- While America Watches: Televising the Holocaust
The earliest research about the Holocaust was concerned primarily with retrieval of the facts of the genocidal process, its step-by-step implementation. That kind of painstaking research is usually the provenance of historians who work on the assumption that the data is simply there in original sources like government records, personal memoirs, newspapers, etc. It has merely to be collected and made into a coherent historical narrative. That “telling the story” approach is today joined by researchers interested not so much in discovering what happened but rather in what is remembered. These researchers are usually students of the newer social sciences, especially cultural anthropology and social psychology, who want to learn about the shaping of the “culture of memory.” The book here reviewed belongs in that category. Shandler focuses on American television, which he sees as a primary shaper of that culture. He presents us with a detailed history of how the Holocaust was played on TV from the end of World War II to its present role as the nation’s major moral mediator. We are shown how TV ultimately made the Holocaust, an event with which the American people were only indirectly involved, an ethical touchstone of its moral consciousness. It is an important book, since what a community chooses to remember and why it does so can tell us much about its time in history.
Shandler seems to have missed little in his cataloguing of five decades of TV fare relating directly and indirectly to the Holocaust. What amazed this reader is the sheer number of character roles, survivors, perpetrators, and witnesses portrayed in half- remembered TV dramas and family shows like “This Is Your Life.” The Holocaust first appears on the TV screen through the “liberation” films of the camps taken by the U.S. Army Signal Corps and used as evidence at the Nuremberg trials. From there the characters appear in the TV “heavy” drama, the Philco Television Playhouse, Studio One, Playhouse 90, Matinee Theater that became the fare of serious television during the fifties and sixties. But the idea that there were lessons of the Holocaust, like the societal benefits derived from group tolerance and conversely the dangers of intol erance, did not develop all at once. Though barely shown on American TV, the Eichmann trial (1961) became a watershed marking the end of the period of silence and spawned dozens of post-trial dramas. It was the first rendering of the Holocaust as a discreet event distinguished from the blood-letting of World War II.
Seventeen years later there appeared Gerald Green’s miniseries “Holocaust” (1978), which Shandler views as the breakthrough event that placed the Holocaust on the road to becoming the touchstone of America’s moral sensibility and American Jewry’s civil religion. It has remained so ever since. Despite its formulaic presentation, Green’s rendering of the Holocaust had such a deep popular impact that it accelerated the process through which the Holocaust earned its place in the American communal [End Page 157] memory. Its impact was even greater in post-war Germany, which in the immediate post-war years had shown itself to be reluctant to remember its brutal past.
Clearly great theater art is not requisite for gaining entree to communal memory. The reverse may actually be the case. In 1957 a drama concerning the singling out and separation of American Jewish POWs for “special treatment” hardly made a stir (Studio One, “Walk Down the Hill,” March 18, 1957). Yet between 1965 and 1971 an innoc uous sitcom on CBS (“Hogan’s Heroes”), which actually humanized German prison keepers through humor, consistently received high ratings. After 1978 such portrayals had lost credibility. Still today when such “Katzenjammer” portrayal of German wardens seems out of synch, repeats of “Hogan’s Heroes” continue to receive respect able ratings. One has to wonder how deep TV’s shaping of the nation’s moral conscience really is.
Interesting too is how While America Watches dovetails with a book on a closely...