How Lena Dunham and Stephen Fry Brought Their Personal Family History to New Movie “Treasure” (Exclusive)

Dunham filmed parts of her new movie in Łódź, Poland, where her she herself has family roots

<p>Bleecker Street and FilmNation</p> Stephen Fry (left) and Lena Dunham in <em>Treasure</em>

Bleecker Street and FilmNation

Stephen Fry (left) and Lena Dunham in Treasure

Lena Dunham and Stephen Fry have a profoundly personal connection to their new movie.

In Treasure, the costars play Holocaust survivor Edek and New York journalist Ruth, a father-daughter duo en route to Poland in 1991 to visit the sites from Edek’s past — including the Auschwitz concentration camp.

“While we had thought that our family was Hungarian, we were actually informed that Hungary was where the surviving members of our family went post-Holocaust,” Dunham, 38, tells PEOPLE. Her maternal ancestors, she says, “actually were from Łódź, Poland, which is one of the places where we shot [Treasure].”

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Fry, 66, can also trace his Jewish heritage back to Europe on his mother’s side. “My grandfather grew up in a small settlement — a shtetl, I guess you'd call it — in Hungary, which is now Slovakia. My grandmother was in Austria,” the English actor-filmmaker says. 

“And fortunately they both had gone to England in the early ’30s and so therefore, I'm alive,” he adds. “Because all the family they left behind perished.”

Similarly, members of Dunham’s Russian-born family “were killed in 1941,” she says, “in a march out to the woods where a large group of Jews were shot in what was considered an original Holocaust of bullets.”

An adaptation of Lily Brett’s 1999 novel Too Many Men, Treasure is directed by Julia von Heinz and adapted by von Heinz and John Quester. Like the story's main character Ruth, Brett was the daughter of Holocaust survivors coping with intergenerational trauma.

While Dunham’s Ruth is determined to learn everything about her parents’ upbringing, Edek finds revisiting his roots difficult, hiding his grief under careless cheer. “I saw in the character so many echoes of my grandfather,” reveals Fry. “And I heard his voice as I read it.”

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On Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s PBS docuseries Finding Your Roots, Dunham learned it was her great-grandmother’s nine aunts and uncles who were killed in Russia. “My mother knew her great-grandmother, who never spoke about the siblings who died,” explains the Girls Golden Globe winner.

Growing up, she asked her grandparents “constantly” about that family history. "This story of repressed trauma, speaks so deeply to the way in which my family — which was in so many other ways, an open, loving, connected, Jewish family — chose to speak about these issues," Dunham says of the film.

<p>Sebastian Reuter/Getty</p> Stephen Fry (left) and Lena Dunham

Sebastian Reuter/Getty

Stephen Fry (left) and Lena Dunham

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While she notes that she was “lucky enough” that her late grandmother “was at three Girls premieres despite being 93, 94 and 95” years old — “She even sat through the sex scenes, thank you Grandma Dottie!” — Dunham says Treasure is “the kind of film that would make her proud.” 

She adds, “I also felt like it was the kind of film that starts important conversations, not just for Jewish Americans, not just for people who survived the Holocaust, but for anyone whose family has dealt with the intergenerational effects of persecution and violence.”

Treasure is in theaters now.

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