Documentary explores the United States' role in the Holocaust

Documentary explores the United States’ role before, during and after the Holocaust

The Statue of Liberty seen from Ellis Island, circa 1930. (Courtesy of Library of Congress). Ken Burns explores the United States’ role in the Holocaust.

Ken Burns and his team of filmmakers have a way of weaving together powerful stories.

Yet, when it came to the latest project, “The U.S. and The Holocaust,” it just felt different.

Ken Burns

“I feel this so strongly in my bones,” Burns says. “There will never be something more important than this film. It speaks to us in the present and tells a hidden history of this world event.”

The three-part series from Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein explores the Unites States’ role before, during and after the Holocaust. The first episode will air at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 18, on New Mexico PBS, channel 5.1. It will also stream on the PBS Video app. The second episode airs at 7 p.m. and 9:10 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 20, and the third airs at 7 p.m. and 9:10 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 21.

Former prisoners of Buchenwald concentration camp, in Germany, are pictured in the wooden bunks where they slept. (Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration)

Burns says the series is inspired in part by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibition and supported by its historical resources, the film examines the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism in Germany in the context of global antisemitism and racism, the eugenics movement in the United States and race laws in the American south. The series, written by Geoffrey Ward, sheds light on what the U.S. government and American people knew and did as the catastrophe unfolded in Europe.

The series combines first-person accounts of Holocaust witnesses and survivors, and interviews with leading historians and writers.

It helps dispel competing myths that Americans either were ignorant of the unspeakable persecution that Jews and other targeted minorities faced in Europe, or that they looked on with callous indifference.

The film tackles a range of questions that remain essential to our society today, including how racism influences policies related to immigration and refugees, as well as how governments and people respond to the rise of authoritarian states that manipulate history and facts to consolidate power.

A German policeman checks the identification papers of Jewish people in the Kraków ghetto in Poland. Circa 1941. (Courtesy of National Archives in Krakow)

“History cannot be looked at in isolation,” Burns says. “While we rightly celebrate American ideals of democracy and our history as a nation of immigrants, we must also grapple with the fact that American institutions and policies, like segregation and the brutal treatment of Indigenous populations, were influential in Hitler’s Germany. And it cannot be denied that, although we accepted more refugees than any other sovereign nation, America could have done so much more to help the millions of desperate people fleeing Nazi persecution.”

Novick says in a statement that exploring this history and putting the pieces together of what we knew and what we did is a revelation.

“During the Second World War, millions of Americans fought and sacrificed to defeat fascism, but even after we began to understand the scope and scale of what was happening to the Jewish people of Europe, our response was inadequate and deeply flawed,” Novick says. “This is a story with enormous relevance today as we are still dealing with questions about immigration, refugees and who should be welcomed into the United States.”

“The U.S. and The Holocaust” features a fascinating array of historical figures that includes Franklin D. Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh, Dorothy Thompson, Rabbi Stephen Wise and Henry Ford, as well as Anne Frank and her family, who applied for but failed to obtain visas to the U.S. before they went into hiding. This unexpected aspect of the Franks’ story underscores an American connection to the Holocaust.

The film also looks at American policy on topics ranging from Calvin Coolidge’s staunch anti-immigration ideology to FDR’s Lend-Lease bill, and how these fights took shape on the home front, including the emergence of Nazi sympathizers. Some of America’s most well-known leaders, such as Lindbergh and Ford, were also among the most vocal antisemites. Similarly, new light is shed on many of the well-known controversies surrounding the American response to the Holocaust, including the dreadful story of the more than 900 Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis, who were denied entry to Cuba and the U.S. in 1939 and forced to return to an uncertain fate in Europe.

“At the center of our narrative is the moving and inspiring first-hand testimony of witnesses who were children in the 1930s,” Botstein says. “They share wrenching memories of the persecution, violence and flight that they and their families experienced as they escaped Nazi Europe and somehow made it to America. Their survival attests to the truth of the remark made by journalist Dorothy Thompson that ‘for thousands and thousands of people a piece of paper with a stamp on it is the difference between life and death.’ ”

Burns and the team felt that this story had to be told.

“There are lots of films on the Holocaust,” Burns says. “By channeling through what America did and didn’t do or should have known, you get a clear and focused view. What we’ve done is put together compelling stories to add to the narrative. We have to remember that the liberty we enjoy is not to be taken for granted. It can disappear and it requires vigilance to stay in place. We don’t realize how fragile the institution is.”

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