Springer’s history is full of surprises

BY VICTORIA SIEGEL, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

A child of Holocaust survivors. An author. A lawyer. A grandfather. A mayor. A managing editor. A philanthropist. An Emmy Award- winning television news anchor. These are not the descriptions most people think of when they think of Jerry Springer, keynote speaker at this year’s St. Louis Jewish Book Festival. But these designations are exactly who Springer was, and is. And the more you talk with Jerry Springer, the more you appreciate his sensitivity, intelligence, and humor.

His story begins, like many Jews living in the United States, with the Holocaust. “My parents were literally two of the last 100 people allowed out of Germany. Their visa numbers were 86 or 87. They had been trying to get out forever,” he said. “Two and a half weeks after they got out, Hitler went into Poland and the war started and that was the end of people getting out.”

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That was 1933. His parents were able to go to England because someone sponsored and signed for them; a month later his older sister was born. A few years later, Jerry made his entrance into the world and in 1949 his parents, with their two children in tow, sailed on the Queen Mary for America where they set up life in Queens, New York.

“I had an idyllic childhood. And typical of any kid from New York, we lived in an apartment house; most of my friends lived in the same building. We’d get up in the morning, ring the buzzers of our friends’ homes and then go to the schoolyard to play sports. Baseball was my interest. In the summer I played baseball or stickball everyday.”

But eventually his interests expanded to include politics. Springer said that every night at the dinner table, each family member had to talk about one thing they had read in the newspaper. “For me, as a boy, it was sports. As I got older, I was enticed to read other things. I have vivid memories of being addicted to the 1954 McCarthy hearings and asking questions about them. I then became fascinated by the 1956 conventions.”

Springer took his interest in politics to Tulane University where he received a bachelor degree in political science. He then went to Northwestern University where he earned his law degree. After meeting Robert Kennedy at a dinner, he became a campaign aide. The shock of Kennedy’s assassination cemented his journey into the political arena. While Springer was working for a law firm in Cincinnati he led the movement in Ohio to lower the voting age from 21 to 18. He ran for a state congressional seat in 1970 and even though he lost that contest, he won a seat on the Cincinnati City Council. After serving five terms, he became mayor of the city.

His move to the world of media began after an unsuccessful bid for governor of Ohio in 1982. After being courted by ABC, NBC, and CBS, he became the anchor and managing editor of the NBC affiliate in Cincinnati. He delivered nightly commentaries which won him seven Emmy Awards and readers of Cincinnati Magazine voted him television’s best anchor for five consecutive years.

Springer was then hired to do a talk show. “The company that hired me also owned the Phil Donahue, who was leaving, and Sally Jesse Raphael shows. I never wanted to be a talk show host and knew nothing about it. They let me continue my news anchor job so I was flying to Chicago to do the talk show and then back to Cincinnati to do the news. Then Universal bought us and said ‘We want crazy.’ I’m an employee; I did what they wanted.”

Eighteen years later, The Jerry Springer Show is still going strong. But now he is also known for hosting NBC’s hit series, America’s Got Talent. In addition, he stole the hearts of the fans of Dancing with the Stars when he explained that he agreed to go on the ballroom dancing reality television show because he wanted to learn how to dance for his daughter’s wedding.

Unfortunately, most people only know Springer because of his tabloid show. But they miss knowing the warm, funny, sensitive and intelligent man who is behind the character he plays on his show. According to a story on MSNBC.com, Springer was quoted for an article in The Cincinnati Enquirer saying: “This is the first time [Dancing with the Stars] I’ve done TV being myself. My TV show isn’t really me or about me. I just introduce the guests and let them go at it.”

In fact, Springer does not take his show as seriously as people would think. In an interview for TVSquad.com about guilty television pleasures, he said jokingly, “I think my show is the guiltiest. It’s been 18 years — we’re starting to get the children of our original guests on, which is wrong because they were told not to procreate.”

