Holocaust (miniseries)

Holocaust is a 1978 American four part television miniseries which recounts the trajectory of the Holocaust from the perspectives of the fictional Weiss family of German Jews and that of a rising member of the SS, who gradually becomes a merciless war criminal. Holocaust highlighted numerous events which occurred up to and during World War II, such as Kristallnacht, the creation of Jewish ghettos, and later, the use of gas chambers. Although the miniseries won several awards and received positive reviews, it was criticized by others, such as the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who wrote in The New York Times that it was: "Untrue, offensive, cheap: as a TV production, the film is an insult to those who perished and to those who survived."[1]

DVD cover
Created byGerald Green
Written byGerald Green
Directed byMarvin J. Chomsky
StarringJoseph Bottoms
Tovah Feldshuh
Michael Moriarty
Meryl Streep
Rosemary Harris
James Woods
David Warner
Fritz Weaver
Sam Wanamaker
George Rose
Theme music composerMorton Gould
Country of originUnited States
Original language(s)English
No. of seasons1
No. of episodes4
Producer(s)Robert Berger
Herbert Brodkin
CinematographyBrian West
Editor(s)Craig McKay
Stephen A. Rotter
Running time475 minutes
Production company(s)Titus Productions
DistributorCBS Television Distribution
Original networkNational Broadcasting Company (NBC)
Original releaseApril 16 
April 19, 1978 (United States)


The series was presented in four parts on NBC:

  • Part 1: The Gathering Darkness (original airdate: April 16, 1978)
  • Part 2: The Road to Babi Yar (original airdate: April 17, 1978)
  • Part 3: The Final Solution (original airdate: April 18, 1978)
  • Part 4: The Saving Remnant (original airdate: April 19, 1978)


Holocaust is an account of two fictional German families from Berlin, prior to, and during World War II—one is Christian, whose members become Nazis out of economic necessity, and the other is Jewish, who become their victims.

The “Aryan” Dorf family is headed by Erik (Michael Moriarty), a German lawyer who struggles to find work to support his wife Marta (Deborah Norton) and two young children, Peter and Laura during the economic hardships in Germany. At his wife's insistence, Erik joins the Nazi Party to earn income and rapidly advances within the SS. In a short time he becomes the right-hand man of Reinhard Heydrich (David Warner) the top-level Nazi and one of the engineers of the "Final Solution". As Erik rises through the ranks of the SS, he accepts Nazi ideology and becomes loyal to "the Fatherland" and the Führer. Coordinating mass murder bothers Dorf at first, but he grows more merciless as he discovers that ideological fervor gains him prestige. This backfires after a feud with SS field officers who resent his orders and they send an anonymous letter to Heydrich, accusing Dorf of having Communist sympathies. These accusations stunt his career. After Heydrich is assassinated in 1942, Dorf is put in charge of major extermination operations at Nazi death camps. Dorf continues to follow orders, which require committing further war crimes as well as covering them up.

The series also follows the Weiss family; a group of moderately wealthy German Jews, headed by Dr. Josef Weiss (Fritz Weaver) a Polish-born general physician. His German-born wife, Berta (Rosemary Harris), a talented pianist, is descended from a "Hoch-Deutsch" family whose ancestors were ethnic German "court Jews" and friends of princes and cardinals. Together, Josef and Berta have three children - Karl Weiss (James Woods), an artist who is married to a Christian woman named Inga (Meryl Streep), their football player son Rudi Weiss (Joseph Bottoms), and their preteen daughter Anna Weiss (Blanche Baker). Other family members include Moses Weiss (Sam Wanamaker), Josef's brother, a chemist from Warsaw; Heinrich Palitz (Marius Goring), an Iron Cross recipient from World War One, and his wife (Nora Minor), Berta Palitz Weiss's parents, and owners of an antiquarian bookstore.

Holocaust begins in 1935 in Berlin, with the wedding of Karl and Inga Helms, an "Aryan" Christian woman - as well as the unemployed Erik and his sickly wife Marta, seeing Dr. Josef Weiss who diagnoses Marta with a systolic heart murmur, and during the visit discover that Dr. Weiss had also treated Erik Dorf's parents, as well as Erik during his childhood, decades earlier. Later, unable to find decent employment, and struggling to support his family, at the insistence of his wife, Erik applies for a job with the Nazi Security Service and is interviewed by Reinhard Heydrich, deputy head of the SS.

