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American Jewish History 88.1 (2000) 145-147

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While America Watches: Televising the Holocaust. By Jeffrey Shandler. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. xviii + 316 pp.

The Holocaust holds a unique place in the popular culture of the United States, and television, as Jeffrey Shandler so skillfully argues, has played a strategic role in establishing the Holocaust as a powerful moral paradigm. In a first-rate scholarly study Shandler offers a fresh way of looking at the Holocaust: how for the past fifty years television has planted the images of the Holocaust firmly in American consciousness so that it has become the measure by which all inhuman behavior is judged. In the process of his analysis, Shandler also systematically makes the case against those who argue (or simply assume) that TV trivializes everything it examines.

While there exists a vast number of studies analyzing the role of the Holocaust as theme and image in novels, memoirs, dramas, paintings, and films, the most popular mass medium of the latter half of the twentieth century--television--has been neglected by scholars. No more. In bold and striking fashion, Jeffrey Shandler begins the process of analyzing how TV has portrayed the Holocaust and launched a serious new tack in the study of television. His writing is both subtle and engaging at the same time. While America Watches will rank with the best of the book-length studies in TV studies for many years to come.

In his introduction Shandler describes and analyzes how on television Americans confronted the horrors and realities of the Holocaust. Television, more than any other medium, established the hold of the Holocaust in the American mind as a moral benchmark. Shandler divides his analysis of TV's impact and influence into three parts, each about 100 pages in length.

In part one, "Creating the Viewer," Shandler covers the rise of television as a mass medium, from its roots after the Second World War to 1960 when most households in the United States owned at least one set, and had it on for an average of five hours per day. Indeed, Shandler leads the reader into the TV era with an examination of motion picture [End Page 145] newsreels shot and exhibited during the Second World War when television was still in its laboratory, experimental phase. He then lays out early TV presentations of the Holocaust, climaxing with a detailed case study of a single episode of This is Your Life, which aired on NBC on 27 May 1953, where the horrors of survivor Hanna Bloch Kohner were dramatically told to millions of viewers. His third chapter here examines a number of live prime-time dramas from the 1950s, including "The Diary of Anne Frank" and "Judgement at Nuremberg."

The book's second unit, "Into the Limelight," covers the age when three networks (NBC, CBS, and ABC) commanded nearly all viewers' attention. Public broadcasting was just getting started, and cable television's vast array of channels remained a vision for the future. His case studies of the televising of the 1961 war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann and of the 1978 Holocaust miniseries bookend analyses of prime-time fare such as The Defenders, The Twilight Zone, and Hogan's Heroes.

While America Watches concludes with contemporary historical analysis, starting with programming aired first in 1979 and ending with shows from the middle 1990s. This is the book's weakest section because the author lacks historical distance, and the number of shows increases mightily, causing Shandler's case studies to shorten considerably and seem all too brief compared to those in earlier chapters. This final unit ought to be read as a rough draft for future historical work on TV and the Holocaust. After a brief five-page conclusion, summarizing his findings and predicting more TV treatments in the future, Shandler supplies 43 pages of detailed notes. This is a considerable accomplishment as this bibliographical material offers future scholars of television and the Holocaust the place to begin their review of the literature.

While America Watches contains two dozen black and white images...


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