I take This American Life for granted and often it can seem too familiar and predictable. Some of the more famous voices on the show grate on me, and the giggles, awkwardness and teenager-y cuteness can feel contrived; sometimes I just want them to sound like grownups. Yet, not so rarely they come through with something pretty great that you wouldn’t hear elsewhere. Jogging the other day I listened to this pretty amazing piece about a few episodes of This Is Your Life from the 1950s that brought the show’s usual approach to the challenging realm of atrocity survivors. TIYL was of course a hugely popular show with an audience of many millions; it was hosted by Ralph Edwards, who also taught Sunday School and was one of those 1950s reassuring voices of a benevolent status quo.
The This American Life piece (btw, it occurs to me that the show’s name must be indebted to This is Your Life — duh, I guess) is about a couple of jaw-dropping episodes in which Edwards brought (under false pretenses — guests were almost always surprised) on the show, to be confronted by friends and associates from their past, first, a Holocaust survivor (according to This American Life host Allison Silverman, the first person to discuss her experiences in the camps on American television), second, a Hiroshima survivor. The first one:
“This is your life, Hanna Bloch Kohner.”
Oh, disturbingly, yes. In May 1953 Edwards surprised Hanna Bloch Kohner, whose apparent dismay at having her life story told could have had something to do with the fact that a lot of her life was a staggering nightmare.
“Can I say, Ms Kohner, that looking at you, it’s hard to believe that during 7 short years of a still short life, you lived a lifetime of fear, terror and tragedy. You look like a young American girl just out of college, not at all like a survivor of Hitler’s cruel purge of German Jews.”
Hanna Bloch Kohner is a Holocaust survivor, although the word Holocaust wouldn’t commonly be used for another eight years.
As Silverman goes on to explain, Kohler goes through the usual This is Your Life series of surprises, although the people she’s confronted with are not grade-school buddies or teachers but, for example, the friend with whom she went through Auschwitz. The combination of Edwards’ patriarchally plummy tones, the 50s Hollywood game-show setting, and Kohner’s descriptions of her experiences in the camps (narrated in her pronounced Czech-Jewish accent) is just surreal and incredibly bizarre, like a George Saunders story, really. Silverman’s best line is in regards to a promotional piece of jewelry presented to Kohner for appearing on the show; as Silverman quips, “it must be hard to design a Holocaust charm bracelet.”
The piece then discusses another TIYL episode, this one featuring Hiroshima survivor Kiyoshi Tanimoto. As part of his big surprise, he gets to meet… Robert Lewis, one of the co-captains of the Enola Gay, who dropped the bomb that killed on the order of 100,000+ of Tanimoto’s friends and family. Awkward, to say the least. Lewis seems like a wreck. Apparently he and Tanimoto kept in touch after the episode.
The episodes can certainly seem from our perspective to be in unbelievably poor taste, but as Silverman suggests, they were important in bringing this material to a U.S. mass audience in a sympathetic and basically respectful manner. And both Kohner and Tanimoto seemed to have been very pleased with their episodes, regularly showing visitors the 16 mm. video they were given as a memento (I believe Kohner actually toured with the film to raise awareness).
A clip from the Kohner episode of This Is Your Life is on Youtube, I’ve just realized, check it out. Also here’s a Der Speigel article about Kohner.