To say that the Holocaust has become a central symbol of the twentieth century, particularly for American Jews, is to state the obvious. This confrontation with catastrophe has become a mythic element of American Jewish identity and has served both a positive and a negative purpose. It has become a stimulus for motivating Jewish identity. But, in certain situations, it has been allowed to assume a dominant role thereby distorting the true nature of Judaism and becoming the prism through which the Jewish world view is refracted. This article explores the emergence of the Holocaust on the American agenda—both Jewish and non-Jewish—during the two decades following World War II.
The prominence of the Holocaust in American Jewish identity is particularly noteworthy since throughout the 1950s and most of the 1960s it was barely on the Jewish communal or theological agenda. In contrast to today, there were virtually no courses on the topic. There were no more than a few commemorations of Yom HaShoah, or books, conferences, speeches, and museums dedicated to exploring the history and significance of the Holocaust. An examination of Jewish periodicals reveals few articles on the Holocaust. These Holocaust commemorations which were held were generally attended only by survivors. Non-survivors who attended remembered feeling like they “were crashing a funeral.” 1 Survivors who came to this country in the later 1940s and the 1950s were often discouraged from discussing their experiences. They were told Americans were not interested. 2
That the Holocaust had such a limited overt impact on the American Jewish community during this period is particularly noteworthy given that, contrary to popular impression, it was not totally absent from the American popular cultural agenda. In contrast to what has often been the general impression there were a significant number of movies, plays, television productions, and books on the subject well before the end of the 1960s.
In April 1959, the Jewish Daily Forward noted that, as “happens every year,” special shows marking Passover would be broadcast on television and radio. Among the shows scheduled to be aired was an installment of CBS’s religion series, Look Up and Live, dedicated to the topic of the destruction [End Page 195] of the Warsaw ghetto. ABC’s religion series, Directions, broadcast The Final Ingredient, a play by the author of Twelve Angry Men. The play depicted the attempt of inmates of the Belsen concentration camp to celebrate a Passover Seder. 3 But these were not the only television shows on the topic. The popular television show, This is Your Life devoted nine segments to the Holocaust in the period between 1953 and 1961. 4 Judgment at Nuremberg was a successful television production before it was made into a movie in 1961. In 1957 the respected television drama show, Playhouse 90, aired Homeward Borne, a show about survivors of the Holocaust. In 1959 Alcoa Goodyear Theater’s production of Thirty Pieces of Silver concerned Holocaust refugees. In 1960 Playhouse 90 produced Rod Serling’s In the Presence of Mine Enemies. That same year saw the production of Millard Lampell’s play, The Wall. And, in the spring of 1961 television viewers were able to watch portions of the Eichmann trial.
Some of the early plays, books, and television productions on the Holocaust won substantial attention. Foremost among them were The Diary of Anne Frank, which reached Americans in the form of a book, play, and movie, and William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which, though not solely concerned with the Holocaust, did pay serious attention to Hitler’s persecution of the Jews and the German plan to leave Europe Judenrein. In addition Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools (1962), lauded by the New York Times Book Review as one of the best books of the past hundred years, painted a highly critical portrait of German attitudes towards Jews. At least seven books on Eichmann appeared in 1962.
This particular kind of attention was especially significant because much of it was generated by the non-Jewish world and, consequently, could have suggested to the Jewish community...