The Late Fritz Weaver, Star of Famed ‘Holocaust’ TV Miniseries, Said He ‘Became a Jew’ From the Experience
JNS.org — A recently deceased actor who starred in a widely viewed 1970’s television drama about the Holocaust used to say that his role in the show deeply affected his worldview and, though raised Catholic, he felt that he “became a Jew” through the experience.
Fritz Weaver, who died Nov. 26 in New York City at age 90, appeared in NBC‘s four-part miniseries “Holocaust,” which 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.
In a 1978 interview with the Chicago Tribune printed shortly before the show was broadcast, Weaver said he was “profoundly touched” and “permanently changed” by playing Weiss.
“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 at the time.
Weaver also described a number of instances in which the actors were overcome by emotion and walked off 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.”
“Unlike most films, they did not shoot this one out of sequence,” he told the Tribune. “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.”
Before the miniseries was aired for the public, the cast and crew gathered in New York City to watch the full 9 1/2-hours of footage. “It was terribly emotional,” Weaver said. “I cried and cried. We all did.”
He told the Tribune that the drama showed “what man does to his fellow man — that cannot be forgotten, ever,” but also gave a message of hope. “[A]t the end of this film, after the destruction and horror, and pain, the Jews survived. Man survives…and that must not ever be forgotten either.”
“Holocaust,” which was based on a novel by Gerald Green, was viewed by approximately 120 million Americans, making it the most-watched Holocaust-related television program in history. It won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Limited Series.
The writers and producers of “Holocaust” were recognized by some for breaking ground in Holocaust education by including controversial topics that had received relatively little attention at that point, including Nazi sexual violence and the moral dilemmas faced by members of the Judenrate, or Jewish self-governing councils, which the Nazis established.
The broadcast of “Holocaust” stirred public sympathy for Israel and renewed public interest in Holocaust-related issues, including providing an important boost to the efforts of US Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (D-NY) to facilitate the deportation of suspected Nazi war criminals from the United States. Soon after the show aired, Congress passed a long-stalled bill introduced by Holtzman 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 succeeded in securing the first-ever congressional appropriation for the Department of Justice’s thinly staffed and underfunded Nazi War Crime Litigation Unit. She also instigated House hearings to determine connections between Nazi war criminals and the FBI, the CIA and the Department of Defense. The hearings shed light on the role of those government agencies in bringing Nazis to the US after the war to employ them in research and espionage capacities.
The miniseries also stirred nationwide debate in West Germany, where it attracted a viewership of half the population. Weaver told the Chicago Tribune that, while filming in Vienna, he once “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.”
Weaver’s co-stars included such Hollywood luminaries as Meryl Streep, James Woods, as Weiss’ son Karl, and Tovah Feldshuh, who played a young Jewish partisan fighter. Many of the actors were nominated for Emmy awards — including Weaver and Feldshuh — and Streep won for her role as Karl’s Christian wife, Inga.
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.”
Weaver, a native of Pittsburgh, was a famed Tony Award-winning Broadway actor whose stage roles included Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear.