TV’s “Holocaust”

A Sellout to Assimilation

When a prime-time TV drama on the Holocaust belittles the intensely Jewish values of East European Jews and implies that these caused them to go “like sheep to the slaughter,” and when this drama glorifies as hero an assimilated young Jewish male jock and implies that assimilation leads to survival, then we must understand how this slant is not an accident, but derives from the values and attitudes of the four American Jewish men who created the drama.

“Holocaust,” which ran on NBC-TV for nine-and-a-half hours on four nights last April, was the creation of scriptwriter Gerald Green, producers Robert (“Buzz”) Berger and Herbert Brodkin, and director Marvin Chomsky. While the script was Green’s, there seems to have been a great deal of input from the other three, and to some extent this was a joint effort (which is why I will refer to this group as “the authors”). Their priorities— what they chose to focus on and how, and what they chose to omit—are important clues to their unconscious attitudes and feelings about Jews and to the attitudes of American Jewish men generally.

The film (admittedly moving) is about the assimilated German Jewish “Family Weiss” and how the Holocaust affected them (with a parallel plot concerning the career of lawyer and SS officer Eric Dorf). The parents, Josef and Berta, are deported to Warsaw and then Auschwitz, where they are gassed; the older son, Karl, is sent from Buchenwald to Theresienstadt, where he and other artists secretly depict the realities of this “model” camp until discovered, tortured and deported to die in Auschwitz; Anna, the only daughter, is raped by Nazis, suffers a nervous breakdown as a result, and is gassed with other “mental defectives.” Rudi, the younger son, runs away from Berlin to Prague and then to Kiev (where he escapes from and witnesses the Babi Yar massacre), becomes a partisan, is captured and later breaks out of Sobibor. By the end of the film, only Rudi (along with Inga, Karl’s loyal Christian wife) survives.

There is no denying that the film is compelling. How, indeed, could it fail to be compelling? Any portrayal of the Holocaust, in any medium, cannot fail to move us, given the anguish Jews feel about the Catastrophe itself. In addition, this was the first time in 34 years that television acknowledged and presented to a wide audience this most painful chapter in Jewish history. And this was the first time, too, that the presentation took the form of a television drama about a believable family of characters with whom the audience could identify.

But compelling is not enough, not for a Catastrophe of this magnitude and depth about which so much ignorance exists. Such a drama must be more than compelling, more than moving, more than involving. It must be truthful. And in this film, the truth is obscured and distorted.

An obsession with the lack of physical resistance by East European Jewry permeates —and contaminates— the entire film. Again and again Jews are shown walking to and being shot in the pits, each sequence preceded and/or followed by Nazi commentary about how passive the Jews are. There is not a word spoken there or elsewhere to explain (as we shall do below) why physical resistance did not or could not take place in these circumstances.

Against the backdrop of the “passive” East European Jewish masses stands Rudi Weiss, the central protagonist and hero of the film. In contrast to the East European Jewish masses, Rudi is a “street fighter” from his youth. An attractive, devil-may-care, sweet and brave boy, his training on the soccer fields (“never cry in a fight”) stands him in good stead in his escapes from and battles with the Nazis. Also in contrast to the East European Jews, Rudi is not Jewish in anything but birth —by his own admission, he does not know what being Jewish means. He is, in short, assimilated.

The drama glorifies Rudi and his heroism, and is structured to have us identify primarily with him. This glorification of Rudi as The Resister, The Partisan, The Hero, projects a message: that it was possible for all Jews to resist the Nazis in the same ways Rudi did—and to survive, as Rudi did. And that, this being so, all the other Jews who did not resist in this way or at all were somehow responsible for their own annihilation. And that, moreover, the intensely Jewish values and culture of the East European Jewish masses who did not resist physically were therefore Not OK because these values did not lead to their survival. Assimilation Saves.

Asking why Jews did not resist reinforces the assumption that, since they could have and didn’t, they are complicit in their own deaths. But a serious analysis of the causes and implications of the Holocaust must regard the question of whether mass resistance by Jews could have stopped the Catastrophe as a diversion from the real issues: who put Hitler in power and why did the ruling class need him? Why did the Allies and, particularly, the United States, obstruct and sabotage efforts to rescue Jews? Why did non-Jews in certain countries collaborate with the Nazis in murdering Jews?

