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American Culture and the Memorialization of the Holocaust as a Moral Paradigm

Book Essay on: Jeffrery Shandler, While America Watches: Televising the Holocaust
( New York: Oxford University Press, 19992), 316pages.
UCSB: PN1992.8.H63 S53 1999

by Ashley Ramsey
March 23, 2010

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in European History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2010



About the Author
& Abstract
Essay
Annotated
Bibliography
Don't
Plagiarize!
Book available at Ashley Ramsey

About Ashley Ramsey

I am a senior history major with a minor in American Indian and Indigenous Studies. Since I have previously taken courses on the memorialization of the Holocaust, I was particularly interested in how America as a collective society understood the Holocaust and how it has created its own meaning for such an event. Since the Holocaust did not occur on American soil, I am curious to learn how the American people acknowledge and/or refuse certain aspects of the Holocaust. Jeffery Shandler’s book, While America Watches, is important to understanding Holocaust reception in the United States, because he offers insight into how television has been instrumental in presenting the Holocaust in a manner that is appealing to the majority of the American population.

Abstract (back to top)

In his book, While America Watches: Televising the Holocaust, Jeffrey Shandler examines how television has been used as a medium by which America’s cultural memory has absorbed the Holocaust. Using United States liberation footage, the televised trial of war criminal Adolf Eichmann, a series of Holocaust based mini-dramas, and survivor testimonies, Shandler evaluates how the Holocaust has become a dominant event in American consciousness. He claims that the television has proved a medium by which American viewers have been moral witnesses. Although critics and scholars argue that television as a medium presents inaccurate portrayals that risk the dignity and integrity of the Holocaust, Shandler argues that the impact of television on the Holocaust has brought increased awareness to American viewers. Most importantly, Shandler’s main goal is to show how the Holocaust has become the core of US public consciousness and how it has developed into a moral paradigm by which contemporary United States culture measures proper ethical behavior.


Essay (back to top)

In his book While America Watches: Televising the Holocaust, Jeffrey Shandler examines how television has been used as a medium by which the Holocaust is absorbed into the United States’ cultural memory. He looks at the transformative nature television has had on viewers’ perceptions of the Holocaust. By cataloging five decades of television, Shandler seeks to pinpoint key programs that contributed to the evolution of the Holocaust in the American psyche. Beginning in the immediate postwar period, Shandler describes the progression of US Holocaust memory by using a variety of film footage, commercials, and television shows. Throughout his discussion, Shandler notes important turning points in United States consciousness and addresses when the term Holocaust becomes a distinctive historical entity for Americans. As Shandler displays how the Holocaust was broadcast to the American public, he convincingly claims that television has become a medium through which viewers became morally engaged virtual witnesses to an event that is true yet unbelievable. He also states that America as a collective entity is more capable of absorbing events of the Holocaust when televised as dramas or ecumenical series (despite risking the historical integrity and commoditization of the event). Using US liberation footage, televised trials and miniseries, and survivor documentaries, Shandler effectively argues that although television provoked contention, it successfully acted as a catalyst in the development of the Holocaust as a moral paradigm in contemporary United States culture.

Beginning with the liberation footage of Buchenwald concentration camp by US forces, Shandler focuses on how such footage was presented to the American public and how peoples’ responses during the late 1940s shaped television shows’ interpretations of the Holocaust. Liberation footage, which was recorded by US Army Signal Corps cameramen and presented as newsreels in movie theaters, provided the nation accurate testimony of the Holocaust. Not only had the liberators acted as professional witnesses for the general public, but Shandler argues that this footage prompted a turning point in American awareness of the Holocaust. Liberation footage like Universal Newsreel’s “Nazi Murder Mills,” which presented “charred remains of a human skeleton inside one of the crematorium ovens at Buchenwald,” encouraged the American public not to turn away from the graphic images (Shandler, 13). Shandler argues that liberation footage was shown in a way that “codifies the act of witnessing for American audience as unpleasant, shocking, repulsive, yet arousing, compelling, necessary, and ultimately redemptive” (Shandler, 12). The prompting of the public to watch made viewers witnesses to Nazi atrocities despite the events having already occurred and taken place on foreign soil. Although the footage acted as a turning point in American consciousness, Shandler argues that during the 1940s, victims of Nazism retained an inchoate status and the Holocaust had not yet become an ethical model by which the collective US population would measure its own moral behavior.

