Celebrity genealogy series. National treasure June Brown unravels her Jewish heritage, and discovers how momentous historical events shaped her family's destiny.
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If you care to look at my wardrobe, most of it is 25 years old.
This was given to me by Angie when she went to Spain the first time.
Though, Dot, she only wears it for special occasions.
84-year-old actress June Brown has been a British cultural icon for decades...
You can see all the brooches.
..Playing the indomitable Dot Cotton in the BBC soap EastEnders.
It shouldn't really be too co-ordinated, cos she gets the colours slightly wrong.
Many find it difficult to distinguish June from the part she plays.
I think they think I'm very like Dot. A lot of people call me Dot.
I'm always delighted when they call me June.
There's a negligee.
Well covered up.
I am the oldest person who has ever done Who Do You Think You Are?
June married at 23 and by the age of 30 was widowed after her husband's suicide.
She continued her acting career
and in 1958 married for a second time, to actor Robert Arnold.
They had six children, losing one as a baby.
In 2003, after 45 years of marriage, June was widowed again.
I'm not a person who can cry.
I think I've sort of worked my emotions out,
so I don't EXPECT to weep, although I will have some waterproof mascara, but I don't THINK I will.
June knows she has East End Jewish roots.
Now she wants to see whether these spread any further
than the laundrette she's inhabited professionally for more than 20 years.
I've never really felt like an EastEnder, I knew my mother was.
I don't think we'll find any royal blood,
any blue blood flowing in our veins but who cares, we're all people.
Well, I'm going to have a wine glass, yeah.
So did you want some?
Where's the champagne?
'I was born in 1927. We had no television, telephones or cars.'
'It was a lovely life.
'It's a different world from ours.'
At the age of 84, June feels that this is her last chance to discover if she's a real EastEnder.
Before she begins, her family has gathered at her Surrey home to send her off in style.
-I've already drunk mine.
June was born in Suffolk, one of five children.
Her parents, Louisa and Henry both came from London's East End.
Scottish grandfather, Italian grandmother...
er, Irish grandfather.
Like a mongrel, I'm not truly English,
I'm not truly anything as far as I know,
'but I know I'm Jewish, through my mother's line.'
It's her mother's Jewish East End heritage June wants to investigate.
-I'm not married.
-That is my mother, and my mother was 35 for years
and then she got fed up with being 35 and suddenly said, "Oh, I'm 50."
When I was first in EastEnders, they said, "47-year-old June Brown",
Well, I was 58. I said...
-We laughed at that!
-"If they want to think I'm 47, let them."
I thought, "I'm not going to say any different."
Did we laugh at that? You might have done, I didn't, I was delighted.
As the Matriarch, she is the keeper of the family history,
and over the years has collected together an archive of photographs and stories.
That was 1967, your father was quite famous at the time,
as PC Swain in Dixon of Dock Green.
Is this you here?
That is me as a bridesmaid in green satin.
This is the wedding of my auntie Marie.
They all, they lived in the East End.
All of those are Jewish cousins.
My mother said, and I might be completely wrong,
but my mother did say we had a champion bare knuckle fighter,
and he was in the East End, of course.
-What was the fighter's name?
-His name was Isaac Bitton
I don't know where Bitton comes from, it doesn't sound Jewish.
It would be nice to find out a bit more about him. Well, I'd like to find out more about him.
-I wouldn't know.
-Did he have money?
-Well, I should think so.
-Well, it would be quite interesting.
-..To follow that.
It's all my mother, the Jewish side, it's Granny.
June's family archive includes a document that proves she's a direct descendant from Isaac Bitton.
My mother was born in the Mile End Road,
she mentioned this famous bare knuckle fighter in the East End
and I'd like to find out more about Isaac Bitton, if I can.
Family research has managed to trace back
as far as June's great, great, great grandfather,
the bare knuckle boxer Isaac Bitton, born in 1779.
Now June is hoping that Isaac, the legendary fighter,
will help her travel further back into her East End past.
I'm a very curious person, I like to know everything, really.
I don't care what I find out, as long as I find out.
-Would you be Michael Berkowitz?
-Yes, I am.
-My name is June Brown,
-Pleasure meeting you.
-Thank you so much.
Historian Michael Berkowitz is an expert on Jewish London,
and the early years of British boxing.
And here we have Isaac Bitton.
Your great, great, great grandfather.
He was a big personality, a real EastEnder.
Yeah, but look at the little dancing feet.
They remind me a bit of you know, dance like a butterfly.
It looks like he has quite strong legs.
He was known for being undefeated, an extremely powerful fighter.
In the early 19th century, Isaac Bitton lived in London's growing Jewish community in the East End,
an area that for century's had been home to those on the social margins.
The blood thirsty sport of bare knuckle fighting was at the height of its popularity.
Few rules existed, and audiences were entertained by bouts that could continue for hours.
With no limit to the number of rounds, the winner was only decided
when his opponent could no longer stand and fight.
For men like Isaac, the sport provided one of the few paths to fame and fortune.
One of the things that is very interesting is
not only were Jews involved, who were pretty marginal in society.
-But also Irish and blacks.
And one of the things that boxers consider very special is that,
although it's a very brutal world,
that they treated each other with more respect
and more dignity, than they would be accorded in the wider society.
If you could take a look, there was a paragraph down here that I've marked.
"One thing at all events is certain, he was a Jew,
"that was unmistakably... stamped upon his physiogomy.
"The hook nose, the thick lips, the swarthy complexion,
"the curly black hair and piecing black eyes.
"Every traditional feature of the Jewish face was there in most marked and pronounced characters."
So they're talking about the racial characteristics, which is completely wrong,
but he had no problem showing himself as a very, almost stereotypically, um, Jewish Jew.
I think this is part of his personality and part of the magnetism.
He was very comfortable, although he had a lot of it, He was very comfortable in his own skin.
-You mean he was fat?
-Yes, he was fat, but agile.
The sport of bare knuckle boxing was illegal.
Fights were arranged covertly,
many taking place on London's Commons, far from the attention of the police.
But attending the fights had become a fashionable past-time.
The cream of society enjoyed mixing with London's underworld.
Though most of the boxers themselves saw little profit from the fights,
vast sums were won and lost by the wealthy audiences betting on the outcome.
A fighter like Isaac Bitton would have been lauded by his aristocratic audiences.
The fights were incredibly popular and they could have hundreds, if not thousands of spectators,
even Byron was a great patron, so he knew a lot of these very important people of his time.
He was identified, very consistently, as sort of one of the great figures of the East End.
Actually we've got a rather special publication here,
called Pugilistica, it's just over a little 100 years old.
If I could have you read toward the end...
(This is fun!)
"Isaac Bitton, a Jew of great strength,
"was well known for more than 30 years
"to the ring-going world of the last generations."
"His draw with Maddox deserves preservation
"and for these reasons we've given the ponderous Isaac..."
Ponderous! "..a niche in our history."
It's a fight that lasts 74 rounds.
You know, which would be absolutely un-heard of...
It's referred to as one of the hardest fought battles ever.
Isaac actually came out on top by the end,
except he isn't, he simply isn't going to be able to see,
-you know he was probably completely swollen and...
-Like this one, yes, he probably, his eyes were.
-Oh, dear me. Do you think his brain was damaged?
Oh, I think it's... It would... If it didn't get damaged in some way, it would be utterly remarkable.
Isaac Bitton's epic fight of 74 bloody rounds,
took place in December 1802, on Wimbledon Common, when he was just 23 years old.
It would be the greatest fight of his career.
Isaac retired undefeated.
"His weight after his retirement, so immensely increased
"that although his activity was remarkable for his size, he draw at scale, 17 stone."
That's not that bad nowadays, they can be 22, and really quite small.
For quite a long time though he was the life of the party. I mean he was one of the major figures,
I think it will most likely be helpful
to see what kind of evidence is available at Bevis Marks Synagogue,
because there are references, to him as being Sephardic.
-That is, coming from...
-..The Spanish world,
which means either Spain or Portugal at some point.
From Michael's research, June has clues to her family's Sephardic Jewish roots in the East End.
She's on her way to the Bevis Marks Sephardic Synagogue,
which holds records for the community.
Hello, nice to meet you.
My name's June Brown, yours is?
I'm Maurice Bitton, I'm the, er... I look after this wonderful old synagogue.
You're not a relative by any chance, are you?
I was hoping we were, but I don't think we are.
-I'm sure we must be, with a name like that.
-Well, if you go back far enough, we probably are.
As you can see, this was built in 1701, which makes it the oldest surviving synagogue in the country.
It's beautiful isn't it?
It is, isn't it?
All the...candelabra, I suppose you call them.
You get this wonderful sense of silence.
-Let me introduce you.
-Miriam Rodrigues-Pereira, who's our archivist.
-How do you do?
It's very kind of you to come and tell me.
It's been a pleasure to do.
-Is this the Rabbi's, erm...?
-This is the, um...
this is the book of all the Hebrew marriage certificates. There we are.
There he is.
Their names are given in Hebrew, here. "Isaac son of Abraham Bitton",
And her name is Hava.
-Eve, in Hebrew.