Serious historians know how impossible mass Jewish resistance was, given the enormity of Nazi power and cruelty, the acquiescence of most local populations and the Allies in the Final Solution, and the centuries-old Jewish condition of powerlessness and oppression. Mass organized resistance has several prerequisites. One is territory, and a leadership pool of people sharing a common language and common experience. The second requirement is the cooperation of the surrounding population (as Mao wrote, a guerilla must be able to swim among the peasants in the countryside as a fish swims in water). The third necessity is a resistance mentality —a sense that there’s little to lose and much to be gained by fighting. The film does not make it clear how and why Jews lacked these prerequisites.

Nor does it show, either, the starvation of Jews in the ghettoes on 300 calories a day or less; the illnesses and epidemics; the terror of everyday life; the knowledge that the “alternative” to death was torture. There is not a word in the film about the fiendish Nazi experiments of Mengele and others, or of the sadism of the Nazis; in the film they are shown “doing their job” but not enjoying it particularly. Nor is there anything in the film about the Jews’ lack of information about what was’ happening. Because of these omissions, the full Nazi terror cannot be conveyed; therefore, the Jews’ plight cannot adequately be understood.

It is shocking to learn that the authors paid $150 to two (ex.?-) SS officers to learn what they bantered about while shooting Jews, in order to insure the historical accuracy of the Babi Yar sequences. This concern for accuracy did not, however, extend to the ghetto and camp sequences for which not one single survivor was interviewed nor one Holocaust institution consulted.

In these cases, “artistic accuracy,” as the authors referred to it at a news conference, prevailed.

The concentration camps, which were in reality filthy, disease-ridden, brutalized beyond human imagination, are sanitized in the film to the point where they seem almost like the CCC camps of the 1930’s. Josef pays a social call on Berta in her barracks (an act which would have been punished by death) and they look at the family photos she has pinned to the upper bunk (all inmates were stripped of their personal property including their hair upon entering the camp). The Warsaw Ghetto, a prison of disease, terror and hunger, appears in better shape than the South Bronx. Three examples of distorted reality:

  • Aaron, the kid smuggler, drops an egg on the floor and the other children blithely continue singing “Sur Le Pont D’Avignon,” of all things. (The intense starvation in the ghetto caused emaciated walking corpses to snatch bread from the hands of strangers and tear at it with their toothless gums, while being beaten.)
  • Joseph and Berta take a leisurely stroll in the ghetto after July 1942. (People walked on the streets only after dark and made their way through bunkers and attic passageways.)
  • Anilevitch gives an impassioned oration at the Jewish Council (for which he would have been arrested on the spot had he been stupid enough to show up there). Green, in answer to my question about this, said that some Councils participated in resistance; true, but not in Warsaw.

As dishonest as the distortion of the situation of European Jewry, is the failure of the film to expose the complicity of the Allied governments—their lack of protest at each escalation of atrocities, their refusal to bomb the rail lines to the death camps, the obdurate cruelty in sealing their doors and that of Palestine to refugees. (“You can’t get everything in,” was Green’s response to my question on why this wasn’t included.)

Why, we must ask, are these historical realities ignored, distorted or sloughed over while Rudi’s resistance is glorified? Why isn’t the resistance of the East European Jews (ghetto fighters, partisans) glorified in the way Rudi’s is? Why, of all the fighters, does only Rudi survive? And why was it necessary for the authors to make everyone — from Rudi’s family to the Jewish partisans and ghetto fighters to the martyred Jewish masses —a foil for Rudi Weiss?

To seek answers it’s necessary to look briefly at Jewish history in Europe and specifically at the situation of Jewish men under conditions of Jewish oppression. For centuries upon centuries, European Jews constituted a kind of game preserve for the ruling classes in the countries where they were permitted to live —the kind of preserve where the animals live in a semi-domesticated dependent condition.

