‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ review: Ken Burns strikes back

One photo shows an immigrant family looking at the Statue of Liberty from Ellis Island.

An immigrant family looks at the Statue of Liberty from Ellis Island, circa 1930.

(Library of Congress)

The US and the Holocaust, Ken Burns’ latest major PBS documentary, is a different kind of film for him in that way – unlike “Baseball” or “Jazz” or “Benjamin Franklin” – it seems very much a reaction to the current being events that are intended not only to commemorate but also as a warning. American nativism, xenophobia, and white supremacy, which the previous president covered up, are reawakening; The Anti-Defamation League saw a 61% increase in attacks on Jewish institutions from 2020 to 2021.

Burns (with co-directors Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein) will make that point clear at the end of six emotionally draining hours — spread across three episodes that air Sunday through Tuesday — but it’s always there, not far from that Surface removes thorough history of American response to Germany’s criminal war against the Jews. The same bad notions of a singular national identity, racial purity, and authoritarian rule still circulate; Then as now, conspiracy theories distort political discourse. This is not Nazi Germany but judging by the news there are some who wished it and from the recent attacks on libraries to the failed coup of January 6th 2021 there are enough echoes. (Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Putin’s imperial Hitler fantasies give the series a separate, casual resonance.)

It has all the hallmarks of a Burns production: the interweaving of personal stories with historical moments; learned commentary by eyewitnesses and historians; an unprecedented wealth of photographs and film clips; a generous yardage; and as always, Peter Coyote narrates. Burns’ measured style – some would call it sleepy – doesn’t always do his subject any favors. (“Jazz” wasn’t very…jazzy.) But in this case, given the elegiac, tragic nature of the material, it feels perfectly appropriate.

There are some happy endings here, but they are overwhelmed by the enormity of the central theme – the act for which the word “genocide” was coined – which many Americans at the time could not or would not believe, and which some still reject. As the Holocaust fades from memory, Burns seeks to make it current and tangible, and strike back at those who would gloss over America’s not always noble past for political agendas or psychological comfort.

Countless volumes have been written on the subject, and more are likely to follow; It’s a complicated business, but also, at least in hindsight, a simple one. The short story is that the United States – not alone among nations – abandoned the Jews of Europe, along with other refugees, when it was best possible to help them, because most of the country simply was not inclined was to let them in, whether out of anti-Semitism or isolationism or a general antipathy to immigration. Heralding newer politicians, Senator Robert Reynolds of North Carolina declared: “If I had my way, I would build a wall around the United States today so high and so secure that not a single extraterrestrial or foreign refugee from any country will show up.” Earth could possibly climb or scale it.”

A black and white photo of immigrants on Ellis Island

Immigrants with luggage, Ellis Island, New York, date unknown.

(Library of Congress)

But Jewish Americans, too, wrote author Daniel Mendelsohn, were “torn between a desire to sound the alarm and a desire not to appear alarmist.” There was, adds historian Deborah Lipstadt, “a legitimate fear that if we talk about it too much, Americans will say, ‘Jews are like this, Jews are sneaky.'”

While the full extent of the Holocaust was not known until later, stories of Nazi persecution of the Jews surfaced almost from the start; Kristallnacht was in the headlines. (Nonetheless, two-thirds of Americans polled believed that the persecution must have been partly or entirely the Jews’ own fault.) And in late 1942, Edward R. Murrow reported that “Millions of people, most of them Jews, are being treated with ruthless efficiency collected and murdered.” We were not groping in the dark.

Burns, who begins “The United States and the Holocaust” at the Statue of Liberty with the welcoming poem by Emma Lazarus, bolsters his narrative of the pre-Hitler years by looking at American immigration rates that favored (and excluded) northern versus southern and eastern Europe Asia at large) and the widespread bunk “science” of eugenics, particularly as articulated in conservationist Madison Grant’s “The Passing of the Great Race,” whose ideas of selective human breeding and racial superiority were picked up by Hitler.

