Holocaust (miniseries)  

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Holocaust (1978) is an American four-part television miniseries which explores the Holocaust from the perspectives of the fictional Weiss family of Jews in Germany and that of a rising member of the SS, who gradually becomes a war criminal. Holocaust highlights numerous events which occurred up to and during World War II, such as Kristallnacht, the creation of Jewish ghettos, and later, the use of gas chambers.

Although the miniseries won several awards and received positive reviews, it was also criticized. Holocaust survivor and activist Elie Wiesel wrote in The New York Times that it was: "Untrue, offensive, cheap: as a TV production, the film is an insult to those who perished and to those who survived." However, the series played a major role in public debates on the Holocaust in West Germany after its showing in 1979 and its impact has been described as "enormous".



Holocaust was produced by Robert Berger, and was filmed on location in Austria and West Berlin. It was broadcast in four parts from April 16 to April 19, 1978. The series earned a 49% market share; it was also received well in Europe.

The 9½ hour program starred Fritz Weaver, Meryl Streep, James Woods, and Michael Moriarty, as well as a large supporting cast. It was directed by Marvin J. Chomsky, whose credits included ABC's miniseries Roots (1977). The teleplay was written by novelist-producer Gerald Green, who later adapted the script as a novel.

The miniseries was rebroadcast on NBC from September 10 to September 13, 1979.


The series was presented in four parts on NBC:

  • Part 1: The Gathering Darkness (original airdate: April 16, 1978)
  • Part 2: The Road to Babi Yar (original airdate: April 17, 1978)
  • Part 3: The Final Solution (original airdate: April 18, 1978)
  • Part 4: The Saving Remnant (original airdate: April 19, 1978)


Holocaust is an account of two fictional German families from Berlin, prior to, and during World War II: one is Christian, whose members become Nazis out of economic necessity, and the other is Jewish, who become their victims.

The “Aryan” Dorf family is headed by Erik (Michael Moriarty), a lawyer who struggles to find work to support his wife Marta (Deborah Norton) and two young children, Peter and Laura, during the economic hardships of the Depression in Germany. At his wife's insistence, Erik joins the Nazi Party to earn income and rapidly advances within the SS. In a short time he becomes the right-hand man of Reinhard Heydrich (David Warner), the top-level Nazi and one of the engineers of the "Final Solution". Coordinating mass murder bothers Dorf at first, but he grows more merciless as he discovers that ideological fervor gains him prestige. This backfires after a feud with SS field officers who resent his orders and they send an anonymous letter to Heydrich, accusing Dorf of having Communist sympathies. These accusations stunt his career. After Heydrich is assassinated in 1942, Dorf is put in charge of major extermination operations at Nazi death camps. Dorf continues to follow orders, and commits further war crimes as well as covering them up.

The series also follows the Weiss family; a group of moderately wealthy German Jews, headed by Dr. Josef Weiss (Fritz Weaver) a Polish-born general physician. His German-born wife, Berta (Rosemary Harris), a talented pianist, is descended from a "Hoch-Deutsch" family whose ancestors were ethnic German "court Jews." They have three children—Karl (James Woods), an artist who is married to a Christian woman named Inga (Meryl Streep); Rudi, (Joseph Bottoms), a football player; and 16-year-old daughter Anna Weiss (Blanche Baker). Other family members are also featured.

Holocaust begins in 1935 in Berlin, with the wedding of Karl Weiss and Inga Helms. The unemployed Erik and his sickly wife Marta consult with Dr. Josef Weiss who diagnoses her with a heart murmur. They learn the doctor had treated Erik's parents and even him as a child. Later, unable to find decent employment, Erik applies for a job with the Nazi Security Service and is interviewed by Reinhard Heydrich, deputy head of the SS.

This miniseries spans the period from 1938 to 1945 and covers the unfolding of the Holocaust, the events from Kristallnacht to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and the Sobibor death camp revolt, and ultimately the end of World War II and the liberation of the camps. It portrays the crimes of the Nazis, including the "Action T4" euthanasia murders of the disabled, the Babi Yar massacre, the deportations to and imprisonment in the ghettos, and the murders of millions in the death camps. Throughout the series, each member of the Weiss (and Palitz) family suffers hardships and ultimately meets a terrible fate.

The Kristallnacht attacks in November 1938 were ostensibly in retaliation for the assassination of Nazi official Ernst vom Rath by Jewish 17-year-old Herschel Grynszpan. Much was staged and supported by the Nazis, as part of their economic and political persecution of Jews. So too it was, for the fictional Weiss (and Palitz) family.