While hunting privileges were for the rulers, poaching was not punished; it was, in fact, encouraged at certain times as an outlet when the natives were restless and their rage had to be channelled against persons other than the rulers. Jews were programmed to regard such persecutions not as caused by the ruling class—who could open and close the faucet of anti-Semitism at will—but as gratuitous aberations, which would eventually go away. Lacking any possibility of power over their own destiny other than to endure and lay low, Jews put their trust and hopes in their keepers, always looking for rescue to the “good going,” the one king, noble or bishop who hid them in the castle when the mob (poachers) howled at the gate. To win over the keepers, Jews tried to be “useful,” a strategy the Jewish Council president pushes in the film. From about the 18th century, many Jews came to identify as “good going” not individual rulers but nation-states—the West generally, Germany, France, Britain, and later, the U.S.

In the latter part of the 19th century, many East European Jews became convinced that Jews had to get out of the animal preserve. The Jewish Labor Bund struggled to abolish the preserve by uniting with the masses against the keepers; the Zionists struggled to create a free country for Jews where there were no preserves, keepers or hostile masses. While both movements won many adherents and organized cultural, political and physical resistance, the majority of East European Jews engaged in spiritual resistance.

The 1,860-year-old aim of European Jewry to endure —to bend rather than break, to survive at all costs —precluded mass physical resistance. Three bloody failed rebellions against the Roman Empire, the first ending in exile (70 C.E.), had convinced Jews that mass armed resistance to overwhelming state power was not conducive to survival. Furthermore, the rabbis made a virtue out of necessity, conditioning Jews to believe that fighting was “not the Jewish way” and that only spiritual resistance would lead to survival. Jews were taught to regard violence (and most physical activity, such as sports) with contempt and to see fighters as un-Jewish and dangerous to the community.

Spiritual resistance took several forms: one was immersion in study, prayer and mysticism —an alternative world for the men, with the women providing the usual back-up support. The second was devotion to family life, with the women creating and maintaining the home as a putative haven from all the horrors on the outside. Indeed, the sentiment that “they can’t harm us as long as we’re together” is a constant refrain in the film even though it is never made clear why Jews believed this so fervently. Nor was it explained how the Nazis used this belief: the fact that the Nazis assured Jews they were going to “family camps”; the fact that commitment to family severely hampered resistance since young people who wanted to fight in the forests were torn because they felt they couldn’t abandon their old parents, children and young siblings (an ambivalence Rudi never expresses). The third form of spiritual resistance was commitment to community, the concept that “all Jews are responsible for each other.” The film did not even mention the Nazis’ policy of reprisals—of making all Jews responsible for each others’ “good” or “bad” behavior —and how this, too, kept Jews from resisting.

Spiritual resistance, especially study and prayer, filled another important need: it cooled out the men. The rabbis gave the men an alternative model of manhood, of masculinity —Jewish Man As Scholar—to replace the Jewish Man As Fighter model they had had to give up in order to survive in the Exile. Of course, under patriarchy, the women didn’t need any cooling out, having been excluded from fighting or any other forms or manifestations of power long before.

Assimilation —the casting off of Jewish values and culture and adopting those of one’s country’s ruling class, the junking of the armor of spiritual resistance —began in Germany and took hold in Western Europe from around the time of the so-called Enlightenment. Assimilation was a carrot held out in front of Jews, an unwritten bargain: “don’t behave as Jews always behaved and you won’t be treated as Jews were always treated.” (As if Jewish behavior were the determining factor in their oppression.) Assimilationism helped break down Western Jewish communities so that the ruling class had only to deal with individual Jews —which made running the game preserve easier and the game infinitely more manageable. It never took hold in Eastern Europe, where the ruling class relied on pogroms to keep Jews in line.

The assimilationist bargain was accepted most wholeheartedly in America. East European Jewish immigrants who came over from the 1880’s until the 1920’s (when the racist immigration laws shut the golden door) shed their spiritual resistance within two or three generations, regarding Jewish values and culture as excess baggage that kept them from clambering up the American socioeconomic ladder fast enough. It was harder, however, to give up certain ingrained patterns of behavior, such as the distaste for violence.

Jewish men want to assimilate fully, to be part of American society, which glorifies violence as a hallmark of “manhood”; they want to be accepted, welcomed and respected, but remain deeply conflicted about violence. They are caught in a time warp, receiving two messages at the same time: from American society which attracts them: the message to fight, to be bold, take risks, Be A Man. From their Jewish socialization via the family: fighting is stupid, unnecessary and dangerous; don’t be too conspicuous, play your cards close to the chest, be careful, stay out of trouble. Jewish men resent their parents, and especially their mothers, for teaching them not to fight. Inga, who wants Karl to be stronger, conveys the essence of this feeling when she says, “That proper mother of yours, she took the fight out of you.” Their deepest longing is to be accepted in the locker room —and the boardroom-to be one of the boys, to be Male At Last.

But assimilated American Jewish men who are trying to appear like non-Jewish men run up against the fact that the goyim see them as… Sissies. The reflected glory of Israel has helped them somewhat, but not enough. Israelis have demonstrated that Jews can fight when they have an army, a flag, a country, planes and guns. American Jews lack all these, and their conditions of existence are more similar to those of prewar European Jews than to those of Israelis today. Could this mean that American Jewish men would not resist either? That they would be just as “cowardly” in the crunch? To prove otherwise, it is necessary to uncover some difference with East European Jewry (who are, after all the forebears of most American Jews), some fatal flaw not passed on to American Jews, which will enable everyone to believe that it was not their conditions that led to their non-resistance, but their character. And if this fatal flaw is identified as the dislike of violence that is connected with being intensely Jewish, then American Jewish men must be shown to be free of this flaw.

The authors of “Holocaust” created Rudi to show America that American Jewish men can fight, that they aren’t different, aren’t sissies. Green, in an article about the film in TV Guide (March 15, 1978) quotes Rudi as saying, “They mean to kill us all. But they won’t kill me without a fight,” and goes on to conclude, “That, perhaps is the moral —if there need be one —of ‘Holocaust’.” When Helena cries to Rudi that he might have died from his wounds, “and for what?”, he answers, “to show them we are not cowards.” Rudi conveys the message that “we Jewboys are really OK.”

To convey such a message, the man chosen as hero would obviously have to be a stand-in for American Jewish men (and to be the epitome of the gentile-like jocks they dream of resembling). That is why the film is about an assimilated Jew from Berlin, not about a Hassidic yeshiva student from Minsk, or a Jewish Labor Bundist worker from Lodz or a chalutz-in-training from Vilna. That is why Rudi is a soccer (football) player, not the typical Jewish middle-class scholar, professional or businessman, a good-boy image many American Jewish men would like to shed. That is why Rudi says at least half a dozen times that he’s a lousy student, didn’t finish high school, cares more for playing ball and street fighting than for hitting the books.

That is why, when Eastern European Jewish men are portrayed in the film as resisters, they are not as heroic as Rudi, nor do we get the opportunity to become identified with them by getting involved in their personal lives: Anilevitch, Sasha, Zalman, even Uncle Moses, don’t have any personal lives. Moreover, the ghetto resistance is pictured as being carried on by about 10 people, none overly bright (whoever heard of distributing leaflets by bicycle in the middle of battle and without cover, yet?) but nonetheless given to cute ironic commentary between machine-gun shifts. Actually, the resistance was very well organized with each political movement (none mentioned by name in the film) providing one to six groups of fighters and being coordinated by the commander at Mila 18 headquarters. (Parenthetically, the film deliberately omits the role of the left — the Socialist Zionists and the Jewish Labor Bund who were in the forefront of the Uprising.)

That is why the authors did not seek a historical context for the absence of mass resistance by East European Jews. A historical context would have meant acknowledging that it was the situation and not the character of the East European Jews that led to their destruction. This is precisely what the authors want to deny. Moreover, the authors are not interested in understanding the resistance or non-resistance of East European Jews; their aim is to prove that Jews like us can fight.

It is significant in view of the authors’ assimilationism, that neither Rudi nor the other Weisses seem to grow Jewishly in the course of the film —to develop, evolve, change and come to some understanding of their being Jewish, of some connection with it as a source of both suffering and value. The one exception is Josef who, in his last words to Berta, says that being Jewish must have some worth; but Josef was born a Polish Jew so he doesn’t really count. While Dorf grows and evolves into a full-fledged Nazi and an infinitely more complex character than any of the Jews in the film, the Weisses don’t evolve into conscious committed Jews. Rudi never asks if there is something in being Jewish that gives meaning to all his suffering and fighting. At the end of the film, he tells someone, “I’m not sure I’m much of a Jew.”

