In the first three-hour segment of the television series "Holocaust," Nazi soldiers set afire a Warsaw synagogue in which dozens of Jews stand trapped inside, screaming. A Jewish teenage girl is first raped, then gassed to death by Nazi police. Inside a concentration camp, an artist is hung by his arms for eating half of a slice of stolen bread.
Sherrie Schulman, Silver Spring school teacher and once a visitor to the gas chambers at Dachau, found the show "too sugarcoated . . . like a soap opera."
For students at a nearby Silver Spring high school, the show was shocking. "The way they pushed those people into the synagogue and poured the gas around it and lit and then poof . . . The looks on the faces of those (Nazi) guards. How could they have done it?" asked Chris Winters, a high school senior.
Many of the Jewish viewers in the Washington area felt as Schulman did. Somehow, they said, the broadcast drama failed to drive home the horror and emotional impact the extermination of 6 million Jews by the Nazis has had no their lives.
Younger members of the television audience, especially gentiles born after World War II, were incredulous. It was more than a history lesson, they said, it seemed too unbelievable.
"I don't see how they could stand behind Hitler and let him do some of that," said Leighton Forrester, a Montgomery Blair High School student. "One country couldn't be so narrow-minded. If one person had spoken up then other people would have spoken up . . . How could the Germans let a group of people rule them like that?"
Judging by the reaction of those interviewed by reporters yesterday, the NBC series promises to make a deep impression on those unfamiliar with the history of the Holocaust just as the ABC series "Roots" reminded Americans of the nation's slavery past.
For Jews in the area, though, the reaction was more complicated.
"It's a definite benefit to show something like this on TV, but the disdvantage is that it becomes something like watching the Vietnam War on television. It becomes less than real," said Howard Schulman.
"The characters seemed like paper figures to support the plot. We see them moving form place to place simply to enable the author to explain the holocaust . . . There's nothing factual in the drama I would argue with. It's just that it left me rather cold," Schulman said.
Vivian Adams had been using an earplug to listen to the sound of the show. "At one point I had to take the plug out of my ear and turn away," she said. "Why were we required to watch it? I got so upset, it was killing people for nothing."
Adams was one of the students in the Montgomery County school system who watched the program as a regular class assignment.
"I was surprised at how emotional the students were," said social studies teacher Bob Anderson, after leading two classes through a vigorous question-and-answer study of the show.
"These are the kids who see murder everday on television. They are the same kids who like watching 'Happy Days,' I think Holocaust will have a strong impact on them, " he said.
An estimated 125,000 Jews live in the metropolitan Washington area, according to the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington. The overnight ratings for first episode showed that "Holocaust" captured a large audience, but did not fare as well as the first segment of "Roots." In New York, an estimated 48 percent of all TV sets were tuned in to "Holocaust," while 52 percent of all TV sets had been turned on the first episode of "Roots."
For some adults, the initial impressions were startling.
"When I first saw Buchenwald, my first reaction was, that's not how I remember it. Everybody was so clean . . . Of course, in the movie, the date was 1939. I was there in 1945; I'm sure it will get worse as the firm goes on," said Harriet Steinhorn, a survivor of five concentration camps.
Most of the objections to the film from the Jewish community had to do with detail rather than the overal effect.
"The film had a certain glossy surface to it," said Leonore Siegelman, a member of the D.C. Commission on Human Rights, who watched the film in a group of Christians and Jewis. "It was the fact that it was in color and everyone looked so incredibly healthy and well fed even in the concentration camps . . . There were none of the sunken faces and staring eyes that you see in the actual pictures of piron camp life."
At one point in the drama, the Jewish doctor who is a central character is deported from Berlin to Poland, where he is met at the border, by his smiling older brother.
"It wasn't alwasy that way," said Siegelman, whose own immediate family had emigrated to the United States via Scotland before the War broke out. "There were often hundreds of Jews stranded at the border with no money and no place to live . . . Many died of hunger or exposure."
While many Jewish viewers found the film lacking in realism, Susan Nippes, a Christian from Adelphi, said the film kept her form sleeping Sunday night. "I kept seeing the faces of the people," in the film," she saod.
Nippes said she will continue to watch the episodes of the film, but other first-night viewers said they could not bear to watch anymore.
"At first the commercials annoyed me, but after a while they became a relief," said Marie Friedman of Potomac. Who said she would watch me show again.
Many viewers complained that the commercials - for cars toothpaste, bandage strips and soft drinks - proved an absurd complement to the drama. For example, immediately following a brutal rape scene involving a teen-age girl, an elated Bill Cosby came on to expound the benefits of driving a Ford.
In the social studies class of teacher Anderman, one student, Doug Cress, said the film explained to him what anti-Semitism policies could ultimately lead to.
"The Nazis were very slick.They used brainwashing techniques and inhumane methods to make people lose their humanity. What would you do today if suddenly all the Catholics or all the blacks disppeared from your neighborhood?" Anderman asked.