Within days artist Karl Weiss is arrested and sent to Buchenwald concentration camp. Heinrich Palitz and his wife are forced to move in with their daughter, Berta, son-in-law Josef Weiss, and their two younger children still at home. Josef visits Erik Dorf, seeking his intervention, despite Dorf's previous warning against that. Dorf refuses, and turns Josef away.

A few days later, Dr. Josef Weiss, already prohibited from treating "Aryan" patients, is deported to Poland as a foreign Polish citizen, along with Jewish patients Franz Lowy (George Rose) and his wife Chana (Käte Jaenicke). Josef's brother, Moses Weiss owns a pharmacy in Warsaw, and finds a place for the couple to stay. Josef starts working as a doctor in the Warsaw Ghetto hospital. In Berlin, Berta, and their children are forced to "sell" (leave) their home and Josef's clinic. They move into their daughter-in-law Inga's apartment, relying on her and her reluctant, even hostile, Nazi-supporting family for their survival.

Rudi runs away, trying to escape the Nazis' reach. Anna becomes more distressed and, on New Year's Eve 1939, she runs out of the apartment in a huff. While walking, she is accosted and raped by a bunch of German SA stormtroopers. Nearly catatonic as a result, she is committed to Hadamar. She and others suffering from mental illness are killed under the Nazi Action T4. Eventually, Berta is deported from Berlin to Warsaw, where she reunites with her husband Josef. She teaches in the ghetto school, and Josef and Moses become members of the Judenrat (Jewish council) for the Ghetto.

Inga tries to contact Karl in Buchenwald, to no avail. Through a friend of Inga's family, Heinz Müller (Tony Haygarth), an SS officer stationed at Buchenwald, Inga is able to get letters to and from Karl, but only if she has sex with Müller. Inga initially refuses out of loyalty to Karl. When Müller threatens to have Karl keep doing heavy labor at risk of death, Inga submits to him, hoping to save Karl's life. Müller uses Inga's sexual contact with him to taunt Karl; he does arrange for an easier indoor job, and then transfer to Theresienstadt to work in its art studio.

Rudi Weiss reaches German-occupied Prague, Czechoslovakia, where he meets Helena Slomova (Tovah Feldshuh), whose parents have been deported. They fall in love and run away together, witnessing the Babi Yar massacre in Ukraine and meeting up with Jewish partisans. Rudi and Helena fight with them for years. When an attempted ambush of German troops fails, Rudi's partisans are annihilated, and Helena is killed. Captured, Rudi is sent to Sobibór death camp. He meets Leon Feldhandler and Alexander Pechersky, and escapes with them during the Sobibór uprising in October 1943. He decides to try to find his family in Europe.

Meanwhile, in the Warsaw ghetto, the Weisses and others learn about the death camps and join a resistance movement. They try to save lives in any way possible. Josef uses his position as doctor in the Ghetto hospital to rescue Jews from the trains by claiming they having contagious illness, and hiding them in a makeshift clinic in vacant buildings by the train platform. Moses Weiss and other fighters stockpile weapons bought outside the ghetto and smuggled in. Lowy, a printer, publishes resistance leaflets. Eventually Josef is caught and he and Berta, along with Franz and Chana Lowy, are deported to Auschwitz.

On Passover of 1943, Moses and the others revolt against the Germans entering the ghetto for a last action, so they can determine their own deaths. Although they have some success, the SS eventually overwhelm the defenders, crushing the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and burning down most of the buildings. When Moses and the other survivors surrender to SS forces, they are immediately killed by firing squads.

When Karl reaches Theresienstadt, he is commissioned as an artist. Sacrificing her freedom in order to reunite with Karl, she convinces Heinz Müller to denounce her and have her sent to Theresienstadt. Soon after arriving in Theresienstadt, Inga becomes pregnant with Karl's child. Theresienstadt is kept as a showplace to fool Red Cross observers, but Karl and others know better and begin secretly drawing the reality of the concentration camps. The SS learns of the art when one of the artists sells several works. SS, including Erik Dorf, and Theresienstadt officials, need to find out if more of these drawings exist, as they threaten their subterfuge. The artists are severely tortured but refuse to confess. Karl, the sole survivor of the arrested artists, is deported to Auschwitz, after learning that Inga is pregnant with their child.

