Growing up in Israel, Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, meant putting on a black t-shirt and getting on a school stage to sing a sad song like Yehuda Poliker’s “Flower” or recite a heart-wrenching poem, the most famous of which is Dan Pagis’ “Here Sealed in this Train Car,” which is immortalized on the walls of Yad Vashem.
These Holocaust remembrance ceremonies are an almost mechanic part of the act of never forgetting in Israel. To some, they feel rote — but to me, art has always been the best way to connect with the story of the Holocaust, even as a granddaughter of survivors.
This week marks the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Holocaust memory is fraught here in America, where Holocaust education is lacking, books about its memory — from “Anne Frank’s Diary” to “Night” — are getting banned in public schools across the country, and antisemitism feels at a frightening high, with visuals that feel reminiscent of that dark chapter of history.
Yet American Jewish creators are finding new ways to keep the promise of never forgetting — with compelling television that teaches and touches on the Holocaust in ways that go beyond the staid biopic or documentary.
In the first half of 2023 alone, we’ve gotten three shows that poignantly touch on Holocaust stories. In January of this year, to very little fanfare, we got a titillating and surprisingly powerful final season of the Amazon Studios show “Hunters,” which follows a fictional group of Nazi hunters, created by Jewish grandson of survivors David Weil.
Earlier this month, we got a new, incredible limited Netflix series from Anna Winger, the creator of “Unorthodox,” which itself touched on Holocaust memory in present day Berlin. Her new series, “Transatlantic,” retells the story of Varian Fry and the ERC, the precursor of the modern day IRC, which helped rescue over 2000 anti-Nazi refugees from Europe — including Marc Chagall and Hannah Arendt.
And next month, “A Small Light” from Hulu/Nat Geo/Disney+ will be premiering. Jewish filmmaker Susanna Fogel is involved in the production of the show, and it stars Jewish actress Bel Powley as a non-Jewish Holocaust heroine, Miep Gies, the Austrian Dutch secretary who helped hide her boss, Otto Frank, and his family, including daughter Anne, in that secret annex in Amsterdam.
A show based on the incredible book “We Were the Lucky Ones” is also slated to come to Hulu sometime soon, directed by Jewish “Hamilton” director Thomas Kail, who is also working on an upcoming “Fiddler” movie. It tells the unlikely story of survival of one family.
These shows aren’t focused on the usual Holocaust imagery we’re used to — barbed wires, concentration camps, emaciated Jewish bodies, the kind of visuals that have almost been fetishized at this point. These shows also don’t give us an idyllic World War II narrative about American heroism versus Nazi evils. They don’t romanticize Nazis or make them more relatable or likable. They do give us heroes that are human and flawed.
In “Transatlantic,” we see a secular Jewish hero who comes face to face with his Jewish identity for the first time because of the Holocaust: Austrian Jewish refugee Albert Hirschmann, who helped smuggle fellow Jews out of Europe into America. On the beaches of Marseilles, to which he has escaped, he is faced for the first time with Jewish observance. We get to see a young Hannah Arendt, a stateless Jew; we hear in her pain the echoes of the fear we feel now as Jews, feeling like your home isn’t your home anymore because of your Jewish identity. These characters, young people in the 1940s, are made relevant and real through this show. Their loss is palpable.
In “Hunters,” we get a fictional Holocaust revenge story that features an intersectional band of spies and fighters that include survivors and grandchildren of survivors, fighting to eradicate the world of Nazis hidden in plain sight. These badass survivors are played by the likes of Jennifer Jason Leigh and Carol Kane.
In “A Small Light,” we get a new way into the story of Anne Frank, with Otto Frank played by Liev Schrieber, one of the greatest actors of our time.
“Transatlantic” offers us a queer hero too scared to live his truth. Watching it at a time when hatred against queer people in this country is virulently high adds another layer of significance.
Seeing Carole Kane’s character speaking about what the Holocaust has robbed from her in an Eichmann-like trial; seeing Albert Hirschmann talk about how he has no one; seeing Otto Frank fight for his family — these shows make a decades-old tragedy feel so tangible and near.
Neither “Transatlantic” nor “A Small Light” center Jewish characters, and there’s something to be said about the fact that we choose to elevate these voices of gentile Holocaust heroes — and what it says about who these shows are made for — but it doesn’t make the stories told any less powerful.
All these shows had moments that made me feel seen as a Jew, that connected me with the past and the present. And to have them available on the biggest streaming services in the world feels noteworthy and validating.
Let me be clear: None of these shows are an alternative to Holocaust education, and none of these shows should be taken as a work of nonfiction. But in the same way that you would Google an actor you like, these shows might be an in for their viewers to further explore the real history that they’re based on.
Never forget is a statement full of many meanings, and these shows remind us that we should honor them all. They offer us a reminder of what happens when we let antisemitism go unchecked. And they offer us a fresh lens to an oft-told story, a way to remember that doesn’t feel cobwebbed, one where we can immerse ourselves and find connection with these characters.