Ambitious Holocaust documentary presents a better story than the movies


Immigrants wait at Ellis Island for transfer October 30, 1912. (PBS/ Library of Congress)

“The Jews will not replace us.” In one of the most shocking and ugly displays of anti-Semitism in recent US history, in August 2017, a staunch group of white men, wielding Tiki torches, chanted the phrase as They marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, home of the University of Virginia, which Thomas Jefferson founded in 1819.

“America and the Holocaust” reminds us of these distressing attitudes that are deeply embedded in American consciousness, and this animosity toward the Jewish people has complicated and dampened our efforts to stop Nazism and save European Jews from the Holocaust. Six million Jews between 1941 and 1945.

A vital but artistically unsatisfying story, the six-hour documentary, directed and produced by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, and written by Geoffrey Ward, will air in three parts on September 18, 19 and 20.

After documentaries such as “Muhammad Ali” (2021) and “Country Music” (2019), this presentation continues the PBS tradition of presenting a film by prolific documentarian Burns and his collaborators to inaugurate its fall television season.

The Statue of Liberty seen from Ellis Island (PBS/Library of Congress)

The Statue of Liberty seen from Ellis Island (PBS/Library of Congress)

Burns is co-directing and producing the film with frequent collaborator Novick. Often working on Burns films as a producer, Botstein again filled that role but also co-directed, her first time in that capacity.

Actor and octogenarian Peter Coyote (“Benjamin Franklin”) returns for the 11th time as the narrator of a Burns film. Notable actors, including Adam Arkin, Meryl Streep, and Paul Giamatti, also voice historical figures.

Informed by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibit, “Americas and the Holocaust ‘deconstructs the myth that the Statue of Liberty is always waiting for newcomers with her lamp up’ next to the golden gate!” as Jewish poet and refugee advocate Emma Lazarus wrote in her 1883 poem “The New Colossus” which appears on a plaque inside the statue’s pedestal.

Our history, documentary filmmakers rightly claim, tells a different story. “Excluding people and excluding them has been as American as apple pie,” says Northwestern University history professor emeritus Peter Hayes. At the beginning of the 20th century, a wave of immigration shaped this nativism.

“Excluding people and excluding them has been as American as apple pie.”
—Peter Hayes

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In 1910, the documentarians note, New York’s Jewish population was more than 1.25 million of the city’s population. As the ranks of newcomers to America grew, early 20th century Americans such as birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, Alexander Graham Bell, and Helen Keller embraced eugenics.

Rooted in the fear that darker people would replace the white race, this supposed science believed that a superior race could be created by discouraging Jews, black people, gays and lesbians, gypsies and people with intellectual disabilities. to have children.

Gaining traction after Germany’s humiliating defeat in the Great War, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party enthusiastically embraced eugenics, which informed their persecution of Jews.

The documentary refutes the common misperception that Americans were not well informed about Nazi atrocities. American newspapers, the documentarians note, published 3,000 articles during the first 100 days of the Nazi regime (Hitler was appointed German Chancellor on January 30, 1933, but became der führer, or “the leader”, only in August 1934).

Rabbi Stephen Wise organized America’s first mass rally against the Nazis, which drew 55,000 demonstrators to Madison Square Garden on March 27, 1933. This was a decidedly minority opinion, however. A 1938 poll, according to historian Daniel Greene, found that 66% of Americans believed the persecution of Jews was their fault.

The anti-Semitism of prominent Americans such as Catholic priest Charles Coughlin and aviation hero Charles Lindbergh undoubtedly influenced these attitudes. Like many Americans of that time, “Lucky Lindy” was an isolationist, who became the leader of the America First movement and waged, Ward writes, “a bitter 27-month struggle” to keep us out of Second World War.

Less than two months before America entered the war, on September 11, 1941, Lindbergh gave an infamous speech in Des Moines, Iowa, which blamed “the British, the Jews [sic] and the Roosevelt administration” for dragging the United States into war. Due to his incendiary rhetoric, Liberty Magazine called the hero “the most dangerous man in America”.

Immigrants carry baggage, Ellis Island, New York.  (PBS/Library of Congress)

Immigrants carry baggage, Ellis Island, New York. (PBS/Library of Congress)

The filmmakers highlight Lindbergh’s role in promoting anti-Semitism, but they should have given Coughlin more attention.

In a 1994 PBS American Experience film, “America and the Holocaust,” director and writer Martin Ostrow says Coughlin “was the most influential anti-Semite.”

Donald Warren, author of Radio Priest: Charles Coughlin, the father of hate radiocommented in a 1996 C-Span interview that at his peak in the 1930s, the Michigan priest drew an audience of 30 to 40 million people – a quarter to a third of the American population – to his show Sunday afternoon radio

Anti-Semitism, the filmmakers observe, has also influenced public policy and government inaction, which has hampered efforts to rescue refugees.

Partly in reaction to Jewish immigration and passed in 1924, the Johnson-Reed Act imposed strict quotas and required visas on immigrants from Eastern Europe aspiring to resettle in America. Given the demand and the limited number of visas, the wait to obtain one, without outside intervention, would have probably taken 11 years, according to the documentarians.

According to the filmmakers, the State Department’s anti-Semitism has created an additional barrier for these desperate souls. Embodying these attitudes, Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long oversaw the visa program. Serving in Congress for 50 years, Jewish lawmaker Emanuel Celler said of him, “The storm swirling brings little comfort to men like Breckenridge Long.”

Despite mounting pressure to do more to help refugees, the Franklin Roosevelt administration resisted changing the quota system until a Treasury Department investigation into the State Department. Led by Jewish Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, the investigation uncovered long-suppressed reports from Gerhart Riegner of the World Jewish Congress to the department on the German mass murders.

The investigation spawned the formation of the War Refugee Board in January 1944. They backed Swedish businessman Raoul Wallenberg, who was instrumental in rescuing 120,000 Jews in Budapest, Hungary. The documentarians say that the United States took in more Jewish refugees than any other country – 225,000 – during the war, but in their good judgment we could have done better.

“America and the Holocaust” tells an undeniably powerful and important story. The hearing of Eva Geiringer, Anne Frank’s neighbor in Amsterdam, who surprisingly survived the Holocaust, is edifying. But the heartbreaking story of writer Daniel Mendelsohn’s great-uncle lookalike Shmiel, who wasn’t so lucky, haunts.

Yet, especially for veteran observers of Burns’ work, there’s something wrong with the documentary. Mini-biographies of key characters usually provide the iconic moments from Burns’ films. Combining striking photography with music and Coyote’s inimitable soundtrack, this film captivates audiences.

This documentary unfortunately presents few scenes of this resonance. Varian Fry’s story is a welcome exception. On behalf of the Emergency Rescue Committee, the 32-year-old Harvard-educated foreign correspondent arrived in Marseilles, France, in 1940 with “$3,000 in cash strapped to his leg,” Ward memorably wrote.

Working, says Fry, with “his life-saving partner in crime” US Consul Hiram Bingham, they rescued 2,000 refugees, including artists Marc Chagall, Piet Mondrian and philosopher Hannah Arendt.

More narratives like these would have made the movie more compelling. However, the value of “America and the Holocaust” derives from what it teaches.

Nell Painter, professor of history emeritus at Princeton University, sums up the main lesson of the film. In American society, she said, there is “a current of white supremacy and anti-Semitism. It’s a big current and it’s still bubbling.”

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