‘Mum lied to make terrible memories go away’: Q&A Dr Karl Kruszelnicki

Can I call you Dr Karl?

Call me Karl. It doesn’t have Dr on my birth certificate. I’m not a real doctor: I don’t have a PhD, I’ve only got a medical degree.

How does a person get involved with Who Do You Think Are?

Total surprise for me, what happened is I just got a communication from them saying would you be interested. Now, I realise my lowly place in the celebrity list in Australia: seeing as how I didn’t get into the first or the second or the third series, I’m not an A or B or C, I’m probably a D-class celebrity. They obviously want someone
with a bit of a public name – they decided I would be newsworthy enough I’m guessing.

Were you already interested in learning about your family history?

I was: when I got married I went to Europe for the first time, and I tried to find out something about my family background, and I had no idea what I was doing. Whereas they (the show) had certified and trained genealogical
experts, so they were able to walk me into this town, into this office, and there was a paper, 150 years old, with my family’s name on it.

I would never have been able to find that sort of stuff. That was why I wanted to go on it: because I knew that
they had the expertise to know exactly where to go.

Growing up, you didn’t know much about your family background?

Well, there were two aspects to it. One, I was a bit of a teenage jerk. I was a lot of a jerk. So anything to do with my parents was uncool, unhip, they knew nothing, reject it all.

Secondly, my father told me stuff but he was a journalist, I thought he might’ve been exaggerating a bit. And my mother had been so affected by the trauma, and was obviously suffering some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder, that she told me lies. Instead of telling me that she was a Jewish woman in the ghetto at Lodz, she told me she was a Swedish person and a Lutheran. And later in life she told me she was a Polish person born
in the free state of Danzig. She kept on lying to try to make her terrible memories go away. So I knew very little about my family.

So it must’ve been very emotional for you on the show, to discover the hidden history.

The one that really got me was to stand on the same train platform where my mother left to go to the death camp at Auschwitz. It’s a terrible thing to see that, and I got a little emotional over that.

The show is called Who Do You Think You Are? Do you think learning about your family history gave you new insight into who you are?

Well, it firstly filled me with guilt over what a jerk I was to my parents. Secondly, I kind of hope it’ll make my kids nicer to me, but they’re already perfect so I’m deluded on that. Thirdly, Santayana said that those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat its mistakes.

Just knowing more about it, that whole event, was really good from that intellectual point. So for example, you’re now seeing a similar thing in the United States, where at a political rally a supporter says let’s kill the immigrants, and the President, instead of saying no, makes a joke about it. So it’s always there.

Who Do You Think You Are? airs on SBS, Tuesday, 7.30pm

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