The U.S. and the Holocaust Reexamined on PBS

“I feel a sense of urgency. We’re not trying to equate anything with The Holocaust. That would be a horrible, horrible thing to do.  We’re just saying: ‘Let’s not get there again as human beings, please, let’s not get there again.'”Ken Burns.

I was a child when I first met a Holocaust survivor.  It was innocent enough…a pleasant Sunday visit with my my dad’s brother, my aunt and cousins in Irvington, NJ, in the late Fifties.  As was often the case with those particular family gatherings, the living room buzzed with the arrival of other family members, as well as next door neighbors and friends of my aunt and uncle who would pop in, grab a plate of food and shoot the breeze.  It was often hard for a young kid like me to keep their connections to my dad and his family straight, but I kept my eyes and ears open.

At one such gathering, I remember meeting a friend of my aunt’s.  She was sitting quietly by herself and didn’t seem to fit in, but I was drawn to her.  Although I don’t remember her name and vaguely recall that she was dressed in black and had an accent, there was one thing about her that I’ll never forget.  She had a number tattooed on her forearm.  She tried to explain it away, but her heavy accent and my youth made it impossible for me to focus on anything but the number that would never wash away. The woman had been branded like an animal in a slaughterhouse.

A Nazi party political rally. The sign in back reads: “Kauft nicht bei Juden”–“Don’t buy from Jews.”  Photo courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.

I had to wait several decades until college and my Comparative Civilization class to find out that the woman’s “number” had nothing to do with “civilization.”  How do you make sense of the mindset that elevated an antisemitic, racist petty criminal to a position of leadership and saluted as he ordered the systematic annihilation of Jews and others he deemed inferior?

A few years later, as a young journalist, I had the opportunity to attend a conference in Washington, DC, that I believe was held at the Watergate Hotel of all places during Holocaust Remembrance week.  I attended a meeting aimed at re-educating journalists about how best to cover The Holocaust.  Unbelievably, I found myself, a Protestant of German and Czech descent, in a small room at a conference table surrounded by Jewish survivors and adult children of survivors.  All had painful memories to share, not the least of whom were the young adults who had been raised comfortably in postwar America by immigrant parents and grandparents who never spoke to them about the Nazi hell they endured.

My presence in that room and at that table, as the Gentile granddaughter of Germans whose immigration status and U.S. citizenship was secure by the turn of the 20th century, was empowering.  I felt, then as I do now in retrospect, honored to have been welcomed at that table, and committed, as a journalist, film professional and magazine editor, to make sure that no one would forget The Holocaust and the stories survivors had to tell.

An immigrant family gazing at the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor from Ellis Island, circa 1930.  Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

In 1933, when Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party took control of Germany, there were nine million Jews in Europe.  Twelve years later in 1945, two of every three had been murdered. Why didn’t we, as Americans, provide a safe haven and easy passage for larger numbers of Western and Eastern European Jews attempting to flee Hitler’s depravity? True, some 200,000 Jews found refuge in the U.S., but couldn’t we have done better… and why didn’t we?

These questions fuel the brilliant new, three-part, six hour documentary series, The U.S. and the Holocaust, premiering on PBS tonight, Sunday, September 18, 2022, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET.  The series is divided into three, two-hour episodes:  The Golden Door (Beginnings -1938); Yearning to Breathe Free (1938 -1942); and The Homeless, The Tempest-Tossed (1942-  ).  (See below for complete broadcast details and check local listings for air dates in your region.)

It took seven years for producer/directors Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Susan Botstein  and screenwriter Geoffrey C. Ward to untangle the twisted threads of racism, nativism, antisemitism, xenophobia and isolationism that upended American immigration policy, making it more and more restrictive as the 20th century ushered in larger and larger numbers of Catholics, Jews and Asians escaping from poverty and persecution in their homelands.  The U.S. and the Holocaust was inspired in part by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibition.

The U.S. and the Holocaust opens and closes with surprising revelations about the plight of the Otto Frank family as they transitioned from their beloved ancestral home in Germany to Amsterdam and attempted to acquire visas and safe passage to America.  Journalist Dorothy Thompson, who called out the Nazi threat early on, reported that “for thousands and thousands of people a piece of paper with a stamp on it is the difference between life and death.” Despite having influential personal connections and their paperwork in order, immigrants like the Franks were blindsided at every turn.

A German policeman checks the identification papers of Jewish people in the Krakow ghetto, Poland, circa 1941.  Photo courtesy Krakow National Archives.

The Franks’ story serves as a springboard for first person testimony from several elderly witnesses who, as children in the 1930s, personally experienced horrific persecution.  Courage, resilience and luck played a large part in their survival and transport to America.  Their dramatic stories are masterfully integrated here.

