One dark chapter in history left an indelible mark on filmmaker Sarah Botstein’s family. She showed correspondent Susan Spencer an old family photo: “This wing of the family all died in the Holocaust,” she said. “They died in the ghetto, of typhus. They were killed in a killing center. They died in all the different ways that the Jews in that part of the world died.”
So, it was a deeply personal experience for Botstein to work on a documentary about the Holocaust with Ken Burns, famed for such series as “The Civil War” and “The Vietnam War.” Spencer asked, him, “So much has been written about the Second World War or about the Holocaust. Why did you even want to take another look?”
“Seeing it through the lens of the United States helps us, I believe, understand the Holocaust itself in a much different, and perhaps fresher, perspective,” Burns replied.
Their film, seven years in the making and airing on PBS later this month, is entitled, “The U.S. and the Holocaust.” In painstaking detail, Burns, Botstein, and their partner Lynn Novick unravel how America reacted to this humanitarian catastrophe.
As one subject says in the documentary, “We tell ourselves stories as a nation. One of the stories we tell ourselves is that we’re a land of immigrants. But in moments of crisis, it becomes very hard for us to live up to those stories.”
To watch a trailer for “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” click on the video player below:
Burns told Spencer, “We failed. You know, we let in more human beings than any other sovereign nation. But if we’d done ten times that many, I think we would have failed. And it’s a failure at every level. It’s a failure in the executive. It’s a failure in the legislative branch. It’s a failure in media. It’s a failure in the general population.”
In the film, narrator Peter Coyote explains: “Many white Protestant Americans came to fear they were about to be outnumbered and outbred by the newcomers and their offspring, that they were being ‘replaced.'”
The documentary cites shocking national polls to make the point. In 1938, just two weeks after Kristallnacht – a night of terror when Nazis attacked and murdered Jews across Germany – only one in five Americans (21%) said the U.S. should admit more Jewish exiles. The following year, that number was even smaller, one in ten.
Spencer asked Novick, “Was this because of a lack of information?”
“We cannot blame America’s lack of action on not knowing,” Novick replied. “There was a great deal of coverage in the newspapers of what Hitler was doing as the situation got worse and worse and worse; deportations, mass killings, thousands of refugees trying to get out, lines at consulates. All this was known.”
But instead of opening our doors, we shut them ever more tightly, said Novick, who partly blames widespread American xenophobia. Celebrity aviator Charles Lindbergh was the face of it: “He was an icon. He was a hero. They had songs about him. And he really believed a kind of ugly, anti-Semitic, white supremacist ideology that the Nordic race should prevail. He said these things. Americans clapped.”
Spencer said, “One thing that has been cited in this discussion has to do with the context when this all happened. The Depression was going on at the time, among other things. There was a lot of leftover isolationism from World War I. Does any of that, in your mind, give America a pass?”
“I can’t give America a pass on what happened and what we failed to do,” Novick replied. “But I can definitely appreciate the challenges and difficulties that our leaders faced.”
Burns said, “We did not play a role in the murder of the Jews; we just did not do enough as a good people to get the people on the edge of this cataclysm out. And that is on us, on us, and will forever be on us.”
Sharp limits on immigration had been in effect since the mid-1920s, when quotas were set for each country. During the war, a State Department official named Breckinridge Long enforced those restrictions with gusto.
Novick said, “He also assiduously worked to sort of suppress information about the true nature of the Nazi threat to the Jewish people of Europe. So, reports came across his desk that he should’ve passed on to other people that he just buried.”
“Reports such as extermination as a policy?” asked Spencer.
Botstein said of America’s bureaucracy, “We made it hard, technically, to get here – paperwork, visas, affidavits, sponsors. I mean, you can appreciate now how hard it is just to renew your passport. And you’re now stateless. You’re in a country that’s been taken over. We made it very onerous and hard to get here.”
Novick showed Spencer case files that tell the story of World War II refugees desperate to get to America. Among them, a household name.
Botstein said, “When we started to make the film, it came to our attention that Anne Frank’s family had tried to get to America, a fact that I did not know.”
“I don’t think most Americans know that!” said Spencer.
Novick said, “We all know Anne Frank; everybody knows Anne Frank. And to think that she could be here talking to you right now if America had had a different immigration policy, that tells you something.”
“You believe that?”
“I absolutely believe that. I absolutely believe that, yeah.”
By 1945, two out of every three European Jews had been murdered. Yet even then, only five percent of Americans wanted to let more refugees in, while more than a third said we should admit even fewer.
“That’s after you’ve seen the horrific images of the liberation of the camps and the bodies piled up and the emaciated people,” said Novick. “That is a tough pill to swallow. Very tough pill to swallow.”
Spencer asked, “Are you worried that people will interpret this as sort of indicting our nation, if you will?”
Novick replied, “I don’t see this at all an indictment. I really don’t. I think we’re really truly trying to just tell the story of what happened.”
“It’s not shaming America,” said Botstein. “It’s thinking about how to do better.”
Spencer asked Burns, “At the very end, there’s this montage, with no narration: Charlottesville, a ‘Build a Wall’ rally, a report of attack on a synagogue. What did you intend to convey with that montage?”
He replied, “There is, right now, all of the elements coalescing for something bad to happen again.”
“You felt a sense of urgency growing?”
“I feel a sense of urgency. We’re not trying to equate anything with the Holocaust; that would be a horrible thing to do. We’re just saying, ‘Let’s not get there again, as human beings. Please. Let’s not get there again.”
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Story produced by Amiel Weisfogel. Editor: Carol Ross.