Jeffrey Shandler: While America Watches: Televising the Holocaust

Jeffrey Shandler
While America Watches: Televising the Holocaust
Oxford University Press

A TELEVISION HOST meanders through the audience. With cameras rolling, he plucks a woman from her seat and takes her onstage. For the next 30 minutes, the host recounts the woman's life history with glib enthusiasm. This sounds like a typical episode of the 1950s hit This Is Your Life, but there's a catch: On this particular evening, the woman whose life is flashing before her eyes is a Holocaust survivor. Hanna Bloch Kohner was interned at Auschwitz, the most notorious of the Nazi death camps. With the melancholy strains of Jewish music swelling occasionally in the background, Hanna's wartime experiences are aired for the nation. Some of Kohner's fellow survivors join her onstage.

This scene, stranger than any episode of Ricki Lake, appears in Jeffrey Shandler's While America Watches: Televising the Holocaust, a book that examines how the tube has depicted the first televised genocide. It would seem that Shandler, who currently teaches Jewish studies at New York University, would have to grapple with the way an often banal medium meets such a grave subject. The author addresses this theme up front, and his view mirrors that of dramatist Paddy Chayefsky (script writer of the 1978 miniseries Holocaust), who said, "Trivialization is television."

And so, with the assurance of postmodern scholarship, Shandler instructs us to embrace our discomfort--and then to forget about it. What interests him is not the artistic value or historic accuracy of the programs, but how they reflect changing American perceptions of the event.

This approach generally works. Shandler demonstrates that in the immediate postwar years, writers and producers for both the big and small screens couldn't assume that viewers understood the basic facts about the Holocaust. Accordingly, television and the movies tried to educate the viewer, often with documentary footage. This material was commonly shown on newsreels that featured crematoria and human skeletons accompanied by film noir music scores and Ripley's Believe It or Not-style title cards such as "HERE, AMERICA, IS THE SHOCKING TRUTH." Likewise, early television shows focused on the whole of the American war effort, with the Holocaust as a subset. Throughout the '50s and early '60s, the importance of American soldiers in the war effort and the plight of the refugees, many of whom had come to America, were some of the major themes in Holocaust television. The "This Is Your Life" episode, for instance, emphasized Kohner's postwar life in America--and the host made an appeal to viewers "of all creeds and races" to support Jewish refugees.

Holocaust education has permeated mainstream American consciousness in the past 25 years. This is true on television as well, where the event has become a household world. The watershed event was the 1978 miniseries Holocaust, which, while critically panned, proved that mainstream America was ready to watch a four-night show on the subject. This mainstreaming of the Holocaust, however, has not been accomplished without some bitter controversies. Protests surfaced after PLO supporter Vanessa Redgrave played a concentration camp inmate in the CBS production "Playing for Time." And after Holocaust survivors, U.S. veterans, and scholars disputed the accuracy of a 1992 PBS documentary detailing the role of African-American troops in liberating Buchenwald, the New York station that produced the program concluded that the film was "seriously flawed."

Though Shandler strangely fails to make the point, Holocaust programming seems to have followed a divisive trend in American culture at large. Just as early Holocaust coverage looked at the event through the lens of a shared American patriotism, this impulse has in part given way to the multicultural struggles so characteristic of the end of the twentieth century.

 
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