“The witnesses share wrenching memories of the persecution, violence and flight that they and their families experienced as they escaped Nazi Europe and somehow made it to America,” said director Sarah Botstein, who lost family in the Holocaust.

Throughout this period, heroes on the homefront (Rabbi Stephen Wise, Dorothy Thompson, John Pehle, Benjamin B. Ferencz and Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt) seemed to be outnumbered by villains.  Rabid isolationists, Nazi sympathizers, antisemites and racists filled our hallowed halls of government (Asst. Secretary of State Breckinridge Long) and churches (Father Coughlin).  They made history in the air (Charles Lindbergh) and on land (Henry Ford).  They encouraged Americans to fear and denigrate immigrants (especially Jews) as dirty, dumb and diseased…hardly assets to be welcomed into America’s white, Anglo Saxon neighborhoods or worth fighting and dying for in Europe.

Rabbi Stephen Wise addresses a crowd at a rally outside Madison Square Garden.  Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

As in all of Ken Burns’ films, The U.S. and the Holocaust is chockablock with extraordinary, carefully curated vintage film footage, period radio broadcasts, photos and ephemera, musings from letters and diaries and newspaper clips attesting to the Nazis’ growing depravity.  A few well chosen scholars and historians, including the exceptional Deborah Lipstadt and Daniel Mendelsohn, fill in the blanks, as does narrator Peter Coyote.

“History cannot be looked at in isolation,” concluded Ken Burns.  “While we rightly celebrate American ideals of democracy and our history as a nation of immigrants, we must also grapple with the fact that American institutions and policies, like segregation and the brutal treatment of indigenous populations, were influential in Hitler’s Germany.  And it cannot be denied that, although we accepted more refugees than any other sovereign nation, America could have done so much more to help the millions of desperate people fleeing Nazi persecution.”

This is not an easy story to tell… or watch for that matter.  Be aware that the visuals chronicling Nazi atrocities may be tough for some viewers.  The U.S. and the Holocaust is clearly one of the most important film projects that Ken Burns and his team have undertaken.  Given the crimes against humanity that we are witnessing in the Ukraine and the current mishandling of Venezuelan migrants as political pawns, the film series couldn’t be more timely.

The U.S. Capitol, January 6, 2021.

The U.S. and the Holocaust should be required viewing in high school and college classrooms dealing with U.S. and World History, The Holocaust and genocide; in churches and synagogues; and frankly by all Americans who think we have come a long way since the Thirties and Forties. –Judith Trojan

 Viewing The U.S. and the Holocaust 

Episode 1: The Golden Door (Beginnings-1938) premieres on PBS tonight, Sunday, September 18, 2022, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET.  An additional broadcast of Episode 1 is scheduled on Monday, September 19, 2022 @9:30 p.m. ET.

Episode 2: Yearning to Breathe Free (1938 -1942) debuts on PBS on Tuesday, September 20, 2022, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET.

Episode 3: The Homeless, The Tempest-Tossed (1942-  ) premieres on PBS on Wednesday, September 21, 2022, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET.

Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region.  The three-part series will also be available to stream for free on all station-branded PBS platforms, including PBS.org and the PBS Video App .  PBS station members can also view The U.S. and the Holocaust via PBS Passport, as part of a full collection of Ken Burns’ films. Educational materials highlighting recent research and perspectives will be available at the Ken Burns in the Classroom site.–Judith Trojan

About Judith Trojan

Judith Trojan is an Award-winning journalist who has written and edited several thousand film and TV reviews and celebrity profiles.
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3 Responses to The U.S. and the Holocaust Reexamined on PBS

  1. Bruce Michael says:

    Your article is a brilliant analysis of the documentary which I agree is one of Ken Burns best. Before I saw it and before I read your blog, I had been reading “Caste” by Isabel Wilkerson. She discusses how Hitler was inspired by America’s treatment of Its Black population, when he started formulating the final solution. Thank goodness Ken Burns and his team produced this document of the horrors of the holocaust at a time when politicians are trying to erase aspects of our history. Your blog is an extraordinary analysis of the work….which must be seen and hopefully will be a wake up call as we are getting dangerously close to repeating history.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lynn Spatzer says:

    Thank you, Judy, for your on-point review of this Ken Burns masterpiece. My Jewish father fought in the Second WW. My Jewish grandparents were immigrants from Poland and Ukraine. I have heard the stories throughout my life. But hearing and seeing is not enough. Knowing is what is important. This documentary series, more than anything, helps us to know. To know that these horrors are still being repeated on our planet. To know that evil still exists and to know that we must do all we can to combat it. Every bit that helps us to know is valuable and meaningful.

    Liked by 1 person

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