There are many moments in “The U.S. and the Holocaust” – the new six-hour, three-part documentary by Ken Burns and his team at Florentine Films – when you can scarcely believe what you are seeing or hearing.
That Hitler’s antisemitic policies were influenced by Jim Crow laws in the South.
That antisemitic white supremacists in Congress were at the forefront of keeping refugees out of America.
That U.S. military officials didn’t want soldiers to know about the extent of Jewish persecution, fearing they wouldn’t fight very hard if they knew they were meant to be rescuing Jews.
That by war’s end, despite unsparing news coverage of their slaughter, only five percent of Americans wanted to loosen immigration quotas.
The matter of whether America lived up to its ideals – as a welcoming nation of immigrants – is the bedrock question explored in this haunting documentary, which will air over three nights on PBS, beginning Sept. 18.
In story after story, document after document, image after image, we see how countless European Jews might have survived had it not been for the role played (or not played) by American officials and individuals who were not only hostile to immigrants in general, but antisemitic, indifferent, willfully ignorant, even fearful of antisemitic reprisal.
We learn about breathtaking indecisiveness and bureaucratic red tape at the highest levels of government, and a Rogue’s Gallery of influential antisemites, including industrialist Henry Ford who, we learn, “blamed Jews for everything from Lincoln’s assassination to the change he thought he detected in the flavor of his favorite candy bar.”
There is Breckinridge Long, the nativist State Department official in charge of visas who worked “every which way to prevent Jews from coming into this country,” Deborah Lipstadt tells us. (Lipstadt, the respected Holocaust historian who was an advisor on the film as well as a commentator, is now the U.S. Special Envoy to Combat Antisemitism.) “When people are desperate to get out,” she said, “he is amongst those helping to create the barriers.”
And we see what, in hindsight, reads as a monumentally bad judgment call in the Executive Office. When news reached America that Hitler was planning to systematically eliminate all Jews on the continent, Jewish Americans begged for America and its allies to stop the killing. But President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his commanders were convinced the only way to save the Jews was to crush the Nazis.
“The mantra was, ‘We’ll rescue these people by winning the war,’” said Lipstadt. “The problem was – and many people knew this and certainly within government circles – by the time the war would be won, very few of these people would be alive.”
Any act of rescue was seen to be a diversion from the war effort, according to Lipstadt. “Both could have been done at the same time but clearly, nobody wanted these people. It is not one of the things that will go down in the long annals of good things Americans did.”
Some of these good things are reflected in the film, including inspiring acts of righteousness and courage. Journalist Varian Fry ran an illegal rescue network in France that saved at least 2,000 people from the Nazis; among those rescued were philosopher Hannah Arendt, and artists Piet Mondrian and Marc Chagall. Prominent rabbi Stephen Wise and his followers organized a massive anti-Nazi rally in 1933 at Madison Square Garden. Jewish war veterans led a march to New York’s city hall advocating for a worldwide boycott of German-made goods.
The film underscores that between 1933 and 1945, the U.S. admitted some 225,000 refugees from the Nazis, “more people than any other sovereign nation,” Ken Burns said in a telephone interview. “But if we’d done five times that amount, we still would not have done enough. We’d get an F, a failing grade.”
This is not the first time the subject of America’s response to the Holocaust has been brought to the public on television. The 90-minute documentary, “America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference” by Cambridge filmmaker Marty Ostrow broke this ground on the PBS series “The American Experience” in 1994. It even featured a shockingly obscene 1940 memo by Breckinridge Long advising consuls to restrict immigration policy by putting “every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone and postpone in the granting of visas.”
Much scholarly work has been written on this subject, as well. Why, then, do Americans persist in celebrating their ideals as a welcoming refuge for the “huddled masses” when, as an historian in the Burns documentary makes clear: “The exclusion of people and shutting them out has been as American as apple pie.”
The documentary was a seven-year undertaking by the prolific Burns (“The Civil War,” “Baseball,” “Jazz,” “The National Parks,” among others); and collaborators Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein. As Burns tells it, part of the goal of making the film was to undo misconceptions about the U.S. and the Holocaust, and reveal the nuances and complexity.
He said his team had been mulling over the idea of such a film for some time, but in 2015, they were approached by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum which was preparing an exhibition on the subject. The Museum suggested a collaboration and led the filmmakers to historical material, scholars, and even particular survivors.
Among them are such extraordinary storytellers as 100-year-old German survivor Gunther (Guy) Stern, who arrived in America as a boy in 1937 without his family, and labored in vain to save his parents and siblings; and Eva Geiringer Schloss, who was a neighbor and schoolmate of diarist Anne Frank in Amsterdam before both were deported to Auschwitz.
“We wanted to tell as complete a story as we could tell,” Burns said. “If there was new scholarship, we wanted to know about it. If there were new images to be found, we wanted to find them. If there were new ways to structure the story and to calibrate the desperately terrible footage, we wanted to do that.”
“The U.S. and the Holocaust” bears many familiar trademarks of a Ken Burns production – the earnest scholarly talking heads; the deeply affecting interview subjects; the treasure trove of historical documents; the hypnotic, rhythmic pace; the heart-wrenching photos and film clips; the evocative music.
“The pace and rhythm of the music informs how we tell our stories,” he said. “Most people add music at the end of the finished process. We begin with it. We never score our films. When we talk in the editing room we talk in musical terms: Wait an extra measure. Wait an extra beat.”
The film is not unlike an orchestra,” he said, in that it takes many different elements to create the work of art. “The cinematography. The third person words.
The first person words. The sound effects – all of those in combination.”
Much of this film’s power lies in the unembellished presentation of devastating facts, such as the detail that two out of three of Europe’s 9 million Jews perished during the Holocaust.
“The number six million people is opaque to most people, it means nothing,” Burns said. To convey the magnitude of the atrocity, “saying two-thirds were killed is better than saying six million, right? It becomes like an amputated limb. You are able to wonder: What was their potentiality? Which gardens did they not tend, which children did they not love?”
Or, as Eva Schloss explains, “You couldn’t even commit suicide [in Auschwitz.] You had no string. No pills or anything, you know.” And: before the Holocaust, there was no word to describe mass extermination of a race of people. The word “genocide” was invented in 1944 by a Polish Jewish lawyer.
What is Burns’ goal for the film?
“Just to tell a good story,” he said. “Maybe to have people vote and preserve our democracy, because the alternative is unacceptable and this story is one of the alternatives. We have to remember that many of the things we find abhorrent in Nazism we also share, like antisemitism, nativism, and anti-immigrant xenophobia.”
The U.S. and the Holocaust” airs Sept. 18, 20 and 21 on PBS stations, at 8-10 p.m. ET, and all three episodes will be available to stream for free starting Sept. 18 on PBS.org and the PBS Video app.
Matchan can be reached at email@example.com