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NBC's Landmark Holocaust Miniseries Premiered 43 Years Ago Today

  • On April 16, 1978, NBC premiered the first episode of the four-part miniseries Holocaust, a landmark television event that would help to change the focus of the mainstream narrative about the Nazi atrocities from the punishment of the perpetrators to the suffering of the victims. It won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Limited Series, and Meryl Streep won her first Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series.

    The story follows two fictional families from 1935 through 1945. Dr. Josef Weiss (Fritz Weaver), his brother Moses (Sam Wanamaker), his wife Berta (Rosemary Harris), and their children Rudi (Joseph Bottoms), Anna (Blanche Baker), and Karl (James Woods) are a relatively well-to-do Jewish family, and the series begins at the wedding of Karl to a Christian woman named Inga Helms (Streep). Josef is the longtime family doctor for the Christian Dorf family, including an out-of-work lawyer named Erik (Michael Moriarty), his wife Marta (Deborah Norton), and his two young children. Out of financial hardship, Marta urges him to join the Nazi party, where he thrives and eventually works alongside the notorious Reinhard Heydrich (David Warner), the real life Nazi who was one of the primary architects of the genocide that they soullessly called "the Final Solution to the Jewish Question."

    The events of Kristallnacht in 1938 lead quickly to Karl's arrest and sentencing to the Buchenwald concentration camp, while Josef is deported to Poland after Erik turns his back on him and denies him any aid, and Berta, Rudi, and Anna are forced to move in with Inga's family, some of whom are virulent Nazi-sympathizers. Rudi manages to escape to eastern Europe, bearing witness to the Babi Yar massacre in Ukraine and falling in love with Helena (Tovah Feldshuh), before being sent to the Sobibor death camp and participating in the 1943 uprising there. Inga is forced to submit to the sexual advances of an SS officer in order to keep Karl alive, and he survives long enough to create secret works of art that depict the reality of life in the camps, contradicting the official Nazi line. Anna suffers a gang-rape at the hands of German soldiers that leaves her catatonic, which leads to her execution under the Nazi "Action T4," which authorized involuntary euthanasia of the mentally or physically ill. Moses is killed after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, while Joseph, Berta, and Karl are eventually sent to Auschwitz.

    While Holocaust was greeted with some criticism about commercialization of the genocide and the real and perceived limitations of made-for-TV production values of the time, it nonetheless had a powerful impact, particularly in West Germany, where it was watched by roughly half of the entire adult population and was credited with helping to educate the younger generation of Germans on the scope of Nazi crimes. There, the series was aired with a follow-up show where viewers could call in with questions for a panel of historians, and they were flooded by thousands of calls from shocked and horrified Germans who were outraged not by the series itself, but how such atrocities could ever have been allowed to happen. This presentation was credited with helping to convince the West German government to repeal the statute of limitations on Nazi war crimes.

    The series also prompted a sabotage attempt by Nazi sympathizing terrorists, who attacked some transmission towers to try and prevent the broadcast.

    Holocaust was viewed by more than 120 million Americans when it was first broadcast, and you can watch the entire production here in five parts. This was Moriarty's first role on American television, for which he won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series. Baker won Best Supporting Actress in a Miniseries in what was her television debut. Weaver, Warner, Wanamaker, Harris and Feldshuh were all nominated for Emmys as well. Director Marvin J. Chomsky, who also worked on Roots, won the Emmy for Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series, and the show also won Emmys for Film Editing and Costume Design.

    Andy Hunsaker has a head full of sitcom gags and nerd-genre lore, and can be followed @AndyHunsaker if you're into that sort of thing.

    TOPICS: NBC, Holocaust (1978 Miniseries), Blanche Baker, David Warner, Deborah Norton, Fritz Weaver, Gerald Green, James Woods, Joseph Bottoms, Marvin J. Chomsky, Meryl Streep, Michael Moriarty, Rosemary Harris, Sam Wanamaker, Tovah Feldshuh