The Holocaust was perhaps the greatest humanitarian crisis in world history. What the U.S. did and didn’t know and do about it is the subject of a Ken Burns documentary upcoming on PBS.
“The U.S. and the Holocaust,” a three-part, six-hour film airing Sunday through Tuesday, Sept. 18-20 (check local listings), examines the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism in Germany in the context of global racism and anti-Semitism, the eugenics movement in the United States and race laws in the American South.
Through accounts of Holocaust witnesses and survivors, interviews with historians and writers, the film challenges the myths that Americans were either ignorant of the persecution of Jews and other minorities in Europe or they looked on with callous indifference.
Directed and produced by Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein and narrated by Peter Coyote, the documentary also tackles questions that are relevant today pertaining to how racism influences policymaking with regard to immigration and refugees and how governments are responding to the rise in authoritarian states that manipulate history and facts for their own ends.
“You know, it’s been very eerie to see the echoes of the past echoing louder and louder and louder throughout the time that we made the film,” Novick explains. “And like Ken (says), every film we make reverberates in the moment that we’re in, but this one, particularly so, has been operating on many levels, in terms of the fragility of our democracy … .
“And the resurgence of anti-Semitism and white supremacy and racism and hate speech, that have been sort of on the fringe, moving toward the mainstream, while we’re making the film, has made our relationship to the material, and the story we’re telling, and the kinds of questions we’re asking, just get sort of louder and more powerful for all of us.”
The film points out that at the time Americans and the government did respond to reports of Nazi atrocities on the radio, in newspapers and newsreels by organizing protests, boycotting German-made goods and even taking in Jewish refugees, a total of 225,000, more than any other nation.
But unfortunately, notes Burns, hatred and persecution of other peoples is a theme throughout history, one that persists today.
“The Old Testament … said, ‘what has been will be again, what has been done will be done again.’ There is nothing new under the sun, which seems to suggest that human nature doesn’t change, and that all of the positiveness of human nature, all of the generosity is met by an equal amount of greed. All of the puritanism is met by an equal amount of prurience. We are slaves to the human nature.
“And as filmmakers working just in American history and that provincial slot,” he continues, “we constantly come over the echoes and the rhymes of history again and again and again. And it becomes our obligation when faced with information to see whether you can escape … the specific gravity of these things that we have always done and will probably always do.”