Special to the JTA Impact of ‘holocaust’ Series on the People of West Germany
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Special to the JTA Impact of ‘holocaust’ Series on the People of West Germany

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Nothing, no book, no TV documentary, no film, no lecture — has touched the soul of modern Germany on the moral watershed tragedy of the Nazi Holocaust as has the NBC-TV series, “Holocaust.” That dramatic but factual conclusion has emerged from a series of overseas telephone calls that I had with public officials in West Germany, and in particular, with leaders in the village of Oberammergau; last Thursday following the viewing of the third installment of “Holocaust.”

According to reports from West Germany in major American newspapers, an estimated 14 million people, or 39 percent of the 34 million people in the viewing audience, watched the third of the four installments last Thursday night. This was up from 13 million viewers, or 36 percent last who watched the second installment, and 11 million, or 32 percent, who watched the first installment.

The viewing audience for each of the three installments was more than double the predicted 15 percent that was expected to watch the program over. Westdeutsche Rundfunk (WDR) of Cologne, the regional station coordinating the telecasts. (The number of people watching the last installment was not available at the time of this report.)

The German officials I spoke with said that the figures reported in the American news papers were underestimated, and that, in fact, some 20 million people had seen the second in stallment. That means that one in three potential regional viewers were exposed to the “Holocaust” account. “That audience broke every record for regional television in Germany, “one official told me.”


More than 20,000 people called the WDR television offices following the Tuesday night showing, and two-thirds of the callers were in favor of “Holocaust” being televised in Germany. Many of the viewers told the TV station authorities that they either could not go on watching it, and some said that they could not sleep and had to take valium or sleeping pills so powerful was the programs impact.

One authority told me, “The experience with the program already has been quite extraordinary: Nobody, even the most sympathetic in the TV industry, expected such an emotional reaction. It has staggered everybody.”

The effect has even spread to East Germany where, according to reports, many living beyond the West German regional broadcasting range are demanding to see the series. Regional television broadcasts can be received in East Berlin and in areas along the boundary, but most East German viewers are beyond the range. According to reports, among the East Germans who had seen the program and called to express their reactions, positive comments outnumbered negative comments 6-2.


I spoke with several people in the village of Oberammergau who are involved in on effort to revise the anti-Semitic version of the Oberammergau Passion Play scheduled for production in April 1980. Hans Schwaighofer, director of the Rosner text of the Passion Play, told me “Practically everybody in Oberammergau has watched the first two installments of ‘Holocaust.’ The impact has been tremendous. There is a feeling of shock throughout much of Oberammergau. Many people are walking around the streets of the village saying, ‘God’s sake I’ and shaking their heads in disbelief. How did we let that happen?”

The Oberammergau Town Council has sent around a questionnaire to all the villagers inviting them to sing up for the 1980 Passion Play. In light of the shocked feeling in the village in the wake of ‘Holocaust’ many are refusing to answer the questionnaire, and it is now being extended for another eight days.

Several hundred of the younger villagers identified with the Rosner text have indicated that they will refuse to act in the Daisenberger version of the Passion Play which has been condemned by Christian and Jewish authorities alike as “structurally anti-Semitic.” Some Oberammergau officials told me that they now hope that the reaction to ‘Holocaust’ will play an important role in influencing the rejection of the anti-Jewish Daisenberger text of the play.

There were a good number of negative and hostile reactions of Germans who asked, “Why reopen old wounds? We should forget all this. It is enough time already.”


Heinz Galinski, head of the Jewish community in West Berlin, said that “the reaction of the Jewish community throughout West Germany had been positive, ” adding that he had received many calls from Jews and non-Jews alike. There are about 27,000 Jews in West Germany today, a tragic remnant of the more than 500,000 Jews who lived in pre-war Germany.

Galinski said the “timing of the showing was perfect. It comes at a time when there is talk again of the Auschwitz lie, ” a reference to the Nazi effort to revise history and claim that the genocide of Jews never took place, “when some students are making jokes again about Jews, when the statute of limitations on Nazi war crimes of murder is an issue and at a time when everybody seems to be preaching ‘let us forget.'”

Perhaps the most significant response of all to “Holocaust” was that of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. In a debate in the lower house of the West German Parliament last Monday, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt commended the “Holocaust” series, said the film is a “must” in connection with the current controversy over extending the legal time limit under which Nazi war criminals can be prosecuted. He added that the series encourages critical and moral reflection which “is important in view of the decision each of us must make for himself in the course of this year on the statute of limitations.”

Based on the impact already registered, the American Jewish Committee now plans to carry out a systematic study of responses to the entire series in Germany as well as in the 15 other countries in which the film is being shown, and then an intensive follow-up educational program in German religious and secular school systems. I have no hesitation in saying that if this “Holocaust” series had achieved nothing other than the impact that it has already had in Germany, it more than justified all the investment of time and energy in helping bring its message before millions of Germans who might otherwise have avoided facing the tragedy of the Holocaust.

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