Moreover, Hitler saw his dream of territorial expansion as preordained by apparent American destiny. “The immense internal strength of the United States came from the reckless but necessary act of murdering Native Americans and driving the rest into cages,” he wrote. And German lawyers studied the contemporary Jim Crow laws as a model for their own discriminatory legislation.

Jews had been scapegoats everywhere for centuries. Antisemitism has been normalized in the United States, inside and outside of Washington. (We learn that the State Department was particularly racist, placing obstacles in the way of those hoping to immigrate.) They were expelled from clubs and neighborhoods; Universities set quotas for the number of Jewish students. The Nazi-style paramilitary German-American Bund, which drew 20,000 people to a rally in Madison Square Garden in 1939, called for a “white United States ruled by non-Jews.”

A black and white photo of immigrants on a dock overlooking the New York City skyline

Immigrants are waiting for their transfer.

(Library of Congress)

Henry Ford, we are told, blamed Jews for “everything from Lincoln’s assassination to the change he thought he saw in his favorite candy bar,” and bought a newspaper to publish weekly anti-Semitic smears. Aviator Charles Lindbergh, an international hero, became spokesman for the isolationist America First Committee, claiming that the country was being dragged to war by the British, the Roosevelt administration, and the Jews. “I am absolutely convinced that Lindbergh is a Nazi,” said the president, dubbed “Frank D. Rosenfeld” by fascist sympathizers.

What Roosevelt did and did not do or could have done or could not have done or ought to have done as Chief Executive of the United States to help the Jews of Europe remains a subject of scholarly controversy. While Burns generally agrees, he raises these questions through his commentators while acknowledging the political complications and military challenges the President faced and what he accomplished nonetheless. (He does not fail to note that after the United States entered the war, Roosevelt imprisoned Japanese and Japanese-Americans and restricted the civil rights of other “aliens.”)

There are heroes in this story – diplomats, journalists, businessmen, private organizations conducting relief and rescue operations, people willing to break rules and break laws who cared more about saving a life than a form to fill out, nameless citizens in the occupied countries who helped refugees to hide or flee at risk of their lives. Eleanor Roosevelt was a voice for good in her husband’s ear and on the national stage. Treasury Department officials exposed the State Department’s delay in aid funds and suppression of reports on the Holocaust in a paper entitled “Report to the Secretary of This Government’s Consent to the Murder of the Jews.” Journalist Varian Fry, who smuggled people into Spain from Vichy France – including such celebrities as Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall and Wanda Landowska – wrote home: “It’s stimulating to be outside the law.”

In contrast, it is heartbreaking to see images of families who you know will later die in horrible circumstances; even some escape stories end fatally when the Nazis take over a formerly safe haven. We hear about the ocean liner St. Louis, which left Hamburg for Cuba in May 1939 with 937 passengers; Repelled in Havana, and then by the United States, who had fulfilled their quota, they eventually found refuge (through US mediation) in England, France, Belgium and the Netherlands – but more than a quarter were later murdered by the Nazis. The well-known story of Anne Frank, whose family fled Frankfurt to Amsterdam when Hitler came to power, is movingly told; She is remembered by her neighbor and playmate Eva Geiringer, who would hardly survive an extermination camp. (There is a twist in this story that is the only example of a “beautiful surprise” in the series.)

A black and white photo of rows of people seated in a building with high ceilings.

Immigrants sit on long benches, Main Hall, US Immigration Station.

(Library of Congress)

“The US and the Holocaust” becomes increasingly difficult to watch for obvious reasons – it’s unabashedly graphic – and one physically longs for the arrival of the Allies, the destruction of the Reich, the war crimes trials. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it’s losing viewers night to night, or gaining fewer viewers from the start than a typical Burns project. But I don’t think it was made popular, but out of a sense of mission; in fact it must have been a tough project to live with, especially with the suspicion that the people who need it most need to see it least.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/tv/story/2022-09-16/us-and-the-holocaust-ken-burns-pbs-review ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ review: Ken Burns strikes back

Sarah Ridley

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