What Is the Point of Such Inhumane Programs? On Magdalena Saryusz-Wolska’s “Microhistories of Memory”

Harry Waksberg reviews a new book about a German television series about the Holocaust, written by Magdalena Saryusz-Wolska.

What Is the Point of Such Inhumane Programs? On Magdalena Saryusz-Wolska’s “Microhistories of Memory”

Microhistories of Memory: Remediating the Holocaust by Bullets in Postwar West Germany by Magdalena Saryusz-Wolska. Berghahn Books. 244 pages.

IN 1960, A NEW miniseries aired on German television: Am grünen Strand der Spree (translated from here on as Through the Night). Through the Night was called a “Straßenfeger,” or “street sweeper,” a show so popular that the streets were empty while it aired. Adapted from a popular novel by Hans Scholz, the series is about a group of friends in West Berlin who begin getting together over drinks to share stories of their experiences during World War II. In its debut episode, a character reads from the diary of a soldier who witnessed a massacre near Orsha, in what’s now Belarus. Viewers then see a recreation of the actual historical event: in 1941, a ghetto of Jews there was murdered by soldiers (mostly and possibly entirely SS), their bodies dumped into a pit. This kind of mass murder was common around Europe as Germany and its collaborators were still figuring out what to do with all these Jews they’d rounded up; it is now commonly called “the Holocaust by bullets.” According to a new book by Magdalena Saryusz-Wolska, this “was probably the first scene in film [or television] history to include an SS man ordering and overseeing a mass execution of Jews.” Thus, the Holocaust arrived on television and changed the medium. Perhaps more significantly, television arrived in Holocaust historiography and changed its memory culture forever.

Microhistories of Memory: Remediating the Holocaust by Bullets in Postwar West Germany (2023) is Saryusz-Wolska’s entry in Berghahn Books’ Worlds of Memory series. Saryusz-Wolska uses extensive research into the “media complex” of Through the Night—the 1955 novel, its 1956 radio adaptation, the 1960 miniseries, and their afterlife—to discuss what it has meant to the larger project of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, reckoning with the past. In so doing, she hits on a fascinating insight: that because of the medium’s intimacy and ephemerality, television has a powerful but intermittent impact on memory culture. Television can make something seem deeply significant for a short burst of time but cannot guarantee that it will remain in the public consciousness. Unlike other Holocaust memorials, televised ones don’t stick around long enough to become memes.

Through the Night was no exception, despite its popularity. Contemporaneous data suggests that about 83 percent of West Germans with televisions watched the series when it aired. This is an extraordinary rate of viewership, though, according to Saryusz-Wolska, somewhat in line with other war-related programs at the time. (With only one program at a time available to watch, the options were “TV” or “something other than TV.”) There was, however, a remarkably varied critical and audience response to the show, which told its own story of how the Holocaust was being perceived at the time. One newspaper review praised its realism, noting that the show “delivered pictures that no one can avoid, because they virtually scream out historical truth in the most brutal, barely bearable form.” But others pushed back against the show, complaining that media should “finally stop publicly leafing through Germany’s book of guilt.” And of course there was out-and-out denialism. A letter to the broadcaster read:

I and the overwhelming majority of soldiers who fought in the east and endured unspeakable things have not become aware of even one act or excess against the Jews … But you must not present the excesses against the Jews in a way as if it had been something commonplace that every German soldier more or less dealt with.

Over time, the lie that the Holocaust was mostly hidden from German soldiers would be proven increasingly egregious.

For many Germans who had fought in the war or were otherwise engaged in the nation’s genocide project, there was a deep-seated culture of silence. Some felt shame or guilt; others worried that they would face social repercussions. For many, the silence persisted because their social spheres included other men who also knew what they had seen. They felt no need to discuss it openly because it was understood without saying, they thought. A show like Through the Night only served to make clear what they felt needed no explicit discussion. But to a new, younger generation, the images they saw only made their fathers seem like liars. The silence they’d been cultivating had become, over time, a way of allowing denialism to fester.

Similar debates would take place about 20 years later. In 1978, NBC aired Holocaust, a four-part miniseries that included depictions of Kristallnacht, the mass murder of the mentally and physically disabled, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the gas chambers, and the massacre of Jews at Babyn Yar. When it aired in Germany in 1979, the effect was tremendous. Broadcasters were attacked by terrorist explosives when they announced they’d be airing it. Some opposition came, unsurprisingly, from neo-Nazi groups; others objected to an American television version of the story of the Holocaust. As Masha Gessen recently wrote in The New Yorker, “Germany has long regulated the ways in which the Holocaust is remembered and discussed.” The result is that events ranging from NBC docudramas starring Meryl Streep to Oscar speeches opposing genocide in Gaza have become part of what Gessen calls the “Holocaust memory wars.” The NBC series ends with a survivor smiling at the prospect of smuggling refugee children into Palestine. This television beat was only one early instance of a trend that has led to Germany’s current repressive attitude toward any criticism of Zionism. It’s beyond ironic that writing about this element of Germany’s memory culture led to Gessen nearly being refused an award named after Hannah Arendt.

