Mandy Patinkin is a deeply Jewish actor. He has played many roles that lean into his heritage, from Yentl’s Avigdor to Saul Berenson in Homeland.
And yet, as someone whose profession, an actor, is to imagine, he told Henry Louis Gates in an upcoming episode of the geneaology show Finding Your Roots that one aspect of Jewish history — the Holocaust — is something “he has never been able to get a hold of.”
And yet, in the episode, which is part of the current, seventh season of the PBS series, Patinkin is brought face to face with his own family’s unthinkable loss. Until that moment, Patinkin was unaware he lost any relatives in the Holocaust — and that realization absolutely devastates him. It’s a raw, emotional moment that we so rarely get to see — on TV or IRL: a man overwhelmed by the absolute tragedy and trauma of this terrible genocide, and his family’s intimate connection to it.
“You know, I went there,” the actor and Yiddish crooner, 68, tells Gates, referring to Treblinka, the Nazi extermination camp in Poland where he discovers his relatives were killed.
“I’ve been asked so many times, and I said to people, ‘I don’t think any of my relatives died in the Holocaust,'” Patinkin says, his face reddening, his eyes filling with tears, his voice heavy and breaking with grief and emotion.
In the clip, which premiered exclusively on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency this Monday, Patinkin finds out about his Jewish relatives who lived in the town of Brańsk in northeastern Poland. Brańsk was home to a quiet Jewish shtetl of about 2,500 Jewish inhabitants. By the end of the war, that shtetl was fully wiped from the face of the earth.
In the Finding Your Roots episode — which will air on Tuesday, April 27 — we see Patinkin reading aloud from a (translated) Yiddish text, starting with the happenings in the town on November 2, 1942:
“The gendarmes appear when it is time to light the candles and report that on Shabbos morning at 10 o’clock, everyone must report as a family at the entrance of the ghetto. They are told to bring only bread and water, there is terribly crying in the ghetto,” he says.
“On the 10th, everyone is already in Treblinka,” he continues. “According to the evidence all the Brańsk Jews, men and women separately, breathed their last in the gas chambers in Treblinka on the 10th of November, 1942, at four o’clock, in the afternoon, their bodies were burned in the crematorium in Treblinka.”
It is after reading this that Patinkin breaks down. “This… I don’t have words, God Almighty, this is unbelievable, this is unreal,” he says, wiping his eyes. It’s a powerful human moment that is sure to stay with many viewers.
Image via Finding Your Roots/PBS YouTube