This miniseries spans the period from 1938 to 1945 and covers the unfolding of the Holocaust, the events from Kristallnacht to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and the Sobibor death camp revolt, and ultimately the end of World War II and the liberation of the camps. It portrays the crimes of the Nazis, including the "Action T4" euthanasia murders of the disabled, the Babi Yar massacre, the deportations to and imprisonment in the ghettos, and of course, the murders of millions in the death camps. Throughout the series, each member of the Weiss (and Palitz) family experiences hardships and ultimately meets a terrible fate, in one way or another—and the events of Kristallnacht, in November 1938 are the turning point and start of all the tragedy that befalls the Weiss family over the following 7 years.

The Kristallnacht attacks, which are carried out under the pretext of retaliation for the assassination of the Nazi[2] official Ernst vom Rath by Herschel Grynszpan, a seventeen-year-old German-born Polish Jew living in Paris, was followed by additional economic and political persecution of Jews, and it is viewed by historians as part of Nazi Germany's broader racial policy, and the beginning of the Final Solution and The Holocaust.[3] So too it was, for the fictional Weiss (and Palitz) family.

Within days of the Ernst vom Rath assassination and Kristallnacht, the eldest son, artist Karl Weiss is arrested and sent to Buchenwald concentration camp, and because Heinrich Palitz's home and bookstore is completely destroyed in the Kristallnacht attacks, he and his wife are forced to move in with their daughter, Berta, son-in-law Josef, and their two younger children, teenage son, Rudi, and preteen daughter, Anna. Meanwhile, after Karl's wife, Inga, phones Berta and Josef to tell them Karl has been arrested, Josef visits Erik Dorf, whose family had been his patients, and is now an SS officer rising through the ranks. Previously (prior to the events of Kristallnacht), Dorf had appeared at Dr. Josef Weiss's clinic to remind him that Jews were forbidden from having 'Aryan' patients and warn him to stop treating non-Jews as well as encouraging him to leave Germany with his family before it's too late, and telling him that if something happens later on, that Josef should not think of coming to him for help based on their past association. But of course, when Karl is arrested, out of desperation, Josef nevertheless goes to Erik Dorf's home and begs him to intervene. But backed by his ambitious wife, Marta, who urges him not to risk his career in the SS by being seen as being sympathetic to (or getting involved with helping) Jewish people, Dorf refuses, and turns Josef away, literally shutting the door in his face.

A few days later, despite having lived in Germany and been married for decades to a German citizen with German ancestry going back for generations, and being a respected doctor in Berlin, Dr. Josef Weiss, who had already lost the right to treat "Aryan" patients, is then deported to Poland for being a foreign Polish citizen along with two of his patients, Franz Lowy (George Rose) and his wife Chana (Käte Jaenicke). However, Josef's brother, Moses Weiss owns a pharmacy in Warsaw and when Josef and the Lowys are deported from Germany to Poland—and in the case of the Lowys, with no family or home in Poland to go to, he finds a place for them to stay and Josef gets a job as a doctor in the Warsaw Ghetto hospital. But, back in Berlin, after Josef's departure, his wife, Berta, and their children, Rudi, and Anna, are forced to "sell" (leave) their home & Josef's clinic, and move into a single, small and cramped room in Inga's apartment and rely on Inga and her reluctant, even hostile, Nazi-supporting family for their survival.

Soon afterwards, Rudi runs away, trying to escape the Nazis reach, and with the loss of her father, her brothers and her home, as well as all the other hardships & restrictions imposed on Jewish people, Anna becomes more & more angry and bitter and on New Year's Eve night 1939, she blows up at her mother and Inga and runs out of the apartment in a huff. Unfortunately, while walking on the streets of Berlin, to try to calm down, Anna is accosted by a bunch of German SA stormtroopers who beat and gang-rape her, and due to the trauma from her assault and rape Anna becomes non-verbal, and virtually catatonic. Inga takes her to the doctor who recommends putting Anna in a sanatorium for rest & treatment. But instead, the doctor sends her to Hadamar where she and the others needing help, become victims of the Nazi Action T4. Eventually, Berta is also deported from Berlin to Warsaw where she reunites with her husband, Josef, who gets her a job teaching in the ghetto school, and he & Moses become members of the Judenrat (Jewish council) for the Warsaw Ghetto.