So that gives us his father, who's Abraham.
Yes, it sounds like the Old Testament doesn't it?
Isaac son of Abraham.
-There's his signature.
-Oh, he could write quite well.
-He was literate.
-what's that say?
That says "novio", which is the Spanish, actually, for Bridegroom.
-Oh, that's lovely.
-And at the bottom, the Rabbi has written in Portuguese,
"I married them with the seven blessings, the 10th July 1818."
Aged 39, Isaac married Hava,
17 years after beginning his career as a bare knuckle boxer.
For June, the wedding record is the first time
she's seen evidence of any other Bitton ancestors,
Isaac's father Abraham.
The next document Miriam has for June is from 1798, when Isaac was 19 years old.
This is the charity ledger from 1798
and Isaac's father was getting money every month.
-Until, um, April.
-And F, I think, is "faleceu", which is the Portuguese for died.
So he died,
so Isaac was on his own.
Is the mother mentioned?
No, it was just himself and Isaac.
The charity ledger proves that Isaac and his father Abraham
were living on their own in London's East End.
June wants to discover what happened to Isaac after his father's death.
So we know from the birth register Isaac had 11 children altogether.
And this is the ledger for the charity allotment by the congregation,
which gives all the details of, er...
Oh, it's, oh, it's the money they give.
"Isaac Bitton relief."
Yes, Isaac, here we are.
Isaac gets money, ten shillings, this was in 1838.
But, I mean, how long was that?
Do you know whether he, that he stopped boxing by then?
I don't think he was ever wealthy.
-He didn't have very much, and the congregation was very good at providing for people...
..Giving them allowances and giving them coal in the winter.
Otherwise, there was no welfare for anybody.
Exactly. And they'd starve, especially with all those children.
So, erm, yes.
More than a century before the creation of a welfare state,
Britain's poor relied on charity for survival.
The Bevis Mark Sephardic Synagogue looked after it's members,
distributing sedekah - charitable donations to the needy,
like Isaac and his family.
There is a note of his death, so...
Oh, right. Oh, it's in English, that's marvellous.
I can read this. Where do we go? Ah. Oh, here we've got it, look.
"Old Ikey", that's nice, isn't it?
"After a few weeks illness, breathed his last at the age of 60,
"in the Eastern Quarter, where he was so long known,
"and lies in the Jewish burial ground near Bethnal Green."
Well, it's Mile End Road, actually.
Well, you see, that's where my mother was born.
Isaac died in 1839 at the age of 60.
He had fathered 11 children.
That's weird, what's that?
In order to learn any more about her Sephardic roots,
June has to turn her attention to Isaac's father Abraham,
her great, great, great, great grandfather.
-Abraham was an immigrant, as far as we can tell.
And I should think the most likely place
-is, er, Holland from Amsterdam.
-Why would you think that?
-Well, because a lot of our people did come from there.
I want to ask you, Miriam, if there are any graves that one could visit
because if Abraham died here, he would have been buried here.
Yes, they were both buried here, but unfortunately there is no grave now.
-And we don't know whether there were gravestones.
-If there were, they didn't survive.
Despite Isaac's fame in the East End,
no memorial to the bare knuckle boxer exists.
Isaac died penniless,
just as his father Abraham had, four decades earlier.
That's always been one of my fears.
Being poor and old.
It's not so bad being poor when you're young,
cos you've always got the hope that something's going to happen,
but unless you win the football pools, or the lottery comes up,
you don't have much chance when you're old.
It seems likely that Abraham and Isaac made their way to London's East End from Holland.
June's come to Amsterdam to discover if they did live here and, if so,
why they migrated to London when Isaac was only ten years old.
For me, it's rather like reading a detective novel,
which I do all the time.
It's the only things I read unless I'm being serious.
And this is like this for me, you know finding out all sorts of fascinating things.
What I'm interested in finding out
is why he left Holland or the Netherlands.
I don't know whether mother had died, or stayed behind or whatever,
They must have some reason why he came to the East End of London.
At Amsterdam's Municipal archives,
June has arranged to meet Harmen Snell,
a specialist in Jewish genealogy.
What I found out in London
was that I have a great, great, great grandfather
who was a very well-known bare knuckle champion.
This is Isaac Bitton, and I'd like to know if he was the only child,
and why he came at the age of 11, roughly, with his father to the East End.
And when did they arrive?
I think roughly 1790.
Yeah, so we're going to go for Bitton.
We're looking for some child born about 1778.
I wish I could work one of these things.
-This is Abraham Bitton, that's the father.
These are years that his children were born.
This is the name of the mother.
-Ah, oh, look.
-Rachel Rodrigues de Castro.
