1 9 7 8 (USA)
1 x 180 minute episode
2 x 120 minute episodes
1 x 150 minute episode
Holocaust first aired on NBC from 16 April to 19 April 1978. This nine-and-a-half-hour, four-part series can be compared to Roots, which aired on ABC a year earlier.
Like Roots’ saga of American slavery, Holocaust’s story of Jewish suffering during World War II flew in the face of traditional network programming wisdom, which had always avoided presenting tales of unrelieved misery.
While Holocaust was a smaller ratings success than Roots, NBC estimated after the 1979 rebroadcast as many as 220 million viewers in the US and Europe had seen the series.
Holocaust contrasts the interlocking fates of two German families, the Jewish Weiss family and the Nazi Dorfs.
At the time of the series’ first screening, critics sniped about the improbability of the proposition that so small a cast of characters would be witnesses to so great a number of the major milestones in the destruction of European Jewry, among them the confabulations of the architects of Hitler’s Final Solution, the slaughter at Babi Yar, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and the liberation of Auschwitz.
On its American debut, Holocaust met with a generally positive response but not with unanimous praise. One Holocaust survivor protested in the New York Times that it was “untrue, offensive and cheap”.
Reviewers generally applauded the cast – which included Meryl Streep, and Michael Moriarty, who won an Emmy for his portrayal of Dorf (pictured at right) – and praised Gerald Green’s script.
Many viewers were dismayed by the content of the commercial interruptions, which seemed to strike a vulgar note inappropriate to the subject matter of the series and at times appeared, horrifyingly, to parody it, as in the juxtaposition of a Lysol ad alerting viewers to the need to combat kitchen odours, with a scene in which Adolf Eichmann complains that the crematoria smells make dining at Auschwitz unpleasant.
When the series aired in West Germany in January 1979, viewer response was little short of stunning. According to German polls intended to measure audience reaction before, immediately after, and several months after Holocaust appeared, this single television event had a significant effect on West Germans’ understanding of this episode in the history of their country.
Despite strong opposition to the broadcast before it aired, some 15 million West Germans (roughly half the adult population) tuned in to one or more episodes, breaking a thirty-five-year taboo on discussing Nazi atrocities.
Such was the public response that West Germany promptly cancelled the statute of limitations for Nazi war crimes, formerly scheduled to expire at the end of 1979.
In Blackpool, England, a Jewish widow, Mrs Fanny Godall, was so upset that she committed suicide after watching the show.
Holocaust was filmed on location (in Mauthausen concentration camp, amongst other places) and was reportedly a shattering experience, especially for the actors portraying the Nazis.
Inga Helms Weiss
Uncle Kurt Dorf