All the while, though Karl's wife, Inga, tries desperately to get in touch with him in Buchenwald, it's to no avail. It's only when a friend of Inga's parents/family, Heinz Müller (Tony Haygarth), an SS officer is stationed at Buchenwald that Inga is able to get letters to and from Karl, but only if she has sex with Heinz Müller. Although initially, Inga refuses, out of loyalty/fidelity/love/faithfulness to Karl, when Müller threatens to have Karl keep doing heavy, dangerous physical work on the outdoor crew which has an especially high mortality rate (due to both the type of work as well as exposure to the elements and other factors) if Inga does not agree to sex, she submits under duress (essentially meaning that Müller rapes her) in hopes of saving Karl's life. However, Müller uses Inga's sexual contact with him to taunt Karl and threaten him whenever he wants, though for his part, he does have Karl reassigned from his back-breaking outdoor crew job, to a more comfortable indoor job working in the art studio, and eventually he has Karl transferred to Theresienstadt to work in the art studio, there.

Rudi Weiss, having fled from Nazi Germany, ends up in German occupied Prague in Czechoslovakia where he meets Helena Slomova (Tovah Feldshuh) a young girl whose parents have been deported. They fall in love, and run away together, escaping to the Ukraine where they witness, from a short distance, the Babi Yar massacre and where, while on the run, they are found by Jewish partisans, led by Uncle Sasha, a doctor from Koretz who'd lost his family earlier in the war. Rudi & Helena join these Jewish partisans, get married in the partisan camp in the forest, and fight for years, alongside the Jewish partisans. When an attempted ambush of German troops fails, Rudi's partisans are annihilated, and Helena is killed. Captured, Rudi is sent to the camp in Sobibór. There, he meets Leon Feldhandler and Alexander Pechersky, and escapes during the Sobibór uprising in October 1943. Rudi decides to travel alone back through Europe and find his family.

Meanwhile, in Warsaw, after learning the truth about the "resettlement in the East" and what really happened to those who are sent off for "resettlement", Josef, Berta & Moses Weiss, Franz Lowy and others, realize that the SS plans to kill all the Jewish people in Europe as the Final Solution, and they start a resistance movement, and try to save lives in whatever ways they can. While Josef uses his position as doctor in the Ghetto hospital to rescue Jews from the trains by claiming them having contagious illness, and hiding them in a makeshift clinic in vacant buildings by the train platform. Moses Weiss and other fighters stockpile weapons bought in "Aryan" Warsaw from Christian Poles and smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto. Lowy, having been a printer, before the war, publishes resistance leaflets. Eventually Josef is caught trying to get Jews off the trains and save them from the Nazi "liquidation" process, and he and Berta, along with Franz and Chana Lowy are deported to Auschwitz. On Passover of 1943, Moses and the others begin fighting back against the Germans. Initially successful, SS eventually overwhelm the defenders, crushing the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Moses and the other survivors surrender to SS forces, and are immediately executed by firing squad against a building in Warsaw.

After Karl is transferred to Theresienstadt, he is commissioned as an artist. Inga learns that Father Lichtenberg was arrested for speaking out against the Third Reich and other anti-Nazi activities and sent to Dachau. So, sacrificing her freedom & safety, in order to reunite with Karl, she convinces Heinz Müller to denounce her to the Gestapo and get her sent to Theresienstadt so she can be with her husband again, after years of separation & no contact other than occasional letters delivered by Müller in exchange for sexual favours. Soon after arriving in Theresienstadt, Inga becomes pregnant with Karl's child. While Theresienstadt is outwardly pleasant, a showpiece to fool Red Cross observers, Karl and the other artists know better, and begin secretly making charcoal drawings depicting the reality of the concentration camps. The SS learns of the art when one of the artists sells several of the paintings/drawings of horrific concentration camp scenes. SS, including Erik Dorf, and Theresienstadt authorities, are desperate to find out whether there are other similar paintings/drawings, and if so, how many there are, and where they are. The artists refuse to give them any information or aid the investigation in any way, even though they are severely tortured by the Theresienstadt commandant and deputies, to the point of death. Karl, the sole survivor of the arrested artists, is deported to Auschwitz, but not before he learns that Inga is pregnant with his child. Karl urges her to terminate her pregnancy and not give life to his child to suffer such a hellish existence in concentration camps. Upon arrival at Auschwitz Karl is assigned to the Sonderkommandos crew, and finds out that both his parents were deported to Auschwitz as well.