Rudi, assimilated Rudi, Rudi not burdened with the tradition of spiritual resistance, Rudi who is not a scholar, mystic or pious man, Rudi who is not a Zionist, a Jewish socialist or culturalist, Rudi who is not even sure how Jewish he is, Rudi is the one who resists successfully, i.e., survives. All the others—the millions of East European Jews, the partisans and ghetto fighters who were so intensely Jewish, all of them die. Thus the authors tell us that assimilated Jewish men like Rudi are OK, in fact, it is they who are the hope for the survival of Jewry. So it’s OK to be assimilated, OK to be intermarried, OK to be a non-Jewish Jew, because look what happened to the Jewish Jews! And indeed, look what happens to them in the film: the masses die “quietly”, the resisters and partisans in battle —somehow they, too lacked a crucial component of survival that is connected with not being too Jewish. Even the other Weisses, assimilated as they were, were still more Jewish than Rudi, more into spiritual rather than physical resistance.

While showing that Jewish men aren’t sissies, the authors also apparently felt the need to reassure Jews not to worry if American Jewish men want to be more like Rudi. Rudi survives even though he is assimilated, maybe even because he is assimilated. For a people that has always set survival as its goal, what better proof is there that the Rudi model is Good For The Jews, than his survival?

In putting forth Rudi as the model for the New American Jewish Man, the authors are telling Jews that they want to be like non-Jewish American men and they want everyone to get off their backs about it. Away with being nice Jewish boys who finish last —a lot of good it did Josef and Karl! Away with intense Jewish identity—a lot of good it did the ghetto fighters and partisans! Away with the guilt that assimilation may be bad for the Jews. Actually, the more like non-Jewish men we are, the better we’ll all survive! Away, then, with all Jewishness entirely—a Jew can be a Jew without it, a better Jew, a fighting Jew—a surviving Jew!

Women, of course, are not the concern of the authors and are outside the heroism Olympics to begin with. That is why the hero is not a woman and why not one Jewish woman we are emotionally involved with is allowed to be heroic —or to live.

Helena, who starts out as a strong woman who rescues Rudi with her chutzpah, deteriorates into a helpless female who is constantly crying and afraid and ready to give up, who doesn’t want to fight and doesn’t believe that resistance has any purpose. Helena is the only character in the film who shows any emotion (which the authors interpret to us as weakness); the others are too busy being brave or ironic or a combination of the two.

Berta shows strength in adjusting to the harsh conditions of the ghetto (somewhat of an abrupt discontinuity after she has been portrayed as a spoiled princess type in Berlin) and even puts up her knippel (cash sewn into a coat) for guns, but does not herself engage in acts of physical heroism. Anna, who shows promise for evolving into a resister, is killed off by the end of Part I. The only heroic woman is Inga, who isn’t Jewish (so she can be allowed to be heroic) but whose heroism is mainly of the loyal, self-sacrificing variety, and exists to prove that intermarriages work and are even Good For The Jews.

It is interesting to observe how different Rudi’s and Helena’s relationship is from that of Rudi’s parents. Berta dominated Josef, she was strong while he was gentle, stubborn while he was conciliatory. Rudi and Helena reverse these typically East European roles (the fact that the Weisses are not Eastern European Jews in culture is beside the point). Rudi is strong, she is weak. He leads, she follows (as she quotes to him in bed, “Where Thou Goest I Will Go”). He is brave, she is scared, he protects, she is protected. He is a fighter, she is ready to give up. And Rudi does not seem at all unhappy to have things this way. When Helena decides she wants to go into battle alongside him, his first response is, “not my wife.”

Rudi embodies the yearnings of American Jewish men for subservient, adoring wives, for women closer in behavior to Helena than to Berta. This, too, is part of the goodies withheld from Jewish men for centuries, this, too, is part of their denied “manhood.” Berta, the dominating woman reminiscent of their mothers and grandmothers, the East European shtetl and immigrant women who carried whole families on their backs, is posited as being Bad For The Jews. It was Berta’s stubbornness that prevented the Weisses from leaving Germany until it was too late, thus causing six deaths: a dominating woman always leaves a trail of dire ruin in her wake.