-That's a lovely name, isn't it?
I wish I had a name like that.
-Mine's so common.
-Yeah, well, mine too.
And here is one child, Isaac.
Ah, bit older than we thought, then.
And here is another Isaac, in 1779.
-Oh, one died.
-The first one died.
-And the second one was named Isaac Haim.
-Haim, meaning life.
This is the birth, the registration.
Good Lord! Such lovely writing they wrote, as well.
And here you see 29th June 1779,
Isaac Haim, son of Abraham Bitton and Rachel Rodrigues de Castro.
So that must be the bare knuckle boxer.
And his mother was Rachel.
In the late 18th century, many of Europe's cities
forced Jews to wear distinguishing marks and live in separate ghettos.
But in Amsterdam, the city in which Abraham and his family were living,
Jews were tolerated and could move about and practice their faith freely.
But even with this freedom, Jews were prohibited from most professions.
Many were forced to scrape together a living as street traders.
So what prompted Abraham and the 10-year-old Isaac
to abandon their family and leave the most tolerant city in Europe,
for an uncertain future in England?
What I want to show you is, a book which is called The Termos...
The Sephardic community, if they had to deal with something they wrote it in this book.
-Very fancy, yeah.
-But Abraham Bitton is registered here
being a tax payer for the community.
Ah, so he wasn't on the poor relief, then?
-He had a job.
He had a job, most likely he was a hawker, on the streets.
But not a liability on the congregation.
-Oh, well done.
This is the year 1784, 1785.
And here you see Abraham Bitton again, and this is a sedekah list...
-relief for the poor.
-And this is the first time he appears in this.
So his household were seven people.
Five children were alive at that moment.
And these are the amounts that they received.
Why did they receive that?
Had he gone down in the world? Was he out of work?
1784, 1785 were dramatically bad years in Dutch economy.
We just had a war, behind us.
-Which war was that?
-It was what we call the Fourth English War.
So imagine who we were fighting!
I can't think which war that was.
We lost, we lost.
-Oh, good. Oh, I'm sorry!
In 1780, the British declared war on Holland,
when the Dutch came out in support of George Washington
and his revolutionary forces in America.
Four years of war with Britain followed.
The Dutch economy was in ruins and in the years that followed, Jewish street traders like Abraham,
who in the good times had managed to eke out a living for their families, now faced destitution.
The 10-year-old Isaac and his father Abraham
joined a wave of Jewish migrants
in search of a new life in the booming city of London.
Abraham's wife Rachel and Isaac's siblings
were left behind in Amsterdam.
Why did he move to London without his wife and other children, do you know?
He probably thought in London there might be chances,
he went there to see if there were chances to stay there
-for a longer time and get his family over, but...
-Still goes on!
It still works like that.
But in 1795, the Netherlands were invaded by France.
And from that moment on, it was very difficult
or almost impossible to travel to England.
-To leave the country.
-To leave the country.
And go across the channel, on the boat.
By 1795, Europe was in the grip of the French Revolutionary Wars.
Holland was politically and economically vulnerable,
and the French invading army marched in, isolating the country by land.
And with Britain and France at war, the channel was blockaded, cutting Holland off by sea.
Rachel would have given up any hope of escaping the devastated Amsterdam
to join Abraham and Isaac in London.
It's probable all communication between the divided family, ceased.
But by 1801, word from London
must have got through to the synagogue in Amsterdam.
Rachel's husband Abraham had died.
Here, you see, a registration, "the widow of..."
Abraham had already died, and she knows here that he died,
because she is registered as the widow.
And her support in this sedekah list is now for three persons.
So she had eight children.
Yes, well the other children, at this time in 1801,
had all died, except Isaac.
-In these times...
-They died young?
They died young, many of them died young
and most of them on tuberculosis or kind of fevers.
-That's a very bad period of their lives then,
They were separated, the son went and she was on the parish, as it were.
-And, for Isaac, writing letters or visiting his mother...
-..Was not really in it.
It looks like the mother was totally not aware that her son was still alive in London.
And he had no contact with her...
-..Once he was in England.
What happened to Rachel?
Well, she died in Amsterdam in 1812,
and she and her children are buried in Amsterdam.
Where did Abraham and Rachel come from?
We can research that when we find the marriage.
-I will show you.
-Go on, then.
-I'll show you that one!
June has uncovered the fate of Isaac's parent's Rachel and Abraham.
Now she wants to delve further back to earlier generations.
So, what I have here is a reference to the actual marriage
of Abraham Bitton and his wife.
I'm looking for my glasses, I won't be a minute. Right, I've got them.
I think you might be able to read it without.
