Ken Burns Explores America’s Inaction During the Holocaust

“The U.S. and the Holocaust,” coming to PBS Sept. 18, examines the reasons behind the country’s inadequate response to Germany’s persecution of Jews.

By Joseph Berger – NY Times

“A new documentary about the Holocaust opens with photos of perhaps the most familiar faces from that dark chapter of history: those of Anne Frank and her family, whose story has been read or seen by millions around the world.

So why would a six-hour film that offers fresh illuminations about America’s response to the Holocaust begin with such well-worn images? The answer is likely to surprise even those who know all about the arrest and eventual deaths of Anne, her sister and their mother. Their deaths, the documentary argues, were also a stain on the United States and the foundational myth of its benevolent open door for “huddled masses” of immigrants and refugees.

As recounted in “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” Ken Burns’s latest deep dive into America’s past, Otto Frank tried desperately to seek sanctuary in the U.S. for his family “only to find,” the narration says, “like countless others fleeing Nazism, that Americans did not want to let them in.” Seeing no other recourse, he arranged for the construction of the Franks’ ill-fated hide-out in Amsterdam.

Premiering on Sept. 18 and airing over three nights on PBS, “The U.S. and the Holocaust” aims to upend other longstanding historical assumptions as well, and also draw a thematic line connecting past tragedies and current struggles.

It highlights the racism and antisemitism that was laced through the nation’s purportedly democratic institutions and led to their inaction in response to Germany’s persecution of Jews. Modern footage points up how these failings stubbornly endure. This includes clips from the 2017 white-supremacist rallies at Charlottesville, Va., where marchers chanted “Jews will not replace us,” and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, where rioters sported pro-Nazi emblems like a much-discussed Camp Auschwitz sweatshirt.

“It’s been very eerie to see the past echoing louder and louder throughout the time that we made the film,” said Lynn Novick, who co-directed and produced the film with Burns and Sarah Botstein.

A German policeman checks the identification papers of Jewish people in Poland, circa 1941.
A German policeman checks the identification papers of Jewish people in Poland, circa 1941.Credit…National Archives in Krakow, via PBS

The film also foregrounds parallels between America’s past and present hostilities toward immigrants and refugees.

“We remind people that it’s important that these impulses are not relegated to a past historical event,” Burns said in a telephone interview. “It’s important to understand the fragility of our institutions and the fragility of our civilized impulses.”

True, as the documentary chronicles, for a good portion of its history the U.S. took in millions of Irish fleeing famine, Jews fleeing pogroms and Italians fleeing poverty. But a fierce backlash against unrestricted immigration arose in the late 19th century abetted by a specious eugenics movement that downgraded entire nationalities and racial groups as potential pollutants of the American gene pool.

Lady Liberty’s golden door shut to Chinese laborers in 1882, then, with the watershed 1924 immigration act, to people from Eastern and Southern Europe and virtually all Asians. (A telling statistic: While 120,000 Jews immigrated in 1921, five years later the number dwindled to 10,000.) During World War II, first European refugees seeking to escape the murderous Nazi juggernaut were denied entry, then the skeletal survivors of the concentration camps.

Pieces of this story have been told in books, including David S. Wyman’s “The Abandonment of the Jews,” about the American government’s failure to rescue imperiled refugees; Daniel Okrent’s “The Guarded Gate,” about the genesis and impact of the 1924 immigration law; and David Nasaw’s “The Last Million,” about the treatment of displaced persons after the war. Burns and his team weave those threads into a seamless whole.

The story is enhanced by many trademarks of the Ken Burns aesthetic: haunting and substantiating film clips and photographs, plaintive music, lucid reflections from scholars, testimonies from engaging witnesses, personal letters read by actors like Meryl Streep. The erudite script was written by Geoffrey C. Ward.

The stories by survivors who were children in the 1930s are particularly poignant, told with an air of lingering disbelief that such horrors could happen in the 20th century.

Guy Stern, a 100-year-old scholar of German literature, recounts how, as a teenager, he was sent by his desperate German-Jewish parents to St. Louis, where he lived with an aunt and uncle while he searched for someone willing to sponsor the family’s entry into the country, a requirement of immigration laws at the time. The one person who agreed to put up the necessary $5,000 was a gambler, so immigration authorities rejected him as financially unstable. At the war’s end, Stern learned that his parents, brother and sister were deported to the Warsaw Ghetto and died there.

From left, Günther and Werner Stern, with their mother, Hedwig.
From left, Günther and Werner Stern, with their mother, Hedwig. Credit…Guy Stern, via PBS

The filmmakers sought to emphasize the story’s ambiguities and complications, Burns said. For one thing, the U.S. let in more Jewish refugees than any other country‌ — roughly 200,000 between 1933 and 1945 — the result partly of efforts by rule-benders like the journalist Varian Fry and the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, whose clandestine dealings were financed by the War Refugee Board, under the direction of John W. Pehle.

