Holocaust: A new Ken Burns documentary examines the U.S.’s convoluted and terrible response to Nazism and Jewish immigrants. In the years before World War II, Otto Frank, a well-connected German Jew, wanted to emigrate to the U.S. He possessed the required affidavits, visas, and a government official’s endorsement.
But anti-Semitism and bigotry dominated U.S. foreign policy at the time, and the State Department cracked down on immigration. Along with hundreds of thousands of others escaping the Nazis, the Franks, including Anne, were denied entrance. The family hid in an attic in Amsterdam.
Anne Frank may be alive today if American policies and the quota system were different, says co-director and producer Sarah Botstein. Anne’s diary is an amazing historical document. It’s not the whole Shoah story (the Hebrew word for the Holocaust).
The U.S. and the Holocaust analyzes America’s response to Nazism and one of history’s worst humanitarian catastrophes. Inspired by the USHMM’s “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibition, the documentary covers two parallel narratives: the growth and expansion of Nazism in Europe and opposing political and social currents in American policy.
Geoffrey C. Ward’s series investigates what the U.S. government and American people knew and did (or didn’t do) when Hitler’s armies committed genocide. Interviews with Holocaust survivors add a personal touch to the documentary’s archive footage and images.
Why America waited
Burns, whose past historical films include “The Roosevelts” (2014) and “The Vietnam War” (2017), feels “It’s difficult” is a fair summation of “The U.S. and the Holocaust’s” issues. In three 2-hour episodes, the video dispels the beliefs that Americans were unaware of the persecution of Europe’s Jews or knew about it but were indifferent. (In truth, newspapers kept the American public aware of the Holocaust, inspiring limited but concerted relief efforts by many groups and individuals.) It debunks the notion of America as a champion of the oppressed.
Peter Hayes, a Northwestern University historian in the documentary, believes Americans struggle to decide what kind of country they want. We all think of this country and the Statue of Liberty’s poetry “Give me your tired, your destitute.” But discrimination and keeping people out are as American as apple pie.
One of the most intriguing concerns in the video is whether the U.S. could have done more for Holocaust victims. In the documentary, a historian counters the claim that the Allies should have targeted Auschwitz’s rail connections. Even though it was hard to hit such a precise target, the historian says that the Nazis could have fixed any damage in one night.
USHMM archivist Rebecca Erbelding states, “I have a hard time with this question since it involves hypotheticals.” I’m not sure if it would have worked or saved lives. It was doable. The war department never studied it.
While the U.S. received 225,000 European refugees between 1933 and 1945, many thousands more may have been saved. “We could have allowed in five times that,” adds Burns. Public opinion and anti-Semitism kept us from meeting our quotas. If we did that ten times, we’d fail. I’ll give us an F.
At the time, opinion on America’s response to Europe’s Jews was split. A documentary concluded that two-thirds of Americans blamed Jews for their own oppression. Many didn’t accept the Holocaust reports.
Racism, anti-Semitism, and political and economic concerns slowed the U.S. In the 1920s, restricting immigration helped the eugenics movement preserve “racial purity.”
These efforts led to the 1924 Immigration Act, which established severe quotas on U.S. entrance and banned Asian immigration. In the late 1930s, fear of foreigners snatching employment from cash-strapped Americans fostered xenophobia.
As war loomed, Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh made anti-Semitic and eugenicist comments in speeches and to the press. Extremist pro-Nazi groups like the German American Bund, modeled after Hitler’s Gestapo, grew.
A sentiment of isolationism pervaded the era, in contrast to the interventionist spirit that inspired U.S. engagement in World War I. In 1938, 72% of Americans said “no” to allowing more Jewish refugees into the country.
In June 1941, the U.S. government refused to let the German liner St. Louis dock in Miami, sending all 937 passengers back to Europe. A quarter of the passengers died in the Holocaust.
“We’re a nation of immigrants, but we fought hard to keep them out,” says Burns. “We must understand this dilemma.”
What are Americans’ perceptions of the Holocaust?
American media initially reported the Nazis’ mass murder of Jews in late 1942. Edward R. Murrow portrayed the extermination campaign in his characteristically forthright tone.
“Millions of people, mostly Jews, are being rounded up and killed. Even though they weren’t on the main page, Holocaust tales appeared every day.
In November 1944, 76% of Gallup poll respondents said Germans killed “many in detention camps.” “I thought (wrongly) that Americans didn’t know much about Europe,” adds Novick. But I soon realized I was wrong. There was a lot of material regarding Nazi persecution, dehumanization, deportation, and stripping away rights.
In 1942, the U.S., Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and eight other Allies spoke out against “the Nazis’ bestial strategy of cold-blooded annihilation” of European Jews.
FDR, a savvy politician who considered public opinion while responding to Nazi persecution, was reluctant to take further action. Daniel Greene, the president and librarian at Chicago’s Newberry Library and the person in charge of the “Americans in the Holocaust” exhibit at the USHMM, says that Roosevelt could have done more to save Europe’s Jews.
Something else was always more important, like moving from isolationism to war intervention, then winning. “I like to think the State Department used bureaucracy to hinder aid and the War Refugee Board used bureaucracy to combat bureaucracy,” says Erbelding, author of Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe.
“[Overall], the U.S. response was underwhelming. It wasn’t monolithic. Besides the War Refugee Board, several Americans helped European Jews. Protesters criticized Nazis, marched, and boycotted German goods. Jewish American groups funded and lobbied for German Jews. Citizens and politicians fought red tape to bring Jewish refugees to America.
According to Greene, Roosevelt’s near-silence on the Holocaust was likely due to politics rather than bias. The historian rejects claims that the president was anti-Semitic. “He typically avoided battles he couldn’t win,” Greene says. Roosevelt’s main response to the Holocaust was to help Nazis by making the War Refugee Board in 1944.
On the advice of the president’s Jewish Treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau, this group begged, borrowed, bribed, and laundered money for overseas relief efforts. The team also forged paperwork and opened an emergency refugee shelter, which saved tens of thousands of lives. USHMM historian Elizabeth White told Smithsonian magazine in 2018 that the Allies reacted to the Holocaust with restraint.
Nazi propaganda said that the Allies were only fighting to protect Jewish interests. When anti-Semitism grew on the home front, the Allies quickly disproved this claim.
“The Allies stressed that the Nazis were a threat to humanity and that the war was about freedom vs. slavery,” White said. When they spoke out against Nazi crimes, they focused on attacks on peaceful locals, like the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane in 1944, more than on attacks on Jews.
Burns’ work on “The Roosevelts” and “Defying the Nazis” sparked his interest in the U.S. and the Holocaust. USHMM asked Burns to make a film for its 2018 “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibit, and he agreed. “The U.S. and the Holocaust” is Burns’ most important study to date.
Greene notes that the film “raises lasting questions about Americans’ duties to refugees and others targeted in a genocide.” “These questions came to light during the Nazi era and are still important today,” he says.
Finally, viewers must decide whether the United States was a beacon of hope for immigrants, a xenophobic country that rejected refugees, or something in between.Burns: “This is an American reckoning that must be spoken.” To be extraordinary, we must be tough on ourselves and set high standards. We can’t cover our history with barnacles or make it feel good.
Nell Irvin Painter says in the documentary, “Part of our mythology is that we’re decent people.” We’re a democracy and nice people in our best moments. The story isn’t over. Deborah Lipstadt, a key voice in Burns’ documentary, warns, “Stop a genocide before it starts.”
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