Daniel Radcliffe, the 29-year-old star of “Harry Potter,” “Viktor Frankenstein,” and multiple Broadway hits, is one of the wealthiest and best-known actors in the world. Radcliffe is Jewish on his mother’s side and considers his heritage a central part of his identity, though he’s not a person who’s usually associated with being Jewish.
Samuel Gershon, Radcliffe’s great-grandfather, was, though. In 1936 England, he didn’t have a choice.
The 42-year-old Jewish businessman had worked for years to build his family’s London jewelry store, only to become impoverished after a robbery looted the business. Gershon and his father put in a claim for insurance on the store, but anti-Semitic police officers accused the Gershons of faking the raid to claim insurance compensation. There was no evidence that the Gershons faked the robbery.
And so, ashamed and financially wrecked, Samuel Gershon killed himself.
On a new episode of the BBC show “Who Do You Think You Are,” a heritage show along the lines of PBS’ “Finding Your Roots,” Radcliffe was presented with the police report, as well as his great-grandfather’s suicide note, Metro UK reports.
“Jews are so frequently responsible for the bringing down of their own business premises,” a police report from the investigation reads.
“There’s a lot to dig into in that one sentence,” Radcliffe reflected. “It’s very jarring to see being a Jew to be taken as a piece of evidence in itself.”
During the episode, Metro reports, he wept over the letter Gershon left behind. “Everything he had worked for and that his father had worked for, has sort of been destroyed,” he said.
In fact, the insurance company eventually paid the claim filed by the Gershons, but only after Radcliffe’s great-grandfather was already dead.
“You want to just reach into the past and just go, ‘Whatever you’re going through, you have so much to offer the people who are around you still…you have so much to give to them. And, they still would all have loved you,’” Radcliffe said.
Raie Gershon, Samuel’s wife, did her best to care for her daughters and keep them protected from rumors that their father had faked the robbery before his death. “I’ve always been surrounded by strong women,” Radcliffe reflected. “It’s fascinating to find that maybe the strongest of all of them was this woman I knew almost nothing about.”
Though Radcliffe never met Raie Gershon, he was close with her daughter, his grandmother Pat, who raised Radcliffe on stories of their family history. According to her, “We originated in Russia and left because of the pogroms. I don’t know if the story is true, but supposedly my great-great-grandfather was on a ship from Russia bound for America. It stopped off in London, and he thought, ‘Oh, that was quick’ and got off.”
Stars: they have painful and hopeful Jewish stories in their pasts, just like us!
Jenny Singer is the deputy life/features editor for the Forward. You can reach her at Singer@forward.com or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny