One wet night 15 years after the end of World War II, in the student union of my university in Northern Ireland, I watched a documentary film made up of home movies taken by Soviet troops at the liberation of the concentration camps. Unlike some similar Allied footage, the Soviets, interested in the propaganda value of the material, had made no attempt to sanitize it for public consumption. They wanted the film to be every bit as hellish as the reality.
I was 18 years old, and it remains the most fearful thing I have ever seen. On that evening I realized the enormity of the evil of the Holocaust. Nothing I saw subsequently on the subject ever equaled its impact. Certainly nothing produced by Hollywood.
When I was growing up in Europe, World War II was simply a part of our everyday consciousness; it was in the air we breathed. It was our parents' time clock. Everything was "before the war" or "after the war." It was difficult to find a story on the radio or in British movies that didn't have something to do with it. And the Holocaust was part of the war; the most important part, if you happened to be Jewish.
America was a different world. The war on this side of the Atlantic was, more often, the battle for the Pacific. Bombs never rained down on American homes. German and Italian prisoners of war weren't in camps just outside your towns. And Hollywood did its part to keep the subject remote.
In the years since, the American movie industry -- founded, organized and to a large extent run by Jews -- for the most part scrupulously avoided the subject, except for the occasional film like "Judgment at Nuremberg" or "Exodus," for which it was a backdrop.
Nobody wanted to look at those barely living skeletons in striped uniforms. The piles of bodies were a real downer, and Hollywood abhorred a downer.
Then in 1993 came "Schindler's List," and the movie landscape changed. Suddenly the Holocaust was a resume-enhancer. It had turned Steven Spielberg from the boy wonder with the common touch to the socially conscious heavyweight whose name was intoned in a respectful hush. The camps were suddenly in fashion.
But that alone surely can't account for the deluge of Holocaust projects currently heading to your home screen in the months to come:
"Anne Frank," a four-hour miniseries based on the recent biography by Melissa Muller, airs May 20 and 21 on ABC; "Varian's War," the story of Varian Fry, the effete American who saved scores of Europe's leading Jewish artists from the Shoah, plays on Showtime on April 22; and "Conspiracy: The Meeting at Wannsee" about the conference that laid out the template for the destruction of the Jews, plays on HBO on May 19. NBC, moreover, is finishing up a very expensive miniseries, "The Uprising," directed by Jon Avnet, about the freedom fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto.
In February, CBS aired "Haven," the story of an American Jew, Ruth Gruber, who escorted thousands of Jewish refugees out of Nazi-occupied Europe. The 2001 Oscar for Best Documentary went to "Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport," the story of European Jewish children sent by their parents to safety with families in England.
Note that these are TV or documentary projects. None are feature movies. In an age when $20-million weekend openings are de rigueur for keeping a studio head in his corner office, executives might risk a World War II picture like "Enemy at the Gates," but to do another expensive Holocaust epic would be foolhardy. Television, however, particularly cable, is an endless maw ready to gobble up good stories, and the Holocaust has 6 million of them, story being the operative word.
The fact is that at the beginning of the 21st century, World War II and the Holocaust are ancient history to the vast majority of TV-watchers. Thus the Shoah joins the French Revolution, the Civil War and the War of Independence as simply dramatic material rather than the most traumatic event of our times. And Hitler is up there with Genghis Khan and Darth Vader as just another bad guy.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center's Rabbi Marvin Hier, who produced Oscar-winning documentaries on the Holocaust ("Genocide," "The Long Way Home"), says the subject fills a need for today's filmmakers.
"After the collapse of the Soviet Union, moviemakers were virtually left with two options. They could go into the 22nd and 23rd century with futuristic fantasies about life on other planets, or they could go back to the Second World War and the Nazi Holocaust. It's a very tantalizing subject." Some stories have taken 60 years to tell, like "Varian's War," a tale that director Lionel Chetwynd is convinced was suppressed for reasons of diplomacy. Varian's enemy was not the Nazis, but the Vichy French. And until recently in the popular wisdom (and on the screen, with the notable exception of Casablanca) the French were our freedom-loving, resistance-fighting allies, rather than an important part of the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews.
Chetwynd suggests another reason for the renewed interest in these stories: the desperate lack of heroes in our time. "This is a canvas with people who were able to perceive evil ... and to make a moral choice, and then act upon it at the risk of their own lives, and there just doesn't seem to be much of that around us [today]."
And something else has changed. The last survivors are dying off. The memories of those who are left are dimming. For filmmakers, this means stories can be manipulated, liberties taken, more or less with impunity. It's a whole new ball game.
There are, of course, dangers galore here. As those who lived it pass on, as memories fade, and as children get their history from television, if at all, do we really want Hollywood to be the guardian of the story of the central tragedy of the contemporary Jewish world? Do we run the risk of boredom -- of Joe Citizen in his fireside chair yelling: "Jeez, Martha, not another one of those damned Holocaust things!"
Rabbi Hier, for one, is willing to take the risk. "Of course there is danger if you tamper with the material too much. There is the danger of its being trivialized. But if it's a choice between having people talk about it, write about it and make movies about it, or allowing the Holocaust to die a death and putting a gate around it like a sacred cemetery which no one must enter, I would choose the former. If we keep the Final Solution a secret, we have done Hitler's work for him."
There's not much danger of that for now, provided the ratings are high. Of course, if the Holocaust proves a ratings dud, we may have to wait another half a century for these stories to surface once more.