Time Essay: Television and the Holocaust

Time Essay: Television and the Holocaust
Elie Wiesel hated it. NBC'S 9-hour docudrama, Holocaust, so offended
the author and survivor that he wrote: “Untrue,
offensive, cheap: as a TV production, the film is an insult to those
who perished and to those who survived. What you have seen on the
screen is not what happened there.” But Wiesel has written almost
obsessively about the Holocaust; he has a kind of morally proprietary
passion about it. He is a keeper of the flame, a visionary who sees the
past as intensely as a prophet sees the future. Many more Americans
seemed to agree with Mayer Fruchter, a New York cab driver who was
imprisoned at Buchenwald at the same time as Wiesel. “He is wrong,”
Fruchter insisted after last week's series about a German Jewish family
and the Final Solution. “I mean, he is right; it can't be shown. But
it's better to show close to it than not to show it at all. Already
people are saying it didn't happen, they don't believe it. Our
children—my twelve-year-old daughter—they don't know. The aim of this
showing is not to cry for what happened, nor ask for pity or sympathy,
but only this: to look out for it anywhere in the world, so it won't
happen again.” The ratings after the four-night documentary fiction were impressive.
NBC estimated that at one point or another, some 120 million Americans
tuned in Holocaust. It scored 14 points lower than the alltime ratings
winner, last year's Roots series, but still ranked second in the
category of “entertainment.” Author Gerald Green's novel, based on his
script, is now in its tenth printing and has sold more than 1 million
copies. Holocaust came at a moment of unusual stirring of old memories, fears
and other passions among American Jews. It played last week just before
Passover, timed to coincide with the 35th anniversary of the Warsaw
ghetto uprising. In Skokie, Ill., 7,000 who survived Auschwitz, Belsen
and Treblinka awaited the promised march by American Nazis clothed in
brown shirts and the First Amendment. Some Christian churches around
the U.S. distributed yellow Stars of David for members to wear on their
breasts; the gesture, sweet enough perhaps, smacked of moral
self-congratulation. Displays like that are impressive only when they
are risky, as in Holland in 1942. An evil past and a skittish future gusted around together. Israeli
Premier Menachem Begin was due in the U.S. to raise money. What he
needed more than that was moral capital to replace what his government
has lost in recent months among
American Jews and gentiles alike. Television's Holocaust may have done
something to restore that fund of good will toward Israel. The past,
Israel's raison d'tre and validation, the pedigree of its suffering,
came crowding back in the series' deadly lists: Kristallnacht,
Eichmann, Himmler, Babi Yar, Sobibor, Theresienstadt, Auschwitz—or,
rather, television's elaborately imagined approximations of all of
them. “It is only a story,” the network's ads proclaimed, “but it
really happened.”