When asked about this comment he just laughed but then turned serious when he said that there’s nothing on his show that people don’t already know about. “American TV has always been upper-middle class white. If you were black you had to be on a side network. When our show came along, it was maybe the first one on mainstream TV to show these other people who didn’t dress the same or didn’t go to the same schools as upper-middle class white people. They aren’t rich but their stories are the same as ours. Rich people do the same things as the people on my show. They’re on drugs, they curse, they cheat. And we can’t wait to read their books about all the people they slept with. But these behaviors are viewed differently if poor or lower income people do them.”

Springer doesn’t get upset with what the public thinks about him. “It’s important that the people who know you respect you. The people I don’t know, it doesn’t matter.” He also points out that show business is his job, not his life. His life is being a husband, a father, a new grandfather, and a fighter against discrimination. His passion for combating hatred and stereotypes stems from his family’s history in the Holocaust. But since his parents never talked about what happened, until recently, he didn’t know the full story.

Thanks to the BBC, he now knows what became of his grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. The network’s show, Who Do You Think You Are?, spotlights a celebrity’s family history by spending months tracing his or her roots.

During this past August and September, Springer was the featured celebrity. “You show up to London with your passport and for 10 days they show you around to your family’s sites,” he said. His parents, when they got older, shared just a few details of what happened to his family but it wasn’t until he took this trip with the BBC that he learned the dreadfulness of his relatives’ fate.

“They took me to the camps…it was horrific,” Springer said. “My maternal grandmother was taken to Chelmno, an extermination camp. People were there for only 36 hours at most. They were put in gassing vans. The Nazis had not yet built the extermination camps. Auschwitz was built based on Chelmno. She was the first train load over there; it was awful.”

Springer’s voice broke a few times as he retold the rest of what he had learned. His aunts had been taken out of their apartments in Berlin and moved to a ghetto in a city called Lodge, which is now in Poland. They lived for six months in that fenced off area. His paternal grandmother was taken to Theresienstadt; his paternal grandfather escaped to Paris only to be taken off the streets and sent to Auschwitz.

Springer was equally upset when talking about the citizens who knew what was happening but did nothing about it. “The absolute evil of all the people involved…millions of people answered no moral questions in their lives. It had been built up historically that Jews were the reason they lost the First World War so discrimination made it easier to accept what was being done to the Jews,” Springer said.

He said that this type of thinking is what created his liberalism and concern about prejudice. “I draw my sense of justice from my Jewish experiences and heritage. It’s an inherent sense of justice whether it came from Torah or from the experience of Jews throughout history; in reality they get melded.” A Reform Jew, even though he was raised Conservative, who lights Shabbat candles every Friday night, attends services at his congregation, and doesn’t eat pork, Springer believes in a sense of fairness of how people should be treated. “‘What would your Jewish mother do?’ is always a good question to ask,” he said.

His attention to equality and his generosity of spirit in this matter are also reflected in his philanthropic efforts. “I have a particular interest in the disabled and children. We get requests on every imaginable cause, maybe because someone I know talked to me about someone,” Springer said. He has helped raise millions of dollars for flood victims, children with AIDS, and breast cancer education, just to name a few.

Marcia Evers Levy, festival director, said Springer couldn’t have been more gracious or generous with his time. “He has done everything we’ve asked him to do — every media interview request has been honored. And he’s not just giving a couple of minutes; he’s giving as much time as they need. [He spoke with this reporter for the Jewish Light for well over 30 minutes.],” Levy said. “Most of the celebrities we work with will say ‘I’ll do one print and one broadcast and give you 15 minutes.’ But he’s been exceptional. He’s even doing Hamotzi at the patron dinner.”

Springer will be one of more than 30 authors who will speak at the 30th Anniversary St. Louis Jewish Book Festival (see story on page 1A). Springer will deliver his keynote presentation on Sunday, November 2nd, followed by an audience question and answer session. He will then autograph copies of his books which are available for purchase in the Festival Bookstore. Springer will attend the Festival’s Patron Gala Event, at The Ritz-Carlton, 100 Carondelet Plaza in Clayton. Individual tickets for the presentation are $35. Tickets for the patron dinner are $185 per person and include admission to all author events at the festival, in addition to cocktails and dinner at the Patron Gala Event.