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Rachel Deblinger, Author

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Media: Television

By the early 1950s, television became the newest technology for American Jewish communal organizations looking to communicate the stories of survivors to the American public.

This is Your Life: Hannah Block Kohner

On May 27, 1953, Hannah Bloch Kohner became the first Holocaust survivor to be featured on national television when the story of her survival under Nazism and subsequent immigration to America was documented on This is Your Life. Hannah's story was depicted as all other stories on This is Your Life: significant people in her life waited off stage and surprised Hannah as the host, Ralph Edwards, narrated each turn in her journey. For Hannah, Edwards described her refuge in Amsterdam followed by her deportation to Westerbork, Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Mathhausen. Throughout the show, Hannah was reunited with other survivors, like her friend Eva, and her brother, whom she had not seen in a decade. Although Edwards detailed her grim experiences under Nazism, Hannah repeatedly exclaimed, "Oh, isn't this wonderful" as she was reunited with friends. When her brother was brought on stage, Hannah began to cry and exclaimed, "This is the happiest day in all my life."

The odd juxtaposition between Hannah's life story and her exuberance on screen offered dual narratives - one of the Holocaust and one of survival. This tension is exemplified in a charm bracelet that Hannah was given as a souvenir: it marked each stop along her journey from Czechoslovakia to America. At the end of the show, Edwards asked the listening audience to donate to the United Jewish Appeal to help the millions of people who suffered like Hannah, but didn't yet have a happy ending.

With this appeal, Edwards highlights Hannah's fortune - her marriage and her immigration to America. As Edwards asserted, "The never to be forgotten tragic experiences of your life, Hannah, have been tempered by the happiness you’ve found here in America.” Hannah's story is thus shaped to be one that celebrates the American dream as an antidote to the Jewish persecution under Hitler.

Hannah's Legacy
In the years since, her story has served as inspiration for Holocaust education, but the nature of Holocaust testimony has changed so dramatically since 1953, that the manufactured presentation of Hannah's experiences feel unusual. And, the explicit announcement of a happy ending seems unfinished.

This feeling was explored in a 2010 episode of This American Life, "Oh You Shouldn't Have," that explored Hannah's story as a guest on This is Your Life. The reporter harshly questioned the impulse to tell a Holocaust story through the This is Your Life model and in particular called into question the "Holocaust Charm Bracelet."
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