But the authors cannot let Helena survive to become a model for the New American Jewish Woman. Having drained her of the ability to take risks after she becomes involved with Rudi —that is now his department—she has come to represent all the caution urged by Jewish parents on their children, all the fear of fighting that Rudi has managed to overcome. Rather than worshipping him for being a fighter and encouraging him in this role, she tries to hold him back. The fact that he gets captured while turning around to weep over her dead body proves that, in the end, she was a liability rather than an asset.

Helena has another characteristic the authors feel uncomfortable about: she is too committed a Jew, a Zionist. She has the strong Jewish consciousness and identity which Rudi is not burdened with, and which the film is bent on portraying as being counterproductive to fighting and surviving. So Helena dies, as do all the other Zionists. (Strangely, some critics considered the film to be “pro-Zionist propaganda,” which shows their ignorant and distorted views of what Zionism is. Zionism begins with positive Jewish consciousness; in Herzl’s words, “Zionism is a return to the Jewish fold even before it is a return to the Jewish homeland.” A film that has the assimilated hero survive and all the “Zionists” die, a film that postulates assimilation and not Jewish consciousness as the key to Jewish survival can hardly be called a “pro-Zionist” film.)

Having shown that “Jews like us” can fight, the authors faced a problem: what if American gentile men got the idea that, should the occasion arise, Jewboys were up for fighting them — these same non-Jewish American men that they want to bond with, to be accepted by? To disabuse Christian men of such a subversive idea, the authors carefully avoided making any negative references in the film to America (beyond one statement early in Part I about the U.S. not giving any more visas to German Jews). Nor-does the film stress the crucial significance of the collaboration of local non-Jewish populations in the mass murders. And just to be on the safe side, to make sure that nobody thinks they distrust or dislike the gentiles (just the Nazis and they are all old or dead anyway so who cares), the authors threw in a couple of good Christians like Inga and Uncle Kurt and Father Lichtenberg. (A source close to the production told me that the first script had no “good goyim” in it and that Green inserted some when this lack was pointed out.)

Television is a powerful medium and a very risky one as well. It provides the opportunity to convey messages to millions and millions of people —to raise consciousness and deepen awareness. It is therefore unfortunate that such a great opportunity to inform millions of people about the Holocaust through drama —with all its limitations—was lost. The opportunity may never return. (CBS which had planned to film the deeply moving novel “The Wall” has, as of this writing, tabled the project because it overlaps Part IV of “Holocaust.”) It is unfortunate, too, that all the major American Jewish organizations, some of whose functionaries saw the raw script and others only the finished film, decided that “something was better than nothing,” and busied themselves with preparing study guides and with urging Jews to be grateful for this production instead of angry about its distortions and omissions. They, perhaps, had something to be grateful about: the film did not mention the inaction of the American Jewish non-leadership during the Holocaust years.

(The National Jewish Welfare Board Lecture Bureau is going even further: it is sponsoring Berger, Chomsky and Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum (the American Jewish Committee’s National Inter-Religious Affairs director, described by the JWB as having “prepared a detailed critique of the script which became the basis of script revisions”) on the Jewish community lecture circuit. The three men are available to “talk about their experiences concerning the making of ‘Holocaust'” for a fee of $500-$750 of the Jewish people’s money, plus expenses.)

It is especially unfortunate that the authors were so caught up in their unconscious motivations and feelings that they did not stop to consider the dangers of their focusing obsessively on the lack of resistance by the East European Jewish masses. For in the final analysis, only time will tell whether the millions of non-Jews (the bulk of the audience) remember their hero Rudi and his comrades or the many scenes of Jews being killed while the Nazis tell everyone how easy it is to kill Jews. The danger that this memory and these words is what will remain in the public mind is real and chilling, especially in our day, when the monster of anti-Semitism is crawling out of the woodwork to find a red carpet waiting.

Aviva Cantor, Acquisitions Editor of Lilith, is a Socialist Zionist. Special thanks to Susan Weidman Schneider, Dr. Bruce Schneider and Murray Zuckoff for sharing their thoughts and feelings on the film.

Copyright © Aviva Cantor 2012. All rights reserved.

Aviva Cantor, a journalist, originated Lilith and served as the magazine’s Founding Co-Editor during its first decade. She is the author of Jewish Women, Jewish Men: The Legacy of Patriarchy in Jewish Life, a feminist exploration of Jewish history, culture and psychology (Harper, 1995), and of the self-published The Egalitarian Hagada.