The documentary, which was inspired by an exhibition on the same topic at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, also softens somewhat the unfavorable portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt drawn by many historians for having done little to rescue Jews and stop the slaughter.

Focusing on two of the better known critiques, it suggests Roosevelt was restrained from admitting the over 900 Jewish refugees on the passenger ship the MS St. Louis because of the quotas legislated by an immigration-resistant Congress. And drawing up plans to bomb the rail lines to Auschwitz would have been wasteful, one featured historian contends, because bombing was highly inaccurate and the Germans were able to replace damaged tracks overnight.

Despite pleas from his wife, Eleanor, and from Jewish leaders, Roosevelt chose to devote his attention to defeating the Axis.

“The U.S. and the Holocaust” undermines the frequently heard rationale that Americans in the 1930s did not know how ugly the persecution of Jews had become. It offers newsreels and newspaper headlines that trace how Americans saw or read about random attacks by Nazi thugs and punitive laws that targeted Jewish-owned business and denied Jewish citizens access to parks and theaters. It notes that the restrictions emulated Jim Crow race laws in the American South.

But the majority of Americans, encouraged by antisemitic voices like those of the radio preacher Father Charles Coughlin, the automobile magnate Henry Ford and the lionized aviator Charles Lindbergh, scarcely altered their views, even after Kristallnacht — the brutal “Night of Broken Glass” in 1938 — during which 1,400 synagogues were torched, hundreds of Jewish businesses ransacked and at least 91 were killed.

State Department mandarins, particularly Breckinridge Long, devised or rigorously enforced immigration hurdles that required letters from sponsors, exit visas and transit visas and payments of thousands of dollars. Even well-connected people like Otto Frank could not assemble all the paperwork in time.

In a video interview, Botstein noted that the survival of those who made it to America validated a well-known quote by the journalist Dorothy Thompson: “For thousands and thousands of people, a piece of paper with a stamp on it is the difference between life and death.”

Americans continued to oppose loosening immigration even as Hitler overran Europe and herded Jews into ghettos, then turned to systematic murder with so-called Einsatzgruppen — mobile killing squads — and human slaughterhouses like Treblinka.

The film includes a radio dispatch by Edward R. Murrow, from December 1942, that described the campaign in plain language. “What is happening is this,” he said. “Millions of human beings, most of them Jews, are being gathered up with ruthless efficiency and murdered.”

But such revelations failed to sway most Americans or their government. Two of every three of Europe’s estimated 9 million Jews would perish.

Even after the war ended and newsreels showcased American liberators stunned at encountering walking skeletons and piles of corpses, antisemites in the State Department and Congress continued to resist. As a result, tens of thousands of Jewish survivors idled in spartan displaced persons camps into the 1950s even as Nazi collaborators in Ukraine, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia were admitted because they were considered dependably anti-Communist.

Making the film left its creators with feelings of both anger and sadness. Burns reflected on “all the symphonies that weren’t written, all the great literature that wasn’t written, all the children that weren’t raised right with love.”

From left, Ester, Bronia and Shmiel Jäger in Poland, circa 1939. They sought to move back to the U.S., but by then there was a 10-year waiting list.
From left, Ester, Bronia and Shmiel Jäger in Poland, circa 1939. They sought to move back to the U.S., but by then there was a 10-year waiting list.Credit…Mendelsohn Family, via PBS

Botstein is the daughter of Leon Botstein, the orchestral conductor and president of Bard College, whose parents lost most of their relatives in the war. She was surprised by “how little I knew or understood of the family history until I made this film.”

For the writer Daniel Mendelsohn, who appears in the film, the feelings were even more intimate. He tells the story of his great-uncle Shmiel Jäger, a butcher who in 1912 left his village of Bolechow, then in eastern Poland, for America along with Mendelsohn’s grandfather and other siblings. Disenchanted with the squalor of the Lower East Side, Jäger returned within a year. With the rise of antisemitism in the 1930s, Jäger sought to move back to the U.S. but there was by then a 10-year waiting list of Poles seeking visas, and Jäger, his wife, Ester, and four daughters got snared in the Nazi extermination maw.

“All those people you just saw — I would have known those people,” Mendelsohn said at an event to promote “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” referring to photos of his relatives that appeared in the documentary. “Some of them would have been alive today. And the reason they’re not alive is because the United States basically did its absolute utmost to make it as difficult as possible for Jewish refugees to escape the maelstrom that was engulfing them.”

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