By Rafael Medoff/JNS.org
A recently deceased co-star of the most widely viewed Holocaust drama in American television history was raised Catholic, but said he was so deeply affected by the role that he "became a Jew" in his view of the world.
Fritz Weaver, who died Nov. 26 in New York City at age 90, co-starred on “Holocaust,” a four-part miniseries that aired on NBC in mid-April 1978. The miniseries chronicled the fate of Europe's Jews under Hitler through the fictional lives of a Nazi war criminal and a German Jewish family. Weaver played the family patriarch, Dr. Josef Weiss.
Weaver's co-stars included such Hollywood luminaries as James Woods, as his son Karl, and Meryl Streep, as Karl's Christian wife Inga. “Holocaust” also launched the film career of Tovah Feldshuh, who played a young Jewish partisan fighter.
Some Holocaust survivors felt that the NBC miniseries failed to adequately convey the depth of Jewish suffering and Nazi brutality. Survivor and scholar Reuben Ainsztein charged that the Buchenwald inmates in the miniseries "look so well-fed and well-dressed that I would not be surprised if the stills are reproduced in a neo-Nazi pamphlet as proof of how decent conditions were."
The writers and producers of “Holocaust” were ahead of their time in choosing to include controversial topics that had received relatively little attention until then, such as Nazi sexual violence and the moral dilemmas faced by members of the Judenrate, or Jewish self-governing councils, which the Nazis established.
‘I think now like a Jew’
Weaver, a native of Pittsburgh, was a Tony Award-winning Broadway actor whose stage roles included Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear. Weaver told the Chicago Tribune in 1978 that he was "a changed man" as a result of his role in “Holocaust.”
"I've become a Jew," he said. "I think now like a Jew. I read the paper like a Jew. I look at the world through the eyes of a Jew. I cannot forget the man I portrayed. I never will."
Weaver said he and his fellow-actors were "profoundly touched" and "permanently changed" by the experience. "Unlike most of their films, they did not shoot this one out of sequence," he said. "And it was a brilliant thing to do. For slowly, day by day, we grew into our characters. We became the people we were portraying. And you could see the effects on the others."
Weaver described a number of instances in which the actors were overcome by emotion and walked off the set, weeping. "One day as we were leaving the Mauthausen concentration camp, after a day of filming, an actor with me asked to stop the car," Weaver recalled. "He said, 'I'm sorry but I must get out here and say a prayer.' We got out at the gates of this horrible camp and looked at it. An unspeakable emotion fell upon us. For there the grass is always green because of the bodies buried there."
Shortly before “Holocaust” was broadcast, the cast and crew gathered in New York City to watch the 9 1/2-hour film in its entirety. "It was terribly emotional," Weaver said. "I cried and cried. We all did." He described the message of the film as showing "what man does to his fellow man—that cannot be forgotten, ever." Then he added, "There's another [message], too. And that is hope. For at the end of this film, after the destruction and horror, and pain, the Jews survived. Man survives. There is hope. And that must not ever be forgotten either."
“Holocaust,” which was based on a novel by Gerald Green, earned a remarkable 49-percent share of the viewing audience, meaning that it was viewed by approximately 120 million Americans. It was the most-watched Holocaust-related television program in history, and the second most-widely viewed of any television show, after the previous year's "Roots," ABC's miniseries about slavery and its aftermath.
The broadcast of “Holocaust” stirred public sympathy for Israel and stimulated opposition to President Jimmy Carter's plan to sell advanced jet fighters to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In the end, however, the sale was narrowly approved by Congress.
The new public interest in Holocaust-related issues provided an important boost to efforts by U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (D-N.Y.) to facilitate the deportation of suspected Nazi war criminals from the United States. Soon after the broadcast, Congress passed a long-stalled Holtzman bill authorizing the government to deport or exclude immigrants who engaged in Nazi war crimes or who participated in "the persecution of any person on account of such person's religions, race, or national origin."
In addition, Holtzman was able to secure the first-ever congressional appropriation, of $2 million, for the Justice Department's thinly staffed and underfunded Nazi War Crime Litigation Unit.
Also at Holtzman's instigation, the House of Representatives agreed to hold hearings to determine connections between Nazi war criminals and the FBI, the CIA, and the Defense Department. The hearings shed light on the role of those government agencies in bringing Nazis to the U.S. after the war in order to hire them for research and espionage.
“Holocaust” was filmed in Germany and Austria. "One day in Vienna, I took a break from filming and walked around the block," Weaver recalled. "I had forgotten I was wearing old baggy clothes and the Star of David on my sleeve. And then I noticed people staring, their mouths dropping as I went by, as if I were a scene from years ago that had come back to haunt them." When “Holocaust” was broadcast in West Germany in January 1979, it stirred a nationwide debate and attracted a viewership of 20 million, approximately half the population.
“Holocaust” won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Limited Series, and Streep and two of the other actors also won Emmys. Weaver, Feldshuh, and three others were nominated, but did not win.