Ken Burns’ ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ Looks at What Was Done, and What More Could Have Been Done

Ken Burns’ ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ Looks at What Was Done, and What More Could Have Been Done September 17, 2022

Man in the 1940s signs a document.
Franklin Roosevelt in Washington, D.C., November 9th, 1943. Photo credit: Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

In understanding The U.S. and the Holocaust, airing Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday, Sept. 18, and 20-21, on PBS, the new production from Ken Burns’ Florentine Films, it helps to remember that the sweep of history is long, and humans are complicated creatures.

Depending on when, where or what you’re talking about, we could all be bullied or bullies, victim or perpetrator, oppressed or oppressor. We could all, always, do better — and when we didn’t or don’t, it’s good to know why.

Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Judged … By Future Historians

These days, especially among activists, academics and the media, it’s fashionable to focus on America’s sins and discount her virtues.

It would do well for these people to remember that the harsh judgment they impose on the past and present may (and probably will) be one day applied to them by a future generation that sees itself as even more enlightened.

Taking a clear-eyed, balanced approach to the sins and successes of the past is the best course. To Burns’ credit, his Florentine Films tries to do this in its productions — as in this one on Benjamin Franklin — tempering justified outrage with context and understanding.

How The U.S. and the Holocaust Views History

While acknowledging America’s sacrifices and courage in turning the tide of World War II, the film admits that the nation’s attitude toward taking in large numbers of Jewish refugees from Europe was, at best, ungenerous, and at worst, openly hostile.

At the same time, the speed, scale and ferocity of the Nazi slaughter of Jews and others in the Holocaust proved difficult or even impossible for many Americans to comprehend or accept — until they saw it with their own eyes.

Florentine go-to narrator Peter Coyote returns. Voice actors include Liam Neeson, Matthew Rhys, Helena Zengel, Paul Giamatti, Meryl Streep, Werner Herzog, Joe Morton, Hope Davis and Bradley Whitford.

NOTE: The three-part documentary recently changed its air schedule to take a break on Monday night to clear the way for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. PBS is re-airing Sunday’s premiere episode on Monday, after BBC coverage carried on many PBS stations. Episodes debut at 8 p.m. ET/PT (check local listings for time and channel in your area).

What Ken Burns Has to Say

As Burns said to ABC News, regarding The U.S. and the Holocaust:

Well, let’s just be very clear that we have nothing to do with the Holocaust itself. There is no complicity in that. We did bring in 225,000 refugees, more than any other sovereign nation, but, Phil, we could have done five times that much and still just fulfilled the horrifically small quotas. We just didn’t do enough when it was important.

The reason why is because much of the animating ideas of Hitler’s regime are also held by many Americans. We are a nation of immigrants; we do believe in welcoming people. For a long time we did welcome people, but there was a backlash to that.

We’d let in too many Catholics, they said, too many Jews…there was a danger that they would “replace us.”

And so you see America in the 1930s, beset by a Depression, but also susceptible to authoritarian and media figures who are blaming everything on the Jews, that the Jews are controlling the Roosevelt administration and the media, and that they shouldn’t be duped.

Now, for the Rest of the Producers

Joining Burns as directors and producers on the project are fellow Florentine filmmakers Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, who joined me for a conversation about the film. Below are excerpts from that.

On where the project began:

NOVICK: In 2015, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum had been planning an exhibition that opened in 2018, called Americans in the Holocaust. And they approached us to see if we would be interested in making a documentary on the same topic.

Ken and Sarah and Jeff Ward, our writer, and I all immediately sort of said, “That’s an amazing idea for a film.

Two women flank a man.
(L-R) Sarah Botstein, Ken Burns, Lynn Novick

“We thought about these issues, we’ve talked with some of the central questions and other projects, but we’ve never made this question the focus of a documentary.”

So, we just immediately said, “Yes, we’ll do it.” We had other projects already in the works, so we couldn’t truly get to work on it in a serious way right away.

So, they planned their exhibition that opened in 2018. That’s around the same time we really got started full-time working on this.

And, it gave us a chance to get acquainted with the subject over several years before we dove in.

We worked very closely with the museum staff, the curator of the exhibition, and their research team, to get our arms around the topic and also to identify a lot of the archival material.

But, our film is separate from their exhibition, but we definitely collaborated with them and derived a lot of knowledge from what they had been doing.

On finding the balance between America’s positive and negative actions:

BOTSTEIN: That’s why we make films about the subjects we make films about, because you’re holding those two notions at the same time. Always, that things are complicated and not as they seem, and you can’t oversimplify anything.

And I think, for me, that’s why it’s important to make films about history.

NOVICK:  … It’s a particularly challenging idea I think for Americans, for many Americans to really digest, because we have this idea of American exceptionalism and therefore, and especially when you’re talking about World War II, we think of ourselves as the heroic liberators. And so how do we hold that idea with…

BOTSTEIN: The humanitarian crisis in the military narrative? And those two things are not the same.

NOVICK: Right.

On hindsight being 20/20:

The film also tries not to give easy answers to questions and takes into consideration that people in the midst of the 1930s and ’40s didn’t have the benefit of our decades of hindsight.

NOVICK: Sarah always says this, but in a documentary film, you have the opportunity to have conflicting or diverging points of view about the same event. So for example, in this one of the big topics of discussion since the ’60s, anyways, whether America should have bombed Auschwitz to stop the killing there.

People ask us all the time, if we’re going to deal with that in the film, and of course, we do, and we have different points of view on that in our film. So, we leave it to the audience to try to fill in or answer that very hard question. Was there one right answer? Maybe there is no right answer. There are no good choices here, that sort of thing.

And I think that’s very gratifying when you’re making a film. And you’re able to include not right or wrong points of view, but just different perspectives.

On capturing first-person stories before they are lost to time:

BOTSTEIN: Time is certainly running out to collect and present the stories of people who lived through this time. Everyone that we talked to, who are now in their 80s and 90s, were children during the ’30s and ’40s. So, we recognize that, in not-too distant future, there won’t be people left who can bear witness in the way that they do. So that does feel particularly urgent.

All the people in the film pretty clearly understand that they want their stories to be told. They want the world to understand what it was like to live through that time as a child and the horrendous experiences that they and their families went through.

In that sense, it feels like the window’s closing on that, kind of telling this kind of story in this way. And there’s just this sort of no substitute, frankly, for this kind of first-person testimony.

On including Anne Frank’s famous Diary of a Young Girl and her family’s story in the film:

NOVICK: By connecting the story we’re trying to tell, which is of partly people trying to escape and get to a safe haven, which could have been the United States, to [the knowledge] that Anne Frank’s family was among the hundreds of thousands of people who didn’t escape, who had tried, we thought would be a very powerful way to, right away, have our audience understand we’re going to be looking at a story that perhaps you thought you knew, but now you’re going to see it differently.

Here’s a preview:

Image: Photo credit: Courtesy of National Archives and Records 

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About Kate O'Hare
Based in Los Angeles, Kate O'Hare is a veteran entertainment journalist, Social Media Content Manager for Family Theater Productions and a rookie screenwriter. You can read more about the author here.
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