Before the war can end, both of Karl's parents are killed in Auschwitz. Karl dies shortly before the liberation of the camp. Berta is last seen entering a gas chamber. Josef had been working on a road crew with other Jews, until Dorf reminds his superiors that Jews not be used for slave labor when non-Jewish prisoners are available. Told that he and the others are being taken to be deloused, Josef has no illusions. He is last seen marching off towards his death with the other prisoners. Karl is found dead in his barracks, slumped over one final sketch.

After the war ends, Dorf is captured by the United States Army and told that he will be tried for war crimes. Dorf protests, both that he was mostly an observer, and also that Nazi actions were legitimate. Confronted by American evidence of both the monstrosity of Nazi genocide, and his own active role in carrying it out, Dorf commits suicide, using a cyanide pill hidden in his clothes.

Rudi meets Inga in the liberated Theresienstadt camp, and says he heard what happened to his parents and Karl. Inga says that, despite Karl's telling her not to continue her pregnancy, she had the baby and named him Josef, after her father-in-law. She decides to take her child back to Berlin temporarily, but says she will not be staying there. Rudi's ultimate fate is unknown at the conclusion of the series (but the novel by Gerald Green, gives more information), but he is offered a job smuggling orphaned Greek Jewish children into Palestine. The last scene of this miniseries is of Rudi playing soccer with these children.



Holocaust was produced by Robert Berger, and was filmed on location in Austria and West Berlin. It was broadcast in four parts from April 16 to April 19, 1978. The series earned a 49% market share; it was also received well in Europe.

The 9 1/2 hour program starred Fritz Weaver, Meryl Streep, James Woods, and Michael Moriarty, as well as a large supporting cast. It was directed by Marvin J. Chomsky, whose credits included ABC's miniseries Roots, which first aired in 1977. The teleplay was written by novelist-producer Gerald Green, who later adapted the script into a novel.[4]

The miniseries was rebroadcast on NBC from September 10 to September 13, 1979, a year and a half after its original broadcast.


Critical reception

Some critics accused the miniseries of trivializing the Holocaust. The television format muted the realism of the depiction, while the fact that NBC gained financially from advertising led to accusations that the tragedy was being commercialized.

Holocaust's creators defended the show by arguing that it was an important factor in developing and maintaining awareness of the Holocaust. With the exception of such movies as The Diary of Anne Frank, Judgment at Nuremberg, and The Hiding Place, this was the first time many Americans had seen any lengthy dramatization of the Holocaust which introduced character portrayals of victims and their personal stories. The television critic Clive James commended the production. Writing in The Observer (reprinted in his collection The Crystal Bucket), he commented:

The German Jews were the most assimilated in Europe. They were vital to Germany's culture—which, indeed, has never recovered from their extinction. They couldn't see they were hated in direct proportion to their learning, vitality and success. The aridity of the Nazi mind was the biggest poser the authors had to face. In creating Erik Dorf they went some way towards overcoming it. Played with spellbinding creepiness by Michael Moriarty, Erik spoke his murderous euphemisms in a voice as juiceless as Hitler's prose or Speer's architecture. Hitler's dream of the racially pure future was of an abstract landscape tended by chain-gangs of shadows and crisscrossed with highways bearing truckloads of Aryans endlessly speeding to somewhere undefined. Dorf sounded just like that: his dead mackerel eyes were dully alight with a limitless vision of banality.[5]

On the other hand, the Polish community in the United States found the miniseries controversial and untrue because it claimed that the soldiers who were supervising transports of Jews and executing them during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising were dressed in Polish military uniforms.[6]

In January 1979, Holocaust aired in West Germany. With viewers estimated as being resident in up to 15 million households, the miniseries turned out to be a success during its initial airing. The series was watched by 20 million people, or 50% of West Germany's population, and it first brought the matter of the genocide during World War II to widespread public attention in a way that it never had been before.