Each episode of Holocaust was followed in Germany by a roundtable discussion with historians and included a call-in number so viewers could ask clarifying questions. Many younger viewers were apparently shocked to learn what had happened: their understanding of the Holocaust was that it had been exaggerated and possibly falsified by British propagandists. According to a broadcaster quoted in the 2019 documentary How Holocaust Came to Television, none of the previous portrayals of the Holocaust on German TV, including Through the Night, had the effect Holocaust did in drawing the German public’s attention to the events portrayed.

It’s hard to explain exactly what the deal is here, but Saryusz-Wolska addresses the waxing and waning effect of these series on the public consciousness. She cites memory studies scholar

Aleida Assman’s

terms “storage memory” and “functional memory” to describe the parabola that TV series, especially older ones, constantly ride. Whereas storage memory is “memory that is invisible because [it is] ‘stored’ in rarely used cultural texts, images, or practices,” functional memory is “memory that is visible and used to support collective identities.” Events and artifacts may cycle back and forth. Memes are great at making this happen; think about how in the past two decades everyone memorized a William Carlos Williams poem published in 1934. “This Is Just to Say” went from functional memory to storage memory and back again.

Immediately after airing, Through the Night was a significant part of German functional memory; it helped facilitate difficult conversations about the events of World War II and the Holocaust (and, apparently, about the West Berlin media class to which the protagonists belonged). But not long after, the series entered storage memory: available for rediscovery by historians and freelance writers but no longer part of popular consciousness. Its disappearance from the cultural radar was exacerbated by the absence of frequent reruns or physical media. By 1979, it was mostly forgotten—until the time came to draw comparisons with Holocaust. The latter series would in turn become storage memory until the arrival of newer shows, such as the 2013 German miniseries Generation War.

In promoting his excellent movie The Zone of Interest (2023), director Jonathan Glazer said he was working against Holocaust cinema that “shows the perpetrators as almost mythologically evil.” One wonders what depictions of the Holocaust would look like if they built on previous attempts to demystify the Nazis, in a way that the functional/storage memory cycle may, unfortunately, make difficult.


There’s another interesting parallel between Through the Night and Holocaust that’s worth noting. In Through the Night, the massacre at Orsha is recounted through a series of diary entries read aloud by one of the main characters, but it’s not his own diary. Lepsius, the man sitting in the bar in Berlin with his friends, is quoting from the diary of Jürgen Wilms, whom he met in a prison camp. Wilms didn’t himself participate in the massacre—he only witnessed it. This removes the audience several degrees from the action, like a story deep in 1,001 Arabian Nights: a genocide is being committed, and a German soldier witnesses it, writes about it in his diary, and shares that with another soldier, who then reads it aloud to a new group of men; those at home then watch this story being recounted and acted out.

Holocaust is similarly full of moments of witnessing. Characters frequently admonish each other to look at one atrocity or another, or to look away. The series’ main Nazi character, Dorf, comes upon the Babyn Yar massacre first as an administrator brought to watch some logistical problem-solving; he is ultimately peer-pressured into more direct participation. When Jews in Auschwitz are killed in a gas chamber, we watch a Nazi watch them die through a vent—but for once, the audience is spared the sight. There are two contradictory effects of this emphasis on watching such events: even as it removes some culpability from the characters (particularly in the case of Through the Night), it also makes all of us viewers into witnesses. Wilms may have come across the Holocaust by accident, but we invited it into our living room.

In the process, our understanding of what took place is inevitably changed. In How Holocaust Came to Television, one media studies student points to an image of a train from Holocaust and says, “I no longer know whether I have seen it in documentary film material or whether I just know the scene from the series. Our perception of history is primarily made up of cinematic images.” This observation demonstrates one of Elie Wiesel’s complaints about that miniseries, made in The New York Times upon its first airing. Calling a fictional series “Holocaust,” he wrote, results in “a work of semi-fact and semi-fiction. Isn’t this what so many morally deranged ‘scholars’ have been claiming recently all over the world? That the Holocaust was nothing else but an ‘invention’?” I doubt that Holocaust deniers would point to series like Through the Night or Holocaust as evidence that the Holocaust didn’t happen, but it’s unquestionably true that what we see on TV can become a part of our functional memories.

This awareness of TV’s memorializing power may be the reason so many series choose to include actual documentary footage. There isn’t any in Through the Night, but Holocaust includes quite a bit, as does the 1959 TV drama Judgment at Nuremberg. When it originally aired on CBS, the network, incredibly, bleeped out the term “gas ovens” to avoid upsetting show sponsors, American Gas, Inc. This production was introduced by Telford Taylor, one of the actual prosecutors at Nuremberg. His appearance, and some explicit footage of concentration camps, “gave the telecast an atmosphere of authenticity,” according to John P. Shanley of The New York Times, who also called the show a “semi-documentary.”

