In the living room of a private home here, a German woman watched about half of the first segment of the U.S.-produced "Holocaust" television series and then left the room crying, saying she didn't want to see any more.
Nearby, another German-born woman who lived here as a child during the war but is now married to an American, sat fascinated through the whole show. When it was over, the first thing she said was, "I don't think I could ever really live here again."
These private reactions, mixed with thousands of others ranging from deep emotion and compassion to imcomprehension and hostility -- some of it directed toward the United States -- swept through much of West Germany last night as the first two-hour and fifteen minute segment of the television dramatization of the Nazi annihilation of some six million European Jews was shown here.
Not surprisingly, the airing of "Holocaust" -- in the place where it all began, in a country that has been a valued member of the Western community for 34 post-war years, and one in which half the current population was born after the Hitler era and much of the other half wants to forget it -- has stirred deep controversy and emotion virtually from the moment the decision to buy the film from NBC was made nine months ago.
Paradoxically, the nine-hour series could achieve its most powerful dramatic impact and success here. Its German-language dialogue provides the unmistakeable touch of reality and the flow of the story is uninterrupted on West German television by the incongrous advertisements for deodorants and detergents that marked its performance on U.S. television.
The use of "Hollywood soap-opera" techniques to portray the decade of Nazi horror through the life of a fictionalized family continues to generate continued criticism here, even among many who support showing the film.
But a grudging victory for that technique seems to be in the offing if reaction after the first night is any indication.
"The world champious of triviality," wrote a Bonn newspaper television reviewer today referring to the U.S. entertainment industry, have nevertheless succeeded "in shocking the German viewer."
West German television stations encouraged viewer comments and within minutes of the end of the first segment last night, the switchboard at the Cologne station was swamped with calls.
"A frightening number," said a station official, were from people asking "Why reopen old wounds? Why do Germans aways dirty their own nests? We should forget all this. It is enough time already."
Yet, by 90 minutes after the show, some 900 calls had been received and two-thirds of them, station officials said, "were generally positive" about showing the series, with the most common comment being "How could this have happened?"
In a televised discussion after the first 135-minute segment, London-based historian Walter Laqueur, who fled Germany in 1938, said he felt parts of the show were tasteless and historically inaccurate, but that the basic truth was there. "This film is as much German history as are Schiller and Goethe," the great German poets of an earlier time, he said.
West German author Eugen Kogon, who spent seven years in the Buchenwald concentration camp, also talked of contrived scenes. But the series, he told the television audience, "is realistic enough" and the technique of telling the story of genocide through a single family is more effective for viewer identification than are documentaries.
It was essential, he said, for young people to see the film so they understand a subject that is still largely taboo in the schools and many homes of Germany -- East and West.
Just who will see "Holocaust," however, is a mojor part of the debate here.
The two national networks rejected the series. Some officials argued that it was over-simplified German history seen through American eyes, that it amounted to commercial exploitation of a tragedy that should only be treated by factual documentaries and that anything else would mock the enormity of what had happened. Others argued it would be too disruptive of primetime scheduling. In sum, the debate led to the conclusion among many critics that the Germans were trying to duck the issue of past guilt.
Heinz Werner Huebner, a director of the WDR regional network in Cologne that eventually bought the series, acknowledged that it was purchased so that no one could say West Germany was afraid to deal with the film. Yet, "the number of calls and the reactions shows this film was necessary. The past has not yet been completely conquered," he said.
Showing of the series on the regional network normally would greatly reduce its viewers, since perhaps less than 5 percent of the 20 million households in West Germany with television sets generally switch to these regional stations. Also, the series was shown beginning at 9 p.m. too late for many young people, precisely the audience many consider most important for a portrayal of events that took place before they were born.
Many viewers last night complained to the Cologne station about the late hours and asked why the major networks did not carry it.
Today, there were still no official estimates on the size of the "Holocaust" audience. But there are some signs that "Holocaust" is having a wider viewership than expected.
The five main regional stations all broadcast the film so that it could be seen nationwide and there has been heavy newspaper and magazine preshow commentary. TV-Guide style magazines all gave at least standard mention of the forthcoming series in their listings, some featured it prominently, and most -- including the biggest -- had feature stories on the program.
In addition, two major documentaries on "The origins of anti-Semiticism" and Hitler's "final solution" to the Jewish "problem" were aired last week on the major networks as a prelude to "Holocaust."
Those programs provoked bands of neo-Nazis to bomb two television transmitters last Thursday and, presumably, to set fire to a synagogue in Essen as a demonstration against the show.
Although nothing like "Holocaust" has ever been shown here, documentaries on the war and the extermination programs have been aired frequently for the past 20 years.
Heinz Galinski, leader of the Jewish community in West Berlin, said in a telephone interview today that "the reaction of the Jewish community throughout West Germany had been positive," reporting he had many calls from Jews and non-Jews alike. There are about 27,000 Jews in West Germany today in comparison to more than half a million before pro-war Germany.
Galinski also said the "timing of the showing was perfect," a view that some Germans undoubtedly do not share.
"It comes at a time when there is talk again of the Auschwitz lie," a reference to accounts suggesting the genocide 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,'"
Many viewers, however, raised objections that the film would unfairly damage West Germany's image abroad after the struggle to rid itself of the Nazi taint. Others said it would promote complexes in young children who, after a period, must not be burdened with their parents' guilt.
Psychiatrist Margarethe Mitscherlich, however, told the television audience that it is in authoritarian societies where hate and the search for scapegoats are born. She said she thought remnants of National Socialism's attitudes remain in West Germany today, manifested by a continued excessive sensitivity to criticism. "Only if they can recall and face what happens, can they really restore their self-image," she said.
Mischerlich noted that fascism existed in Italy, too, but did not involve widespread extermination of Jews. It was the capability for organization and the perfectionism of the Nazis that was the disturbing difference and that ought to give reasons for thought to the new generation, she said.
"Holocaust,," said Bremen Mayor Hans Koschnick today, "helped jolt those Germans awake who still don't know what was done in the name of Germany."
Among the callers to the television stations were a number who referred to the "American" production and suggested that "america should sweep in front of its own door," as one viewer put it.
Indeed, the series could add somewhat to the certain strain in official Bonn-Washington relations that has developed over the past few years and does not ever quite go away completely.
This week, just as the series began, the mass-circulation magazine Stern reported on a survey among executives in the United States suggesting that a feeling of mistrust "among our best friends across the Atlantic" remains.