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Ken Burns on ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’

The filmmaker explains the transatlantic tragedy covered in his new historical series on PBS

TODAY -- Pictured: Ken Burns on Thursday, February 13, 2020 -- (Photo by: Nathan Congleton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Nathan Congleton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Directors Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein and writer Geoffrey Ward, a Parkman Prize-winning historian and five-time Emmy winner, present a scary, important and revelatory story in their three-part, six-hour documentary The U.S. and the Holocaustairing Sept. 18, 20 and 21, 8-10 p.m. ET, on PBS (check local listings). All three episodes stream for free on PBS.org and the PBS Video app

Burns tells AARP that the story of Hitler’s war against the Jews was more complicated than many of us realize, and that America played a role in this history besides helping to defeat him.

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Your documentary includes the haunting image of Otto Frank with his daughters Margot and Anne. Do you think that fans of The Diary of Anne Frank will learn something from this series that they didn’t know?

Definitely. They will learn a lot about her life before the diary began. Her father was desperately trying to get to the United States, and he had the means, he had the money — and he still couldn’t get in. We have a more complete picture of what happened to her and her sister and mother, her father who survived, and her friend Eva Geiringer [one of the Holocaust survivors featured in the series].

I think Americans will be surprised that they are not disconnected [from] the story.

How was the U.S. connected to the Holocaust?

We did let in 225,000 people, more than any other sovereign nation, but that represented basically a fifth of what even our pernicious quota system could have permitted. The 1924 Johnson-Reed Act established minuscule quotas for countries with large Catholic and Jewish populations, and much more for Protestants and northern Europeans. Some people felt that the Jews in Germany had brought it on themselves. [In a 1938 poll, 54 percent of Americans said the persecution of European Jews was “partly their own fault,” and 11 percent said it was “entirely” their fault.]

Bureaucratic officials slow-walked things, moved the goalposts, changed the rules, making it more and more difficult for refugees to come in.

Why?

Based on antisemitic, anti-immigrant sentiment. We’ve tended to see ourselves as sort of isolated from the Holocaust, something that happened an ocean away. But in fact, German jurists studied our Jim Crow laws to fashion the early discriminatory laws against Jews. Hitler was very pleased with the way we had isolated and mistreated the native populations and dispossessed them of their lands, and was planning to do the same with Slavic people to the east. He called it “the wild East,” like the Wild West, and he said the Volga will be our Mississippi, meaning we’ll cross the Volga and create a continental Reich that will last 1,000 years. There were many inspirational things to him about our eugenics pseudoscience that put a hierarchy between races and ethnicities, when, of course, it’s all fiction — there’s only one race, the human race.

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Why did Americans fear immigrants?

Many people were convinced by very well-known antisemites like Charles Lindbergh, Henry Ford and Father Coughlin, who had an audience in the millions, that Jews were evil people. And refugees were changing the complexion of America. The great influx of refugees from 1870 to 1920 caused a backlash and helped create a resurgent Ku Klux Klan, who marched many thousands strong in full regalia on the steps of the Capitol and down Independence Avenue.

The Statue of Liberty is inscribed, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” but not all were welcomed.

It’s a very complicated mixed bag. We start our film with Emma Lazarus’ poem, but we do have Thomas Bailey Aldrich — the editor of The Atlantic Monthly magazine, so he’s not some fringe kind of person — whose poem [“Unguarded Gates”] referred to the “strange tongues” that are coming in, “voices that once the Tower of Babel knew! O Liberty, white Goddess! Is it well to leave the gates unguarded?” I mean, it’s pretty terrifying stuff.  

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Add to that the eugenics, the idea that you could have a hierarchy of races and ethnicities, and you add the Great Depression, and authoritarians come out of the woodwork and suggest that these people will steal your jobs.

Why didn’t we bomb the tracks to Auschwitz? Couldn't we have saved some people that way?

The rail lines could be rebuilt overnight if they were successfully bombed. But you have to understand, 80 percent of all bombs dropped fell far from their intended targets. Auschwitz was accidentally bombed by Americans, when they were trying to bomb the IG Farben synthetic rubber plant more than five miles away, and they missed and hit Auschwitz. It’s a dilemma: Do you bomb Auschwitz? Do you kill prisoners to stop the killing? So this makes it problematic. FDR believes firmly that to win the war is to stop Hitler. And that if you make it for something else, the American public will lose heart. But it’s a very complicated thing. And in order for us to tell this story of the U.S. and the Holocaust, we had to present to our audience a clearer picture of what the actual Holocaust was.

Are there revelations in this story that are relevant to the present?

As Mark Twain is supposed to have said, “History doesn't repeat itself. But it rhymes.” In our film, the Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt says the time to stop a genocide is before it happens. I would say the time to save a democracy is before it’s lost.