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 Holocaust, airing 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.
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.]