I had never written about the Holocaust. In fact, my knowledge of concentration camps was limited to, as a kid, seeing a documentary on the liberation of, if memory serves, Buchenwald and to my Catholic parents trying, fruitlessly, to explain the horror I was watching on my TV screen.
Flash forward to 1988: in New York, working with Bruce Paltrow and the Tinker brothers on our new series Tattinger’s.
One night, I was at dinner with a couple my age, friends from Westchester. The wife, a bright and articulate woman, began to talk about how her parents had survived Duchau and how, to her eternal frustration, they refused to speak of their lives back then. She described her guilt, growing up free and happy, complete with Beatles and bubblegum, while her parents’ youth, dark and terrifying, was totally unknown to her.
The next day, I mentioned all this to Noel Behn, the novelist, who had spent time exploring the camps in preparation for a book he’d written, "The Shadowboxer". I asked Noel if he’d co-write an episode of Tattinger’s with me about the children of the Holocaust. Noel agreed, but with a warning: "This way lies despair!"
We started doing intensive research: I read the books Noel assigned, we screened archival footage and went to a convention in New Jersey, where we met the sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors, each with their own unique and compelling story.
Over the many weeks that Noel and I worked on the script, something happened to me. Something that had never happened before -- I lost myself .
In the one hundred or so hours of television I had written up to that point -- stories dealing with abortion, testicular cancer, autism, homelessness, Salvadoran death squads, Ethiopian famine -- I had never become so emersed in a subject, so utterly uninterested
in my own day-to-day life. As I wrote and real life faded, I became sullen, testy, suspicious and afraid. The deeper I dug, I found more and more layers of evil. Pure and repulsive evil.
Ultimately, the evil turned on me and asked, not only "Would you let this happen?", but, far worse, "If some men are capable of such atrocities, aren’t all men?" And, worst of all, "Are you?"
As we shot the episode (called "Broken Windows" with Uta Hagen and Maria Tucci in the guest leads), I began to emerge from the dank hole of isolation, the gloom dissipated and I could "do lunch" again.
Meanwhile, Tattinger’s was on the brink of cancellation. Brandon Tartikoff announced that we could only air ten of the eleven episodes we’d already filmed. Bruce left the decision up to me and so, instead of ending the series with a screwball comedy episode that I’d co-written with John Tinker (called "Screwball"), I chose "Broken Windows" as our finale.
NBC had other ideas. The executives-in-charge wanted something light and funny. So, we did the honorable thing: we lied. We told the network that we couldn’t possibly get "Screwball" out of post in time.
Ironically, "Broken Windows" was the only episode of Tattinger’s that went up in the ratings at the half hour.
I am proud of "Broken Windows", which very few people saw and which no one in the business even noticed. Of course, maybe that’s why I’m so proud.
Or maybe because instead of trying to transport the viewers, I was myself transported. I experienced the ultimate rush of being a writer -- I was carried away by the truth.
Books by Noel Behn
- The Kremlin Letter, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1966
- The Shadowboxer, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1969
- Brink’s!, W.H. Allen, London, 1977
- Seven Silent Men, Arbor House, New York, 1984
- Lindbergh: The Crime, The Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 1994