"21st May 1762. Abraham Bitton from..."
-Can you read this?
Yes? What does it say?
Well, I said yes, I said yes, to be accommodating,
but it looks like "Go" to me!
You should read it like this.
It's written, "Livorno".
-What does that mean? Is that a town in Italy?
-That's the town, in Italy.
-Where they make hats.
-Town where he was born.
Really? Oh, so he was Italian?
And she, it's written here,
Rachel Rodrigues from Amsterdam,
and here you see their signatures.
-So this is the father of Isaac.
-It's very good, they were literate.
-See that's unusual, at that time, because very often
people couldn't write and they signed their name with a cross.
Yeah, or with a circle.
In the Netherlands, Jews very rarely used the cross
-when they couldn't write.
-Oh, you mean that sort of cross.
They didn't like very much what the cross had done to them.
-So the man who came to England...
-..He came from the Netherlands...
-..but he was born in Italy.
-Born in Italy.
I always said I was a mongrel!
-So where do we go...?
-But his wife was from Ams...
Maybe go backwards from here?
We go backwards.
Harmon has one final document connected to Abraham for June to see.
So you see, this letter,
says that there is confirmation of his birth...
-..In Italy, in Livorno,
with an exact date, 25th June 1732,
and names of his parents, Joseph and Simha Bitton, in Livorno.
-That's the mother.
And this part is even more interesting.
This is by two other guys, who confirm that Abraham,
the son of Joseph Bitton,
who now lives in the city of Amsterdam,
that he really is from the "nacion Espanola,"
-the Spanish nation...
..And that his grandfather,
..was from the city of Oran.
-In the north of Africa.
In Algeria, nowadays Algeria.
And at that time,
it was Spanish ruled.
-Ruled by the Spanish.
But it says that the whole family
was "espulsados", was expelled,
together with all the Jews -
"todos los Hebreos" -
in the year 1669.
So all the Jews were expelled from that town.
-Because of faith? Their faith?
June has now traced her Bitton ancestors
back to 1669, to the North African city of Oran,
when it was under Spanish rule.
But before she can pursue this new information,
there is one place she still wants to visit in Holland.
Amsterdam's Sephardic cemetery is just outside of the city,
on a tributary of the Amstel River.
June is now on her way there to see if she can find the grave
of Isaac's mother Rachel,
June's great, great, great, great grandmother.
They must have lived always on edge.
Their fortunes fell and rose and fell,
and unfortunately fell more than they rose.
I think this must have been particularly hard for Rachel
when she was left.
It's like being widowed,
there is the hole there somehow,
you miss the familiarity of it,
the pattern of it, the routine of it.
I think it must have been dreadful
not to know what happened to your son.
Well, she couldn't get across the Channel, it was blockaded
and there wasn't a telephone and, er...
you couldn't make a call and how did you know how they were?
It must have been... She must have lived her life in constant worry.
By tradition, the dead are carried to Beth Haim Cemetery by boat.
-Thank you. May I hand you this?
-Yeah, of course.
Opened in the early 17th century, the cemetery is still used
and cared for by Amsterdam's Sephardic community.
Well, that's only... That's ten years later.
June's sorting through the cemetery's records to find Rachel
and any of her children who may have been buried here.
Ah, we've got Rachel.
21st July 1812.
And the Bitton is only spelt with one T.
Well, that must be the mother.
Oh, a child who died at two months old.
And this is a brother...
and he was two when he died.
he's died as well.
Of course, they're all "died" in here,
and this one died in '96.
So she lost that daughter,
this one born '69, Abigail, a daughter -
- pretty name - died 1812.
so she died the same time
as her mother.
So we've got 1812,
mother and daughter
died in the same year.
Well, the daughter died first,
Abigail died on the 26th January
and her mother died on the 21st of July.
So she was left all on her own.
She was the last one to die.
And she'd lost her daughter...
Perhaps she died heartbroken when her last child died.
Nothing left to live for.
What a sad life.
Beth Haim's caretaker, Dennis Ouderdorp,
is taking June to the place where Rachel was buried.
The mother was left alone, she was the last one to die.
She'd got Isaac, but she didn't know that -
he was in England.
If they were wealthy then we have a stone,
and if they were not wealthy, then it wouldn't have a stone.
Of field 1763, this is row eight,
and Rachel was buried in row six.
-So that must be somewhere...here.
Row seven's about there, yes.
Somewhere here must be row six.
So we could be standing on her.
On her grave, yes.
Well, I'm going to imagine
that her grave is here. Where would her head be in this row?
Erm, on the side we are standing now.
-And the feet upwards.
So the... It goes that way?
