Five years ago, some NBC affiliates fretted that the upcoming "Holocaust" TV series was so depressing that it would drive viewers away. Advertisers were hesitant, and those associated with the dramatic series worried that network officials might kill the show before it could appear.
But the program went on as scheduled, and led, in the view of many Jewish leaders, to an awakening of interest in the Holocaust among Jews and Gentiles alike.
For almost three decades, the story of Hitler's plan to exterminate European Jewry had received scant public notice in an America eager to forget the war's anguish. But the NBC miniseries, coupled with the efforts of the survivors themselves, touched off a virtual crusade to preserve the memory of the Holocaust that may have reached its emotional climax during the last few days in Washington, and is likely to continue unabated in the years to come.
"For many years, it was viewed as almost sacred or religious in nature, and therefore not for popular consumption. It was something for the synagogue," said Theodore Freedman of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith.
Now all that has changed.
Holocaust memorials, libraries and museums are springing up in major cities across the country, from Los Angeles' Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies to a replica of Anne Frank's attic hideout that is planned for Philadelphia. Thousands of secondary schools and colleges are incorporating studies of the Holocaust into their course schedules. Holocaust-related books, films and doctoral dissertations are being produced in record numbers. Survivors and their families are organizing social action groups.
Their message, in the words of author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, is clear. "We want people to know that since this happened once, it must not happen again to anyone," Wiesel said in a speech to the survivors this week. "We don't forget that once the killers began killing Jews, they began killing others."
All of this scholarship and popular interest is not without its price. Jewish leaders worry that the story of the near-annihilation of European Jewry will lose its horror if it is retold too often.
"The TV show undoubtedly taught a lot of people about the Holocaust, but the dilemma was that it made it palatable," said Michael Berenbaum, executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington. "It shrank it down to size and put it in manageable form. There was a loss of the awesome, mysterious, frightening evil. You didn't have fear and trembling anymore."
A number of factors have prompted the survivors to tell their stories now. Recent waves of synagogue desecrations here and terrorist bombings abroad have spawned new fears of anti-Semitism. Revisionist historians have declared that the Holocaust is a myth, and have offered--and refused to distribute--rewards to anyone proving that the Nazis used gas chambers to exterminate Jews. Others have questioned whether American Jews and the American government could have done more to prevent the Holocaust from happening.
The past few years have also seen the apprehension of such Nazi war criminals as Klaus Barbie, the "Butcher of Lyon." And there have been revelations that the U.S. government protected Barbie and hundreds of other Nazis in return for collaboration in the Cold War.
By far the most compelling impetus for the renewed Holocaust discussion, however, is a personal one. The survivors are middle-aged and elderly now, and many have adult children hungry for knowledge of their family histories. Conscious that the end of their lives is not far off, many of the survivors are beginning to talk about events and people that until now had lived only in their memories and nightmares.
"They're getting on in years," said Yaffa Eliach, director of the Center for Holocaust Studies in Brooklyn. "There's a fear of being forgotten. It's almost their last chance."
The massacre's survivors, and the relatives of those who were killed, bore deep emotional scars after losing their families, their homes and their livelihoods. For years, many were unable to discuss it with anyone.
"There was nobody left of my family, and my friends had all gone through the same thing. We did not talk about it--it was too awful," said Hana Demetz-Rosskam, an author who first began to confront her feelings about the Holocaust by writing a book, "The House on Prague Street."
The few who wanted to share their experiences found little encouragement. Jack Eisner, a New York businessman who had come to the United States in 1949, remembers his American relatives telling him that he must not talk about what he had experienced in five Nazi camps.
"They said, 'It's bad for you to talk about it,' " said the Polish-born Eisner, who also wrote a book chronicling his life. "What they were really saying was, 'We don't want to listen.' "
Over the past few years, the Holocaust has been the subject of books, dramas and documentaries. They have ranged from "Sophie's Choice," William Styron's best-selling novel that was made into a motion picture starring Meryl Streep, who won the Oscar for her role; to "Genocide," a film financed by the Simon Wiesenthal Holocaust project that took last year's Academy Award for best documentary feature, and "Remembrance of Love," a TV drama about the World Gathering of Holocaust Survivors in Israel two years ago.
The most recent subject guide to Books in Print lists 216 books on the Holocaust, compared with only 18 such books listed in 1973.
A recent survey financed by the National Endowment for the Humanities found Holocaust-related courses being taught at 900 colleges and universities across the country, including a doctoral program in Holocaust Studies offered by Temple University in Philadephia.
It is a far cry from the way things were in 1972, when Eliach began teaching a course in Holocaust studies at Brooklyn College. Virtually all her students then were the children of survivors or of the soldiers who liberated the survivors from concentration camps in 1945. "Everyone in that class was there because of a very personal interest--they wanted to find out about their parents," Eliach said. "Today, the interest is much broader."