Saturday , May 18 2024
Holocaust memorial day

The Holocaust Televised

(Note: Many, but not all, of the episodes described in this article are available to stream on your favorite streaming service or app.)

This article first appeared in the May 6, 2024 Journey Planet issue on the Holocaust.

This May, Jews commemorate the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah. It is a day to recall the unspeakable horrors of a time before most of us were born. The Holocaust eradicated much of European Jewry, along with its culture, including its language (Yiddish). But the lessons of the Holocaust (in Hebrew, Shoah) reach far beyond one group of people, beyond the importance of memory for memory’s sake.

Holocaust memorial day

We are now in a world where every day, we are reminded that freedom is fragile, life as a Jew—indeed any minority or vulnerable population—including in this country, is extremely fragile. And the echoes of fascism ring ever closer. It is crucially important to “Never Forget,” as denial that the Holocaust was real (or overblown) proliferates on social media and beyond.

The generation with direct knowledge of the Holocaust is dying out. Even those who were young at the time are now elderly or gone. Memory fades and then vanishes in subsequent generations unless it’s carefully preserved.

But so many of those who lost family in Europe—or escaped it—simply didn’t talk about it. To anyone. Not even their children or spouses. Whether that was due to the sheer horror and scope of the Holocaust, survivor’s guilt, or the driving need to move forward and quickly push the pain to the far reaches of memory, the genocide of the Jews was not a topic for discussion. Ever.

I recently screened a few episodes of the PBS series Finding Your Roots. When confronted by host Henry Louis Gates, Jr. about their Eastern European roots, and specifically their families’ experiences with the Holocaust in Europe, several Jewish (and even a few non-Jewish) guests were stunned to silence or tears, never having heard anything, not even whispers, nothing in family lore or story about this fundamental part of their pasts.

So, literature, film, and TV can fill in that void and help us remember, to understand the nature of the genocide perpetrated on the Jews of Europe. Pop culture (and for the purposes of this article, specifically television) often holds up a mirror to the past. Through the years, the Holocaust has been explored by documentary, TV drama, science fiction, and even comedy series. But it has been an incredibly difficult subject to bring to the small screen—for so many reasons, and especially in the decades closest to it.

The Early Days of TV and the Holocaust

Perhaps mirroring the reluctance of those most deeply affected by the Holocaust to discuss it, television of the 1950s and 1960s, and even into the 1970s, largely ignored the Holocaust. Perhaps it was still too near, the wound still gaping.

Maybe Jewish creatives in Hollywood were reluctant to call attention to it—or themselves—especially in light of the McCarthy era with its often barely veiled antisemitism. Maybe it was the difficulty, the sensitivity of the subject matter. Would TV presentation in a non-news setting trivialize the genocide? Was the subject too specifically Jewish? Would the material be too graphic, too shocking for TV audiences? Would anyone tune in to such a distressing part of world history, even if it featured A-List stars? For whatever reason, creators, producers (and advertisers) wanted to stay far away from it.

Not even the quintessentially Jewish situation comedy The Goldbergs (original version, 1949-1957) touched on the difficult subject. A rare exception was actually before The Goldbergs moved from radio to TV. An April 1939 radio episode indirectly references Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass, November 9, 1938) when a brick is thrown through the shop window of a Jewish-owned store.

In the 1949 television episode “The Letter,” Molly Goldberg (Gertrude Berg) receives a letter from European family she has not heard from since before the war. From there, the plot veers back to the homey family comedy that is the show’s signature. Nothing more is said.

One of the first serious attempts to bring the Holocaust to the small screen was the CBS Anthology series Playhouse 90. It broadcast “Judgment at Nuremberg,” which was adapted from the stage play two years before it was made into the classic feature film starring Spencer Tracy and Maximilian Schell. The television version, which aired in 1959, starred Schell and Claude Rains, and explored the complicity of the German judicial system with Hitler’s Final Solution for European Jews.

Other series, including The United States Steel Hour and Philco Television Playhouse, also broadcast post-WWII episodes that evoked the lessons of the Holocaust, including antisemitism and fascism, even if indirectly.  

You might think the WWII series Combat would have been a fertile ground for exploring the horrors of the Holocaust. But only one episode, “Gideon’s Army,” touched on it, and that, only indirectly—never identifying the victims as other than “DP”s or Poles. The episode has the squad of American fighters rescue a group of concentration camp survivors.

But Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone did not shy away from the most difficult and painful subjects in American society. The 1961 episode “Deaths-Head Revisited” is a chilling and painful reminder of the Holocaust that resonates even today. A former SS officer returns to a concentration camp he’d once commanded. The officer is confronted by the ghosts of his victims, who put him on trial for his crimes against humanity.

The ABC legal series The Defenders featured a father-son team of defense lawyers. Often willing to take on culturally or politically sensitive subjects, the series tackled everything from lingering fascism to McCarthyism to abortion, and racism.

Several episodes touch on themes relating to the Holocaust. For example, the season one episode “The Iron Man” explores American fascism on campus. The season two episode “The Indelible Silence,” in a similar vein, explores neo-Nazism. Clearly, the creators of The Defenders believed that Nazism and fascism were not completely vanquished in WWII and continued to be a danger in contemporary America. Another episode, “The Avenger,” finds the defenders on the side of a man who murdered a German scientist responsible for the deaths for his wife and daughter in the gas chambers.

Holocaust, the Miniseries, Opens the Floodgates

NBC’s four-part 1978 mini-series Holocaust followed the history of that time through the perspectives of two fictional German families, one Jewish and the other non-Jewish. It was an introduction to a new generation. Although criticized by some as trivializing the Holocaust, it was, for many Americans, their first education about the subject, bringing the horror of genocide into the homes of an estimated 120 million. The series is also credited for making the term “Holocaust” synonymous with the genocide perpetrated on Eastern European Jewry during WWII.

I believe Holocaust may have finally opened the door for a new generation of adult creatives, born after WWII, who possessed curiosity about the time and had enough distance from the actual events to bring it to the small screen. And, since their parents’ generation was so reticent to revisit the time, the subject seemed ripe for television treatment. (And, of course, TV—and film—likes to follow the ratings. And knows what brings the viewers.) And so…

The 1980s and Beyond

The 1980 CBS TV movie Playing for Time (starring Vanessa Redgrave, controversially, because of her pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist beliefs) was based on the memoir of Fania Fénelon, a Jewish musician who survived Auschwitz by playing in the camp orchestra. The same year, NBC aired a TV adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank, based on the memoir by the Dutch victim of the Holocaust. Also on NBC in 1980, The Long Days of Summer tells the story of a family experiencing the effects of increasing antisemitism in 1938 New England, paralleling events overseas in Europe.

Long after 1938 New England, antisemitism has never been too far removed from American life. When I was a kid, the American Nazi Party announced a march through the Chicago suburb of Skokie (my hometown). The place was selected by the nationalist hate group because it was the home of so many survivors.

The march became the subject of a court case that made it up to the Supreme Court and split the largely liberal-leaning Jewish community between those who said to simply ignore the hate-mongers, and those who wanted to confront them. In 1981, CBS brought the story to the small screen via the TV movie Skokie starring Danny Kaye and Eli Wallach. One resident remarks that he was told to ignore Hitler and the Nazis back in Europe and the next thing he knew, he was in a concentration camp.

Herman Wouk’s epic historical novels, The Winds of War and its sequel War and Remembrance, explore the intricacies of WWII. Brought to the small screen, the two novels explored the question of how it was possible for the most educated and advanced cultures in Europe to have perpetrated or acquiesced to the systematic murder of 12 million Jews and other vulnerable populations. Produced as two miniseries (1983 and 1988 respectively) on ABC, the programs riveted viewers, with more than 140 million tuning in.

On the documentary front, PBS’s investigative series Frontline has explored the Holocaust and its aftermath since 1985. “Memory of the Camps” aired raw footage from inside the camps for the first time, taken by British and American filmmakers (including, notably, Alfred Hitchcock). The footage had been locked away in London’s Imperium Museum for years and aired unedited on the long-running documentary series in 1985.

ITV (CBS aired it in the U.S.) produced the British TV film Escape from Sobibor, which brought viewers inside the most successful uprising and mass escape from any Nazi death camp. And although all but 70 of the 300 escapees from the camp were recaptured or killed, the Nazis closed down the death camp, bulldozing it to the ground in 1943. The award-winning TV movie starred Alan Arkin and Rutger Hauer.

The 1990s and the Spielberg Effect

In 1991, cable network TNT aired a movie called Never Forget (starring Leonard Nimoy). The movie, based on a real case, concerns a courageous man, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz now living comfortably in 1980s America. He wants nothing more for his family, including his Baptist wife and their four kids, than to live a perfect American life in California. His children know nothing at all about his experiences in Auschwitz. Yet, when a nationalist group asks for proof of the gas chambers, the man steps into the light to take on this hate group. He understands that hiding the past, forgetting the past, is worse than confronting it.