-So we are.. We are here.
-Right, thank you. Would you like to leave me alone for a moment?
-No, of course, I do understand.
dear great, great, great, great grandmother.
I have come to visit you,
which you never expected.
And I'm going to show you what happened
to your only living child
when you died.
Well, this is he.
And he became famous,
he was a champion bare knuckle fighter,
so you would have been very proud of him.
So where is the sun there?
And I've brought you a flower from him and wherever the sun goes,
that face will track it,
so may your face always be beside the sun.
And this I will place in front.
I don't suppose it will be there long,
and according to the Jewish custom,
I have brought you a stone which, believe it or not,
has got a little face on it,
I'm sure you were prettier, but there she is.
That is on your son.
I feel a kind of affinity with this Rachel,
partly because of the amount of children that she had,
partly because she named two of her children, I think it was,
when the first one died, with the same name,
and I did the same.
I had a premature baby that died when she was 16 days old
and I named her Chloe, and then I had Sophie
and then I had William, and the next one I called Chloe again.
And of course I've...
lost one child,
my mother lost two children,
she had five and I had six, I suppose.
And this... How many has she lost?
All of them in the end.
And she was widowed,
and I am twice widowed,
and so I do feel very much that I understand,
what it must have been like for her
when she was left at the very end with no children, no husband,
I'm quite sure she gave up.
And I should think she'd had enough.
I think you can almost will yourself to die.
She at least knows that she had one son living
at the time of her death, who became successful
and was charismatic and very well liked.
Now there is success.
It won't last long, the photograph.
But she's seen it.
June has traced her Bitton family's line from the East End
to the heart of Amsterdam's Sephardic community.
To follow these Sephardic roots any further,
June has to step back a century earlier and trace the journey
that her family made from Oran, in North Africa,
when it was under Spanish Imperial rule.
June has travelled to mainland Spain,
where records of its time under the Spanish are kept.
She's starting her journey in Madrid, once the capital of the largest empire in the world.
I've been to Spain before, not to Madrid,
and it gives a sense that Spain had a big empire.
An enormous empire.
June is in pursuit of another Isaque -
her great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather.
She knows this Isaque was expelled from Oran in modern day Algeria,
I might be able to find out
more about my Sephardic roots...
what happened to those particular Jews,
because that is a very interesting thing to be part of.
When June's ancestor was living in the North African Spanish outpost,
religious intolerance raged.
For more than two centuries,
Spain had aggressively expanded its empire.
As it grew, a zealous Catholicism was branded on its new territories.
A tribunal was set up to enforce adherence to this Catholic doctrine
that's become known as the Spanish Inquisition.
In Spain, Jews faced the onslaught of this Catholic zeal,
they were offered a choice -
leave, convert, or face death.
The Spanish captured Oran in 1509.
Remarkably in this North African town,
just a day's sail from mainland Spain,
the small Jewish community was tolerated,
and even permitted to practise their faith.
The area surrounding Oran was rich with fertile ground
and Jews were put to use brokering deals for the abundant crops,
between the local Berber farmers and Spanish buyers.
The largest collection of documents connected to the Jewish presence in Oran,
is held in royal archives,
north of Madrid in the town of Simancas.
June is here to meet Doctor Francois Soyer,
an expert in the history of the persecution of the Jews in Spain.
-Ah, you must be Francois Soyer.
You know my name!
-I'll sit down, shall I? Thank you.
-These are rather beautiful.
-It is, it's a beautiful watercolour.
This is a map of...
-..Of the western Mediterranean, yes.
It looks like a pretty picture to me.
On the upper side of this map,
-is the Mediterranean coast of Spain...
-and in the middle...
and here, at the bottom, what is today Algeria,
known back in the 17th century as the Barbary Coast.
Oh, is that right?
And Oran here, this town on this side.
Oh, yes, thank you.
And what is that?
That is a more detailed map of Oran...
..drawn actually in 1675.
The town is surrounded by walls, it's very much a military outpost.
-It's got, er...
hostile Muslim outposts all around it.
Now, the Jews in Oran
had this rather peculiar existence,
never fully trusted by the Spaniards,
very much forced to live in their own little area, erm...
seen as potential double agents,
maybe working for the Muslims as much as they were working for the Spaniards.
Francois has a document, which will give June a clue to Isaque's life,
and that of his father, a second Abraham.
Now this is from the Royal Archives.
I'm going to get slightly round nearer you,
and we can both read at the same time.
-Its date is...
-What language is it?
-It's in Spanish.
-I don't think I'll bother, you can tell me about it.
