New Documentary on American Response to Holocaust Debuts Tonight on PBS

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“The US and the Holocaust,” a new three-part documentary directed and produced by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein about America’s response to the Holocaust, premieres tonight at 8 p.m. ET on PBS. Parts two and three will be broadcast on Tuesday, September 20 and Wednesday, September 21.

The series was inspired in part by an exhibit, “Americans and the Holocaust,” at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. According to PBS, “it examines the rise of Hitler and Nazism in Germany in the context of global anti-Semitism and racism, the eugenics movement in the United States, and racial laws in the American South. The series, written by Geoffrey Ward, sheds light on what the American government and the American people knew and did as the catastrophe unfolded in Europe.”

It also includes interviews with historians and writers, and personal stories of Holocaust witnesses and survivors. According to PBS, it “dispels myths that Americans were either ignorant of the unspeakable persecution faced by Jews and other targeted minorities in Europe, or that they watched with heartless indifference. The film addresses a range of questions that are still essential to our society today, including how racism affects immigration and refugee policies, as well as how governments and people respond to the rise of authoritarian states that manipulate history and facts to to consolidate power.”

One of the little-known stories to come to light in the documentary is Anne Frank’s family’s application to get a visa to the United States before hiding out in Amsterdam, an attempt that ultimately failed. It also examines the vocal anti-Semitism of Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford; the story of the 900 Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis, which was denied entry to Cuba and the US in 1939 and eventually sent back to Europe; and the debate over the possible bombing of Auschwitz by the Allies.

According to PBS, while some 200,000 Jews eventually found refuge in the United States, thousands more were denied entry when the US tightened its borders to refugees. Senator Robert Reynolds of North Carolina said, “If it were up to me, today I would build a wall around the United States so high and so secure that no alien or foreign refugee from any country on this earth could ever scale. or mount it.”

The topicality of the documentary is underlined by writer Daniel Mendelsohn, who discusses the story of his family in the film. “The Institutions of Our Civilization” [are] under enormous stress. The fragility of civilized behavior is the only thing you really learn, because these people, who we see in these sepia photos now, are no different from us. You look at your neighbors, the people at the dry cleaners, the waiters at the restaurant. That’s who these people were. Don’t kid yourself,” he warns.

“History cannot be viewed in isolation,” Burns said. “While we rightly celebrate American ideals of democracy and our history as an immigrant nation, we must also grapple with the fact that American institutions and policies, such as segregation and the brutal treatment of indigenous peoples, were influential in Hitler’s Germany. And it cannot be denied that while we have accepted more refugees than any other sovereign country, America could have done so much more to help the millions of desperate people fleeing Nazi persecution.”

In a recent interview, Burns said he never expected to make a documentary on a “more important subject than this. It represents the worst of humanity,” and may also set us “on our guard” against today’s rising anti-Semitism.

The documentary, he added, will help viewers “realize the loss of potential from those who aren’t there. The amputated limb of humanity still aches and pains.”

He said he originally planned to release the documentary next year, but decided to speed up its release because of “the need to show people what happens when you allow conspiracies.”

“It’s been a revelation to explore this history and put together the pieces of what we knew and what we did,” Novick said. “During World War II, millions of Americans fought and made sacrifices to defeat fascism, but even after we began to understand the scope and magnitude of what happened to the Jewish people of Europe, our response was inadequate and deeply flawed. This is a story that is extremely relevant today, as we are still dealing with questions about immigration, refugees and who should be welcome in the United States.”

“At the center of our story is the moving and inspiring firsthand testimony of witnesses who were children in the 1930s,” Botstein said. They share heartbreaking memories of the persecution, violence and flight they and their families experienced as they escaped Nazi Europe and somehow reached America. Their survival bears witness to the truth of the comment 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.’”

The broadcast of “The USA and the Holocaust” will be accompanied by educational materials for middle and high school classrooms prepared by PBS Learning Media, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Holocaust education experts.