After each part of Holocaust was aired, there followed a companion show wherein a panel of historians answered questions from people phoning in. The historians' panels were overwhelmed with thousands of phone calls from shocked and outraged Germans. The German historian Alf Lüdtke wrote that the historians "could not cope" as they were faced with thousands of angry phone-callers asking how these things could happen.[7] Subsequently, the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache named the term "Holocaust" as the German Word of the Year.[8]

During an introductory documentary that preceded the first broadcast of the series in Germany, Peter Naumann, then a right-wing terrorist and today a politician of the NPD, tried with two accomplices to blow up the transmission towers of the ARD transmitters at Koblenz and near Münster (station Nottuln), to prevent the broadcast. At the transmitter Koblenz the supply cables were damaged, and the transmitter failed for one hour. Several hundred thousand television viewers could not see the program during this time.[9]


Holocaust won the Emmy Awards for Outstanding Limited Series as well as for the performances of Meryl Streep, Moriarty, and Blanche Baker. Morton Gould's music score was nominated an Emmy and for a Grammy Award for Best Album of Original Score for a Movie or Television Program. Co-stars David Warner, Sam Wanamaker, Tovah Feldshuh, Fritz Weaver, and Rosemary Harris were all nominated for, but did not win, Emmys. However, Harris won a Golden Globe Award (for Best TV Actress - Drama) for her performance, as did Moriarty (for Best TV Actor - Drama).[10]


The series was watched by an estimated 120 million viewers in the US when first broadcast in 1978.[11] In 1979, Holocaust was broadcast in West Germany and watched by an estimated 20 million people, then about one-third of the population. This event had a huge cultural impact, and has been credited with making many Germans come to grips for the first time with ordinary peoples' roles in allowing, supporting, and perpetrating the Holocaust.[12] At its fortieth anniversary the series was rebroadcast on German television in January 2019, at a time when polling showed that fewer than half of German school children had any knowledge of the Auschwitz concentration camp.[13]

DVD releases

Holocaust was released in the U.S. as a Region 1 DVD by Paramount Pictures and CBS Home Entertainment on May 27, 2008. The Region 2 DVD followed on 15 August 2010. A disclaimer on the DVD packaging states that it may be edited from the original network broadcast version and is shorter at 446 mins. The Region 4 DVD is unusually in native NTSC format, having not been converted to PAL. No information is currently available to explain the reason for the half hour of missing footage. However, it seems to be clear that the time difference is not simply due to the NTSC/PAL conversion 4 percent speed-up effect.

See also


  1. Wiesel, Elie (April 16, 1978). "Trivializing the Holocaust: Semi-Fact and Semi-Fiction". The New York Times. Retrieved May 6, 2019.
  2. Schwab, Gerald (1990). The Day the Holocaust Began: The Odyssey of Herschel Grynszpan. Praeger. p. 14. ... vom Rath joined the NSDAP (Nazi party) on July 14, 1932, well before Hitler's ascent to power
  3. Multiple (1998). "Kristallnacht". The Hutchinson Encyclopedia. Hutchinson Encyclopedias (18th ed.). London: Helicon. p. 1,199. ISBN 1-85833-951-0.
  4. Green, Gerald (1978). Holocaust. Transworld Publishers.
  5. James, Clive. The Crystal Bucket. pp. 124–126. ISBN 0-330-26745-0.
  6. "Holocaust on TV Stirs Poles' Anger". The New York Times.
  7. Lüdtke, Alf (September 1993). "'Coming to Terms with the Past': Illusions of Remembering, Ways of Forgetting Nazism in West Germany". The Journal of Modern History. 65 (3): 542–572. doi:10.1086/244674. JSTOR 2124850.
  8. "Ein Jahr, ein (Un-)Wort!". Spiegel Online (in German).
  9. "Holocaust: Die Vergangenheit kommt zurück". Spiegel (in German).
  10. "Awards". IMDb.
  11. McGuinness, Damien (30 January 2019). "Holocaust: How a US TV series changed Germany". BBC News. Retrieved 30 January 2019.
  12. McGuinness, Damien (30 January 2019). "Holocaust: How a US TV series changed Germany". BBC News. Retrieved 30 January 2019.
  13. McGuinness, Damien (30 January 2019). "Holocaust: How a US TV series changed Germany". BBC News. Retrieved 30 January 2019.

Further reading

  • Bartov, Omer (2005). The "Jew" in Cinema: From The Golem to Don't Touch My Holocaust. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
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