-I'll give you a translation,
but its date is from 1637,
and what it's telling us is that in that year,
two Jews from Oran,
asked for the right to trade in Spain,
and this is exactly the documents here.
So Sadia Elayque and Abraham ben Boton, Jews.
What's that name again? Ben Boton?
-Ben bo... Ben Boton.
-Ben Boton, the name has changed.
Yep, and the "boton" here is probably
a Spanish sort of, um... transliteration of what the original name would have been.
Is this Abraham related to me?
-The names are so similar...
..Abraham ben Boton, Isaac Bitton,
that it... there should be almost no doubt that they are related.
-Erm, Abraham was probably his father.
So these two Jews have asked the Crown for the right
-to come to Spain for their business dealings.
Jews are not allowed to go to Spain normally.
-In fact, there is a death penalty
-against any Jews who were to be found in Spain...
..Without any proper authorisation.
As a trader in Oran,
Isaque's father Abraham needed to travel to Spain to broker deals.
But under the rules of the fanatical Inquisition,
any Jew found in Spain without proper authority,
faced torture or execution.
The permit granted to Abraham
allowed him to travel in Spain safely.
Effectively, they were asking for a visa
to come to Spain, and it had to go all the way to the king,
it had to wait for his authorisation.
This bit here is the king's...
-Initials, I think.
-Exactly, this was Phillip IV.
Documents also very interesting because both Sadia Elayque
and Abraham ben Boton
are portrayed as good Jews.
-They're descendants of the Jews
who helped Spain when the town was captured, and Abraham ben Boton
is one of the most senior members of the local synagogue.
When the Spanish authorities asked for a list of the most prominent Jews in 1656,
he's definitely there.
The best place to go in Spain is probably Toledo in central Spain.
-Why is that?
-Well, it has probably the best preserved Sephardic,
medieval Sephardic synagogue in the Western Mediterranean.
And I would heartily recommend you go there.
Once again, June has uncovered a father and son,
another Abraham and another Isaque,
living in Oran in the mid 17th century.
What she has not yet uncovered
is evidence to explain why the ben Boton family
fell out of favour with the Spanish Court,
resulting in the expulsion of Abraham and Isaque in 1669.
How did they go from being the good Jews of Oran, to being cast out?
Abraham was a Sephardic Jew,
which of course makes me Sephardi,
a fact of which I'm rather proud.
He came from Oran in, er, Algeria
which was a Spanish property,
it was a fortress town. They had been there for years,
but suddenly they were all expelled, whether it was just a general pogrom
or whether there was a particular reason
is what I hope to find out.
During the violent years of the Inquisition,
few synagogues were spared.
Many were converted to churches, others looted or destroyed.
Remarkably, here in Toledo, the 14th-century Sinagoga del Transito
survived the onslaught of the Inquisition.
It's very hard not being of the Jewish faith,
but coming from Jewish roots.
I see both sides, I suppose, and I suppose that's what we should all do.
I don't understand religious wars. That is where we ALL go wrong.
At the synagogue, June's meeting Spanish language scholar Michael Britain.
He's translated a document written in 1670,
a year after the Jews were expelled from Oran.
-It's not exactly brief is it, but it says...
-.."Brief account and abbridged summary..."
"..Of the complete expulsion of the Jews
"from the Jewish Quarter of the City of Oran, due to the Catholic zeal
"of the most excellent Senor Dom Fernando."
-And then it lists... This is all his name...
..This governor of Oran.
So this is written by the captain of the place, on his behalf,
and within it we can see what happened
and we can see things about the Jewish community at the time which
Abraham and Isaque lived in, and what happened to them,
but it's effectively a propaganda document.
-It's very one-sided.
Is this to excuse the reason why they expelled the Jews from Oran?
Exactly, absolutely, and our protagonists in all of this, the Marques,
he's going to carve himself out a glorious deed.
In 1667, the politically ambitious Marques de los Velez,
Governor of Oran,
saw an opportunity to bolster his position in the Spanish Court.
He knew that any move against the Jews would be popular
with the Catholic monarchy, and powerful Inquisition.
The theme that goes throughout this document
is the usefulness of the Jew - "What is their usefulness?"
-And the language is...
is quite shocking, really. It's, um...
At every opportunity, there's a negative term
applied to the Jewish people.
This one here...
"The bad weed that grows in the wheat field
"which Satan had introduced there to Oran,
"a stain which had spread so much and which is of dangerous contagion,
"not only to the faithful Christians..."
"..but also for these kingdoms."
The Marques advised the Spanish Court that the small Jewish Community of Oran
no longer served any valuable purpose.
Their expulsion was recommended.
