(JTA) — Scarlett Johansson knew that her mother’s side of the family came from Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, but she didn’t know much else about her Jewish ancestors.
But when the movie star appeared on the PBS show “Finding Your Roots” on Tuesday night, she learned some specifics about those branches of her family tree — and broke down in tears upon learning about their tragic Holocaust experiences.
In 1910, Johansson’s maternal great-grandfather Saul Schlamberg (who was then still going by his Yiddish first name, Schlachne) immigrated from a small town in Poland to New York City. He settled on Ludlow Street in the city’s Lower East Side, which was full of Jewish immigrants at the time, and was believed to have sold bananas at a market. He was alone, not yet 25 and very poor.
Johansson, whose father is Danish, is visibly moved as she pored over a document about the ship Saul took across the Atlantic Ocean.
The narrative takes a dark turn as host Henry Louis Gates, Jr. shifted to the family Saul left behind in Grojec, Poland. Saul’s brother Moishe and his family of 10 children ended up in the Warsaw Ghetto by 1942. By that time, all of Grojec’s Jews had been either killed or deported.
“I cant imagine what you must be feeling,” Johansson says when Gates asks about what she thinks deportation for the family must have been like. “Just hell, it must’ve been hell.”
Thanks to a testimony one of Moishe’s daughters sent years later to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Israel, Johansson learns about the fate of some of Moishe’s other children: Zlata, 15, and Mandil, 17, both died in the Warsaw Ghetto.
After reading this, Johansson begins to cry.
“I promised myself I wouldn’t cry,” she says. “But it’s hard not to.”