Before the war can end, both of Karl's parents are killed in Auschwitz. Karl dies shortly before the liberation of the camp. Berta is last seen entering a gas chamber. Josef had been working on a road crew but Dorf reminds his superiors that Jews should not be used for slave labor when non-Jewish prisoners are available. Josef is also killed in the gas chamber. Karl is found dead in his barracks, after one final sketch.

After the war ends, Dorf is captured by the United States Army and told that he will be tried for war crimes. Dorf protests, saying that he was mostly an observer, and that Nazi actions were legitimate. Confronted by American evidence, Dorf commits suicide, taking a cyanide pill.

Rudi meets Inga after Theresienstadt is liberated, having learned about the deaths of his parents and Karl. Inga says she had their baby and named him Josef, after her father-in-law. She plans to return with Josef temporarily to Berlin, but says she won't stay there. Rudi is commissioned with smuggling Jewish orphans into Palestine. Karl's drawings, which had been hidden from the SS by Inga, were given to a museum in Prague as a permanent record of the Holocaust.



Some critics accused the miniseries of trivializing the Holocaust. The television format was believed to limit how realistic the portrayal could be. In addition, the fact that NBC gained financially from advertising resulted in charges they had commercialized a vast tragedy. The production creators argued that the series helped educate and raise awareness of the public about the Holocaust. With the exception of such films as The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), and The Hiding Place (1975), this was the first time many Americans had seen any lengthy dramatization of the Holocaust.

The television critic Clive James commended the production. Writing in The Observer (reprinted in his collection The Crystal Bucket), he commented:

"The German Jews were the most assimilated in Europe. They were vital to Germany's culture—which, indeed, has never recovered from their extinction. They couldn't see they were hated in direct proportion to their learning, vitality and success. The aridity of the Nazi mind was the biggest poser the authors had to face. In creating Erik Dorf they went some way towards overcoming it. Played with spellbinding creepiness by Michael Moriarty, Erik spoke his murderous euphemisms in a voice as juiceless as Hitler's prose or Speer's architecture. Hitler's dream of the racially pure future was of an abstract landscape tended by chain-gangs of shadows and crisscrossed with highways bearing truckloads of Aryans endlessly speeding to somewhere undefined. Dorf sounded just like that: his dead mackerel eyes were dully alight with a limitless vision of banality."

The historian Tony Judt described the series as "the purest product of American commercial television - its story simple, its characters mostly two-dimensional, its narrative structured for maximum emotional impact" and that, when shown in Continental Europe, it was "execrated and abominated by European cinéastes from Edgar Reitz to Claude Lanzmann" but noted that "these very limitations account for the show's impact", especially in West Germany where it was aired over four consecutive nights in January 1979 and coincided with public interest in the Majdanek trials. Viewership was estimated at up to 15 million households or 20 million people, approximately 50% of West Germany's adult population. Judt describes the public interest as "enormous".

After each part of Holocaust was aired, a companion show was aired in which a panel of historians answered questions by telephone from viewers. Thousands of shocked and outraged Germans called the panels. The German historian Alf Lüdtke wrote that the historians "could not cope" as thousands of angry viewers asked how such acts had happened. Subsequently, the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache ranked the term "Holocaust" as the German Word of the Year for the publicity associated with it.

During an introductory documentary that preceded the first broadcast of the series in Germany, Peter Naumann, then a right-wing terrorist, tried with two accomplices to blow up the transmission towers of the ARD transmitters at Koblenz and near Münster (station Nottuln), to prevent the broadcast. At the transmitter Koblenz the supply cables were damaged, and the transmitter failed for one hour. Several hundred thousand television viewers could not see the program during this time. Naumann later became a politician with the NPD.

The Polish community in the United States found the miniseries controversial and inaccurate. They argued against the portrayal of soldiers as Polish military who supervised transports of Jews and killed them during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. They noted many Poles were also killed in the concentration and death camps. Various unreconstructed Nazis around the world also raged against the miniseries: Ernst Zundel led a furious and unsuccessful effort to have the show banned from airing in Canada, while a group of American Nazis aligned with James K. Warner tried and failed to have NBC grant them a "right of response" which would have granted them equal prime-time coverage to present their "alternate" view of World War II events.

In 1982 during the military dictatorship of Chile the series was censored in Televisión Nacional de Chile, beginning a row that ended with programming director Antonio Vodanovic renouncing the channel.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Holocaust (miniseries)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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