During the postwar period, survivors were broadcast on television as the “living dead” and were referred to as refugees or Displaced Persons who were supposed to resolve their own disparity in silence (Shandler, 27). Although their stories would be acknowledged as privileged sources of insight in the 1980s, early 1950s television tended to focus more on survivors lives after the war rather than their wartime experiences. By focusing on survivors’ postwar lives, television shows like This is Your Life (1953) could not only avoid broadcasting controversial information like death and persecution which might alienate American viewers, but could also celebrate stories of triumph by paralleling these Displaced Persons’ postwar experiences with the United States’ history of immigration. To further avoid controversial issues, dramas and miniseries were created to present the Holocaust to coincide and deal with the everyday lives of the contemporary US population. Although the immediate postwar period is generally characterized as a time of American Jewish silence, Shandler argues that a great deal of historical scholarship during the 1950s by survivors contributed to the evolving interest and projection of the Holocaust as a paradigmatic, rather than merely topical, subject for a drama (Shandler, 46-51).

Shandler argues that as the Holocaust became a more prominent event in the American psyche, shows like In the Presence of Mine Enemies, which tells the story of a young Jewish girl and a gentile, helped establish an understanding of the ethical implication of racial intolerance and hatred. Similarly, such shows also presented the Holocaust as a “powerful moral exemplar” for the public (Shandler, 61). Despite Shandler’s argument that these shows presented ethical standards by which the US public could measure moral behavior, scholars argue that television as a medium presents inaccurate and wrongful portrayals that risk the dignity and integrity of the subject. Nevertheless, Shandler argues that television helped create the Holocaust as an event of moral exemplar for the American public. To convey his argument, Shandler shows how through the airing of ecumenical series, in which television networks collaborated with theologians, Holocaust edification helped thrust the subject to moral paradigm status. Although ecumenical series presented disturbing information, it acted as a means to enlighten viewers about the consequences of antisemitism while promoting tolerance (Shandler, 62). As Holocaust familiarity grew with the frequent broadcasting of morally charged dramas, Shandler argues that viewers of 1960s American television found themselves confronted with two broadcasts that would shape public memory for the preceding decades.

The broadcasting of the Eichmann trial (1961) and the Holocaust (1978) miniseries both demonstrated how television impacted (and created) United States Holocaust remembrance and public’s cultural memory. As the Holocaust became less of a taboo subject, the war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann launched the Holocaust into the spotlight of US popular culture. Shandler argues that the Eichmann trial was not only American television audiences’ first encounter with the Holocaust as solely the Nazi persecution of European Jews, but also displayed television’s ability to transform viewers into morally engaged witnesses (Shandler, 107). As American audiences were given a daily, and nearly immediate, front row seat to the trial, Shandler’s argument that television allowed viewers to play an iconic role as virtual witnesses is challenged by the fact that there was the problematic presence of commercials. For many critics of television’s role in shaping US Holocaust memory, commercials interrupt both the integrity and emotional components of the subject. Nevertheless, Shandler claims the courtroom proceedings focused on morality and advanced the “notion of the Holocaust as an intellectual and ethical paradigm in American public culture” (Shandler, 107). Shandler argues that the Eichmann trial was able to create such an effect because viewers were observing and judging not only Eichmann, but also all of humankind for the atrocities committed by fellow human beings. Therefore, for the American public, the televised trial of Adolf Eichmann became both an individuated and universalized act of judging both Eichmann for his crimes as well as entire generation for allowing such an event to occur (Shandler, 108).

Unlike the footage from “Nazi Murder Mills,” which presented the audience with what had been done to victims of Nazi persecution, the Eichmann trial put a human face to how the atrocities were committed. According to Shandler, viewers realized that the supposed “inhuman” Nazis who perpetrated the Holocaust were not conveying some exclusive German evil, but rather were simply average men. This realization not only humanized Nazi perpetrators but made viewers confront the idea that the Holocaust was an event that was capable of occurring anywhere and at any time. Dramas created after the Eichmann trial broadcast epitomized the notion that anyone has the potential to become a Nazi by creating characters, even Jewish characters, as neo-Nazis (Shandler, 143). For instance, the show Lou Grant (1977-1982) broadcast an episode that describes the transformation of a “bar mitzvah boy into a Nazi with a swastika on his arm” (Shandler, 142). This realization helped make the Holocaust for Americans a standard model of genocide while simultaneously allowing the event to become a subject of discussion.

While television shaped US Holocaust memory culture through the airing of the Eichmann trial in 1978, the Holocaust miniseries also helped create the iconology and open discussion of the Holocaust that still exists today. Shandler argues that the Holocaust miniseries helped pave the way for symbolism to take the place of historical facts and information. For instance, “characters are often mutely identified as Holocaust survivors by the revelation of numbers tattooed on their forearms, recalling images that appear repeatedly in documentary photographs and footage from liberated concentration camps” (Shandler, 146). Similarly, images of swastikas, SS and Gestapo uniforms, and Nazi salutes prompt public memory to recall Nazism and the Third Reich (Shandler, 148). Along with the symbolism the miniseries used, it also created a guided, educational aspect to the Holocaust.

Despite achieving its goal of depicting the Nazi persecution of European Jewry, some critics of Holocaust and of using the television as a medium to present the Holocaust claim that the American public’s understanding of the Holocaust is inherently flawed. Although Shandler argues that the Holocaust miniseries raised awareness and was morally edifying, it also engendered discussion about the ability to present the subject properly, especially through the realm of popular culture and television. Many critics and scholars argue that television as a medium is “frivolous and superficial by nature, (and) trivializes the enormity and gravity of the subject” (Shandler, 168). Similarly, they believe that television “cannot convey the physical or metaphysical ugliness of the subject” and does not present the historical accuracy of the subject with historical accuracy in order to achieve mass appeal (Shandler, 168). Although Shandler does not refute claims that television has both commoditized the Holocaust and caused the subject’s content to be altered, he argues that television has not resulted in historical shallowness, but rather that television has provided a means by which Americans can view, understand, and learn about an event that occurred in another country, and for many viewers, in another time.

Shandler concludes his argument that television has shaped the Holocaust into a master paradigm for American culture by documenting the evolving nature of survivor testimony. Although survivors had previously been looked upon to provide information regarding their postwar experiences, during the 1980s and 1990s their role and status within American Holocaust memory changed. Through their testimonies, survivors have become “much sought after as the bearers of memory, as witnesses to history, and as sources of insight into historical experiences that they and other victims of Nazi persecution endured” (Shandler, 39). Although perceived as having privileged, unparalleled insight into the Holocaust, survivors in documentaries became called upon to bear the responsibility of memorializing the millions of victims through their own recollections and reflections. Shandler argues that the Holocaust gains deeper insight, awareness, and understanding when analyzed through survivor testimony. However, problems that arise from survivor testimony include the effects of retrospective memory in which memory has been altered by various mediums to depict a less accurate perception of events. Similarly, another counterexample to Shandler’s argument of the Holocaust as a moral paradigm is the ultimate debasement of both the moral and aesthetic status of the Holocaust by forcing survivors to go beyond their comfort level to retell their stories (Shandler, 196). Since survivors have been forced to speak as a collective voice for themselves and murdered victims, another issue that arose is that of inaccurately portraying survivors as fragile, isolated, and permanently displaced (Shandler, 200). However, Shandler claims that by using television to project survivors’ testimonies, survivors’ histories will remain accessible to the American public, therefore allowing its “legacy” to survive.

By analyzing original of film footage, television broadcasts, and survivor documentaries, Shandler convincingly proves that television has helped propagate the Holocaust throughout United States’ public cultural memory. Shandler argues that television has become a medium by which the American public could create its own meaning for the Holocaust. Although some critics claim that television interrupts the integrity of the Holocaust by trivializing the event, Shandler demonstrates that television has made the Holocaust a core element of US public consciousness that serves as a moral standard used to measure the ethical behavior of society.

 


Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/23/10)

Book Reviews

  • Henry L. Feingold, Review of Shandler, While America Watches, in: Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 19, no. 4 (2001), pp 157-159.

    Feingold discusses how historians are no longer simply retelling the narrative of what happened during the Holocaust, but rather how and what about the Holocaust is being remembered. He explains how Shandler’s monograph is part of a “culture of memory” that fuses history, anthropology, and psychology. Feingold’s review emphasizes Shandler’s ability to use television as a means to demonstrate the level at which Americans absorb or resist the Holocaust. Although Americans were only indirectly connected to the Holocaust during WWII, Shandler argues that due to television the Holocaust now acts as American’s ethical awareness barometer. Feingold esteems Shandler for cataloging five decades of television in a successful attempt to pinpoint when and how the Holocaust was accepted into American’s collective consciousness. Feingold also discusses Schandler’s book in relation to Peter Novick’s The Holocaust in American Life (1999), but claims that Novick’s argument as to why the Holocaust has earned its place in American memory is not in agreement with Shandler’s book.

  • Douglas Gomery, Review of Shandler, While America Watches, in: American Jewish History 88, no.1 (2000), pp 145-147.

    Gomery commends Shandler’s research and argument that television has subtly placed Holocaust awareness among American viewers for the past fifty years. Gomery, like Feingold, discusses Shandler’s ability to illustrate how the Holocaust has become the moral paradigm by which morality is judged. Shandler not only discusses the evolution of the Holocaust in the American psyche, but is able to use specific examples, such as the airing of the Nuremberg Trials, to demonstrate how television has shaped how American perceive historical events. Similar to how Miller analyzes Shandler’s work, Gomery points out Shandler’s weaknesses to adequately evaluate later television shows due to the sheer magnitude of available programs. Similarly, Gomery is also critical about the use of all black-and-white photos despite the images originally being taken in color. Whether Shandler’s decision for making all the images so similar, Gomery views his choice as misleading and unnecessary.

  • Jeffrey S Miller, Review of Shandler, While America Watches, in: Journal of American Studies 36, no. 2 (Aug. 2002), pp 376-377.

    Miller begins his review by claiming that the Holocaust has become such an integral part of American consciousness that it helps Americans define and react to other genocides. He continues by stating how Shandler’s work has brought new insight into how television has shaped America’s understanding of the Holocaust. Like Feingold, Miller discusses Shandler’s ability to persuade readers into agreeing that television has inarguably created a “culture of memory.” Miller critiques Shandler for overanalyzing and overusing examples to illustrate his point. For Miller, the overabundance of images and examples creates a loss of focus in Shandler’s argument. However, Miller also commends Shandler for his ability to point out key programs that have opened up the viewing public’s mind enough to be able to start interpreting the meaning of the Holocaust as a collective group. Although Shandler never explicitly claims television has distorted the true meaning of the Holocaust, Miller claims that Shandler instead argues for the benefits (such as awareness and discussion) that television has brought to understanding such an important event.

Books and Articles

  • Tim Cole, Selling the Holocaust: From Auschwitz to Schindler, How History is Bought, Packaged and Sold (New York: Routledge, 1999), 209 pages. UCSB: D804.3.C6495 1999.

    Using representations of Anne Frank, Adolf Eichmann, and Oskar Schindler as well as landmarks such as Auschwitz, Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Cole assesses how the Holocaust is represented by each other these instances. Similarly, Cole also aims to explain why Holocaust memory is dominant in American consciousness and how American culture influences (and is influenced by) the subject. In his book, Cole discusses how the historical facts of the Holocaust have been remolded and used in the political realm. Cole not only pinpoints examples of inadequate representations of the Holocaust in film, text, and museums, but critiques American mass culture for using the Holocaust as a representation of US political agenda. By suffusing popular culture and academia, Cole is able to analyze America’s act of organized memorialization and commoditization of the Holocaust. Cole’s book is useful because he illustrates how the United States has established the Holocaust as a dominate icon as well as how American culture has reshaped and trivialized the event.

  • Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life (New York: First Mariner Books, 2000), 352 pages. UCSB: D804.45.U55 N68 1999.

    In his book, Novick analyzes why the Holocaust became a prominent topic in American mindset after the 1970s. He examines why and how the Holocaust became a social, historical, and ethical event in contemporary American life. By covering the period from World War II to present day, Novick is able to how the Holocaust became Americanized. Novick documents the reception of the Holocaust by American culture during the immediate postwar period as nearly nonexistence. However, as the Holocaust began to gradually move toward the center of Jewish consciousness in America by the 1970s, Americans started to absorb Holocaust lessons and shape the Holocaust as a unique event that acts as a moral paradigm by which society measures social behavior. Novick also provides insight into American Jewish consciousness of the Holocaust and a collective awareness as victims. However, Novick subtly points out that the preoccupation with the Holocaust for Americans, especially American Jews as part of their identity, trivializes, distorts, and even exploits the Holocaust because the subject is being inappropriately transcended into all aspects of America life (such as popular culture and the political sphere). Although Novick undeniably agrees that the Holocaust has developed in American culture, he seems to believe the impact has been a negative one and has and America’s insubstantial representation (or misrepresentation) of the Holocaust is more detrimental than good. Although Novick’s focus is not on one primary medium like Shandler, his book is useful for an in-depth understanding of why the Holocaust because a phenomena in American consciousness and how it has become the standard model by which morality is evaluated.

Relevant Websites

  • Carmelo Lisciotto, “The Trial of Adolf Eichmann,” (created 30 Jun 2007, last revised 28 Apr 2008).

    This page on the Adolf Eichmann trial is part of HolocaustResearchProject.org, which provides an abundance of information on many aspects of the Holocaust ranging from Holocaust prelude to survivors’ testimony. The Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team believes that “by solemnly commemorating the tragedy of the Holocaust, we will keep history in mind, never forget the past, cherish all lives, and create a better future.” Furthermost, their goal is to create awareness so that genocide will only exist as a historical record rather than a daily occurrence. The article on the Eichmann trial provides a brief biography, the charges against Eichmann, both the prosecution and defense teams’ strategies, and the verdict and sentencing. Similarly, this site provides the interrogations, testimonies, and available images from numerous Holocaust trials.

  • “Nazi Murder Mills (26 Apr 1945)”, (10 Mar 2001).

    Originally aired in American movie theaters, Universal Newsreels’ “Nazi Murder Mills” grabs audiences’ attention by declaring it to be the “first actual newsreel pictures of atrocities in Nazi murder camps. Helpless prisoners tortured to death by a bestial enemy...Here Is The Truth." The broadcast continues by relaying horrific real-life images of Nazi atrocities committed in the concentration camps. A positive message of how American forces liberated the camps while providing medical aid and nourishment to prisoners is contrasted with images of charred human remains, corpse filled pits, and a message of Nazi inhumanity. Images from Buchenwald display emaciated survivors and crematoria while instructing the audience not to look away. The film concludes with an attempt to increase world security at the San Francisco Conference of 46 United Nations.

  • “This is you Life: Hanna Bloch Kohner (1953)", (10 Mar 2001).

    The episode “Hanna Bloch Kohner” of the television series “This is your Life,” sought to unknowingly reconnect a Holocaust survivor with her family. Although most American broadcasts during the immediate post war period focused on a survivor’s postwar life and successful immigration to the United States, Hanna’s testimony was one of the first to be devoted more towards her survival during the war. Courtesy of the Classic TV collection, this site is able to provide the 1953 broadcast of “This is your Life: Hanna Bloch Kohner” for present day viewers.

  • “United States Holocaust Memorial Museum”, (created Apr 2001, last revised Jan 2008).

    As part of the Virtual Jewish Library, this page provides information about the planning, creation, and purpose of Washington, D.C.’s Holocaust Museum. The USHMM’s mission is “to advance and disseminate knowledge about that unprecedented tragedy, preserve the memory of those who suffered, and encourage reflection upon the moral and spiritual questions raised by those events.” The museum acts as a “living memorial” in which future generations will have a means to remember and engage with the past. Since the museum acts as America’s national memorial to the Holocaust, it is important to why it was created and how its creation impacted American culture. More information about the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum can be accessed at .

  • Holocaust Miniseries,

    Originally broadcast on NBC in 1978, Holocaust tells the story of the Holocaust from the perspective of a German Jewish family and an SS member who becomes a war criminal. Initially showed in nine segments, Holocaust provided American audiences with an insight into Nazi atrocities and important Jewish events like Kristallnacht.



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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.


prepared for web by Ashley Ramsey on 3/23/10; last updated: 11/21/10
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