A year after his acclaimed film Schindler’s List came out, Steven Spielberg founded The Shoah Foundation in 1994. The foundation was created to document the testimonies of survivors. These visual testimonies are crucial as the WWII generation passes on, and their silence allows us to forget the horror, or worse, give leave for revisionists to bury the past—or change it.

And the “proof” of the Nazi atrocities would emerge via the more than 50,000 survivors’ accounts filmed for the archive. The work of the Foundation has expanded over the years to document genocides in other parts of the world.

Perhaps influenced by the box office and critical success of Schindler’s List, several new television documentaries and series and TV movies popped up in the 1990s. They attempt dive deeper, to educate, to reveal.

These include: the documentary series The Holocaust: In Memory of Millions (1993), which presents survivor testimonies and archival footage; Schindler (1994), a documentary on Oskar Schindler, the German businessman who saved more than a thousand Jewish refugees during the Holocaust; The Lost Children of Berlin (1997), which documents the stories of Jewish children hidden from the Nazis during the Holocaust; and The Long Way Home in 1997, which examines the experiences of Holocaust survivors after the war.

On Frontline, “Shtetl” (1996) showed two elderly survivors as they return to their destroyed community, evoking ghosts of their past. The documentary was produced by “hidden child” Marian Marzynski, who had escaped the Warsaw ghetto to be raised by a Christian family. Marzynski produced another Holocaust documentary for Frontline in 2013 called “Never Forget to Lie.” The 2013 documentary examines the consequences and challenges of people like him who needed to lie about identity, background—and everything else, push it into the far reaches of memory in order to survive.

The Devil’s Arithmetic aired on Showtime in 1999, based on the novel of the same name by Jane Yolen. In the film, a young Jewish girl who is tired of hearing the same stories about her family’s history over and over again is transported back to the Holocaust. The protagonist is two generations removed from the Holocaust and disinterested in the boring, repetitive family recollections, painful as they are. The film is reflective of yet another layer of distance, with memory slipping away in the far reaches of the history books. It’s a reminder that unless we keep it near enough, we become apathetic and ultimately forget entirely.

The 21st Century

In our current century, television has looked backwards through the 20/20 hindsight of history (sometimes well-buried), to what might have been if…And forward to what could become should “Never Again” be forgotten.

Including new documentaries on Anne Frank and survivors’ stories, the PBS investigative series Frontline has aired several important documentaries, including “The Last Survivors” (2019), which brings me back to the reticence, the refusal to talk about, to deal with and to share the pain of Holocaust experiences with—anyone. The effects on everyone around them, especially family. I’ve witnessed the corrosive effects on succeeding generations of survivors up close in my own family.

Dystopic visions of what the world might be had Hitler prevailed are explored in the alternate history series The Man in the High Castle (2015-2019) based on Philip K. Dick’s novel, and The Plot Against America (2020), a miniseries based on Philip Roth’s Sidewise Award-winning novel.

Also in 2020, HBO’s Hunters is a fictionalized series about Nazi hunters in 1970s America.

The Holocaust is no longer the touchy subject television avoids, with popular series like The Crown, the Upstairs-Downstairs remake, and even comedy series like Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Kominsky Method, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel not shying away from dealing with what is now, in some respects, long-ago history.

And just recently, Hulu released a new series, The Lucky Ones, the story of a family caught in the midst of the Holocaust and trying to escape. Based on Georgia Hunter’s memoir of her grandfather’s story, it is the most recent take on the greatest catastrophe in modern Jewish history.

The preservation of memory, through commemorations like Holocaust Remembrance Day, like Yom HaShoah, is crucial to ensuring “Never Again” is for real and is now. But in the fictional and documentary video archives now so easily available for streaming provide us, our children and successive generation an important conduit for never forgetting. “Not forgetting” in order to prevent anything like it from happening again.

Yet here we are. And, in the world of 2024, here, in America, and around the world, this lesson is never more important and universal. Whether through documentary or high drama or science fictional cautionary tales, the lessons of the Holocaust must never be forgotten.

About Barbara Barnett

A Jewish mother and (young 🙃) grandmother, Barbara Barnett is an author and professional Hazzan (Cantor). A member of the Conservative Movement's Cantors Assembly and the Jewish Renewal movement's clergy association OHALAH, the clergy association of the Jewish Renewal movement. In her other life, she is a critically acclaimed fantasy/science fiction author as well as the author of a non-fiction exploration of the TV series House, M.D. and contributor to the book Spiritual Pregnancy. She Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org).

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