Despite the drawbacks of attempting to present the Holocaust on primetime, Judgment at Nuremberg also seems to have served much of its intended purpose. For images of concentration camps to be telecast on CBS at 9:30 p.m. represented a significant intrusion of the Holocaust into TV viewers’ homes. As Shanley noted, “even a brief view of [concentration camps] necessarily made all the other dramatic elements in this production seem unimportant.” While Holocaust, too, had and has detractors critical of its soap-operatic tenor, many agree that criticizing the miniseries as television art takes nothing from its importance as an imparter of history. A letter written by a viewer to Through the Night’s director exemplifies the ambivalence about this kind of television content: “[A]t that time [the early 1940’s] I was still too small to understand all that. Only through television can I really ‘experience’ the war. What is the point of such inhumane programs?” She may have gotten the point.


Through the Night’s framing story—several men sitting around a table in a bar—touched on something else a younger generation would have trouble grasping. Saryusz-Wolska indicates that this atmosphere allowed the characters to speak openly about their experiences without fear of judgment. She quotes Holocaust historian Thomas Kühne, who writes, “Veterans wanted to tell and be told by others, orally and face to face.” Within the show, the characters shared their experiences in a space that was comfortable for German veterans. But the show itself had the opposite effect, dragging dirty laundry directly into viewers’ living rooms for whole families to see.

Those who survived the Holocaust as victims did not necessarily share the desire to have these conversations. For a variety of complicated reasons, some Jews took years to be able to speak about what had happened to them. Eva Kor was a survivor of Auschwitz; with her twin sister Miriam, she had been subject to Josef Mengele’s torture program. After liberation, she married and moved to Terre Haute, Indiana, where she didn’t share what had happened to her. It was only decades later, when Holocaust aired on NBC and local stations interviewed Kor about her experience in the Holocaust, that she began to speak up. She and her sister started connecting with other twin survivors of Mengele, creating an international survivors’ network. Hers is only one of the countless stories of survivors who began to talk once the world had more context to understand what they were saying.

In 1961, the publishers of the Through the Night novel wrote to the network to encourage a rerun of the series, a year after it first aired. Their justification was that a new TV series about the Holocaust had just been broadcast and it might renew interest in Through the Night. That series was the trial of Adolf Eichmann, and it captivated viewers around the world. Here again, the Holocaust was televised in the form of narrative testimony. Survivors described their experiences, making witnesses of everyone watching. Leo Hurwitz’s work directing the footage changed attitudes about survivors, according to his son Tom. Particularly in Israel: “The survivors of the Nazis—once seen as tattooed strangers, muttering to themselves on street corners in Tel Aviv—now began to be looked upon with more compassion.” (Many still live in poverty.) This was still television, however. As Hannah Arendt noted in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), the US broadcast was “constantly interrupted […] by real-estate advertising.”

Being television, it also required a kind of tidy ending. Like any good courtroom drama, the bad guy got convicted. To again quote Tom Hurwitz in the Times, “[My father’s] brilliant coverage individualized Eichmann and steered viewers away from a more historical view. The work of studying fascism could not compete with the satisfaction of blaming a villain and imagining that the problems could be solved with his sentencing.” If it was shocking at the time that Through the Night was so comfortable making a villain of German soldiers, it was still other German soldiers. Not Lepsius, with whom we share a drink; not even quite Wilms, who merely witnessed a massacre and diarized about it. Dorf, the main Nazi character in Holocaust, is a planner and perpetrator of violence against Jews. He shoots Jews in a massacre at Babyn Yar; portraying a central character enacting this kind of murderous violence was extremely rare on television. Saryusz-Wolska writes that “while the account of the Orsha massacre undoubtedly pushed the boundaries of what ‘could’ be said, it also had to be defined by those very boundaries.” This description applies to much of television: defined by what it can and cannot bring into your home, even as it changes what you’ll allow yourself to watch.

Magdalena Saryusz-Wolska has written an impressive and in-depth history of this media complex. If she occasionally gives more detail than may be necessary (repeated discussion of broken typewriters lost my interest), her comprehensive account of the remediating impulse feels timely, particularly in the wake of renewed debates over the politics of representing Holocaust atrocities on screen. As far as I could find, it is the best and only book on this topic that has been translated into English (and smoothly, by Alexander Simmeth). While her book is largely academic, it also tells an engaging story of how popular understanding of the Holocaust changes not just as programs air but also as they move into and out of functional memory. The boom of television drama development coincided with the beginning of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, and as soon as the two streams touched, they changed one another forever.

LARB Contributor

Born and raised in New York, Harry Waksberg has written extensively about film and television for a variety of online sources. He worked in various low-level positions in the Los Angeles TV industry after college, then moved back to New York. He is currently working on a book about the history of television piracy and is attempting to take a picture with every statue of a television character (most recently: Kermit the Frog at the University of Maryland).


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