De Marques is saying to the Spanish Court, "This must be done secretly,
"the Jews mustn't find out what's going to happen
"in case they run rings round us and cause some revolt."
-Yes, there's a lovely word.
And then the big day comes,
and then the actual expulsion is read out.
"As the last words of this Catholic and holy edict were delivered,
"the unhappy ones against whom the proclamation had been made,
"of which there were many present,
-"being left both sad, disheartened and confused."
I think we can really glimpse,
you know, even the person writing it can see
that this must have been a terrible moment for them.
Yeah. And amongst these are Isaque and Abraham.
Because the arrangement is that they are given eight days
in which to tidy everything up, settle their affairs, and leave.
They're not just taken in the night.
-No, they're not just taken in the night.
-Off to a concentration camp.
-They do have a week.
-And the arrangement, they...
-And they're leaving their houses?
They're leaving their houses, the place that they've been settled in, some of them for 150 years.
-Yes. It's not...
-It's a big thing.
On the 16th April 1669,
the expulsion of the Jews from the city began.
Summoned in secret by the Marques,
a small fleet of ships lay anchored off the shore below the town.
Among them, a single 500-ton vessel
he deemed large enough to hold all the Jewish people of Oran.
The Marques readied his men at the gates of the Jewish Quarter,
and ordered the Jews to leave their homes.
"So now Abraham and Isaque are going to be coming out of their house,
"they were ordered to leave the said Jewish Quarter,
"which was their greatest pain and sorrow.
"And at the appropriate time, the march began down to find where the ships were...
"the Vanguard occupied by beautiful horses accompanied by drums
"and trumpets, symbolising in form, the dignity of the illustrious
"and loyal city of Oran, and in the middle was the standard of the holy court of the Inquisition."
These were all Spanish people who were having the bands and the...?
Exactly, it's all this pomp and ceremony, it's like an old boys' club.
The Jews followed behind, terrible thing.
-If you imagine it yourself what it would be like...
Leave everything behind, and you don't know where you're going.
"And then the most excellent lord Marques led them down whereupon they
"reached the beach, though they were laden with clothes and furniture,
"which they sold with greater avarice, he says wishing to take away the money."
-So they were selling this on the beaches?
-It sounds like that.
-Like a garage sale?
-These were the small things they couldn't take with them.
This is their actual possessions. So we're getting a picture of quite...
It's quite a scene, isn't it, of everybody going down there, and it says here it took all day long.
They're being received aboard, 466 people. It says...
"His Excellency the Marques,
"though the passage of the Jews onto the ship took most of the day,
"remained at the spit of land by water without alighting,
"nor disbanding the squadron,
"until he saw that abhorrent people
"fully disembarked from the beach."
And we know that from Oran...
-Which is just...
-Somewhere around here.
-You can just see it there, I can barely see it.
-I can't see it.
There's an O-R-A-N,
if you go from the A of Barbary you go up a bit.
-This one, there's Oran.
And then they were taken up to...
and they only allowed the richest people
to stay there,
and, er, 300 had... were not allowed to disembark,
and amongst those 300 were Abraham.
-Abraham and Isaque and their families.
And they went on to...?
They went on to...
round the corner here,
it's got a G in those days,
-Ligorno, Livorno, in Italy.
And that is where the next one I know,
Joseph, who was the son of Isaque,
lived and died,
and his son,
went to Amsterdam.
It's quite a story.
You talk about the wandering Jew and they seem to have wandered all the time.
They couldn't put down any roots, not really, because they were constantly
torn up and they had to move on,
and it must have been an exceedingly worrying life.
Belonging to the Sephardic tribe,
you know, I do think it maybe is the reason
why some collective consciousness,
some distant race memory
makes me think that I have to be settled.
I don't like being unsettled,
I don't like not knowing where I'm going or what I'm doing, or when.
I don't know whether it's just me and the way I was born
or whether there is something of a memory of being moved on.
I feel more connected...
..a consolidation, I think, of my Jewishness.
Like being a member of a family.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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Celebrities trace their family trees to reveal the lives of their ancestors and explore major themes in British social history.
National treasure June Brown leads the way as the oldest person ever to take part in Who Do You Think You Are? During her search to find out if she is a real EastEnder, June unravels her Jewish heritage, and discovers how momentous historical events shaped her family's destiny, forcing them to migrate across Europe.
June begins her investigation in London, by exploring her great great great grandfather's involvement in the shadowy underworld of 19th century bare-knuckle boxing. Tracing her ancestors further back, the trail leads June to Holland and the story of a family tragically divided by war. Pushing back even further, June discovers an extraordinary document that reveals the impact the Spanish Inquisition had on her family, causing them to be forcibly expelled from North Africa.