is now known as the Czech Kindertransport from London. And as any good mother would, she also helps assuage his guilt about not being able to save as many children as he would have liked.

Both Babi and Bonham Carter do actually have Jewish heritage. Babi was a German Jew who converted to Christianity and baptized her son. As for Bonham Carter’s story — it really ties her to Winton’s world in an extraordinary way.

Eduardo Propper de Callejon, Helena’s maternal grandfather, was a Spanish diplomat responsible for saving the lives of thousands of Jews fleeing the Nazis. His father was Jewish, and so was his wife, but Eduardo identified as Catholic. Like Winton, he helped Jews escape by creating travel documents and approving transit visas that would allow them to get into Spain. Just like Winton, he worked against time, trying to save as many Jews as he could; Carter’s mother recalls him “stamping documents with both hands.”

Kveller talked to (the very magical indeed!) Helena Bonham Carter about her grandfather’s story, what her Jewish heritage means to her and what she thinks the story of Winton, and of her grandfather, can teach us about this moment.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Babbettte (Babi) with her fur and her hair and her chutzpah kind of reminded me of my Jewish grandmother.

Oh me too, frankly. I mean basically that’s what I was channeling: My relatives, my grandmother, my aunt, the whole lot of them came in.

Your grandfather’s story is so eerily similar to Winton’s.

That’s why I sort of felt I had to do it — it was in my DNA. Yeah, it was very similar.

From the minutiae of saving people and also having Jewish heritage but not actually identifying as Jewish… Did that make you want to revisit that history again, even though you’ve already done some of it before now?

I’ve done quite a lot. I did a documentary for Channel Four which was great and revisits literally in the footsteps of my grandfather and my grandmother [in an episode of “My Grandfather’s War”].

Now I’m also doing a podcast called “History’s Secret Heroes,” which is about acts of courage and resistance and incredible stories of individuals, and how they did what they did and what they sacrificed during the Second World War in trying to win the war. I seem to be sort of pulled in that direction. I’ve always had one foot in the past.

Do you self-identify as Jewish? Or Jew-ish?

When it suits me.

That’s fair! A lot of Jews sometimes feel that way!

Yeah, absolutely. I feel very proud to have Jewish blood because it’s, you know, we’re the clever ones! My mother’s always raised me saying, we have all this Jewish blood — that we’re unmistakably Jewish. I’m proud to be a mix. And as far as actually practicing anything, I would say I grew up with dismal practice of every religion. I’m not agnostic. I’m spiritual, but I don’t really go to any particular temple or church, right?

You’re a cultural Jew!

I’m a cultural Jew. I would not be here if I wasn’t so many different races, frankly… I’m really a mix.

Did you get to look into Babi’s relationship with her Judaism?

It’s quite interesting, because she had come probably in the early 1900s, from Nuremberg [to England]. They were called Wertheim until that time, but she was actually Wertheimer, that was her maiden name. They only changed it [to Winton] in 37-38. So she had been living under the name of Wertheim with a German accent in North London. She lived the First World War as a German — very much assimilated, as you can see in the film. They had a Christmas tree, they weren’t really observant.

They found it tough to be German in England. That’s why they changed their name — because they thought we were heading for another world war. We can’t do another world war with Wertheim as our name.

What you would like Jewish viewers to take out of the experience with the movie?

I think for any viewer really, I hope they find a sense of empowerment by watching Winton and seeing what he managed to do with his life.

Has the current moment changed your perception of the movie at all?

I think he’s a great hero. He could show us the way, for so many people. He has such wisdom, humanity and level-headedness. It’s really astounding.

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