US actions during the Holocaust examined in new Ken Burns documentary

US filmmaker Ken Burns’s documentary The US and the Holocaust “tells this story in all its sordid glory” – the film is six hours long.

 THE STATUE of Liberty seen from Ellis Island.  (photo credit: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)
THE STATUE of Liberty seen from Ellis Island.
(photo credit: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

The US’s epic failure to make room for Jews escaping Hitler is among the most shameful chapters in its history and for some US expats (myself included) a reason for aliyah.

The tale has been told in books, such as Arthur Morse’s While Six Million Died and David Wyman’s The Abandonment of the Jews, but it’s never come to the screen until now. 

Premiering on September 18 on US public television stations (PBS) and scheduled to air on Israeli TV in the coming months, US filmmaker Ken Burns’s documentary The US and the Holocaust “tells this story in all its sordid glory” – the film is six hours long.

Burns and his team began considering the idea of exploring this story in 2015 when staff members from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC – then developing an exhibit, now currently on view – floated the idea of creating a film.

“We jumped at the idea,” recalls co-director Lynn Novick. “This story had not been told how we wanted to tell it.”

 US PRESIDENT Franklin D. Roosevelt in Washington DC, November 9, 1943.  (credit: NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION) US PRESIDENT Franklin D. Roosevelt in Washington DC, November 9, 1943. (credit: NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION)

For Novick and Burns and their third partner, co-director Sarah Botstein, that meant looking at the problem from its roots.

The roots to the US refusing Jews in the Holocaust begins in the late 19th century

Unlike other Holocaust stories, which typically begin in 1933, this film takes us back to late 19th- and early 20th-century America, when eugenics-supporting WASP elites, fearful of immigrants – especially rapidly ascending Jewish ones – began agitating for closed doors.

That fear combined with the heavy death toll from World War I, the “war to end all wars,” to produce a tsunami-like wave of xenophobia, which resulted in the 1924 Reed Johnson Act, which implemented a draconian cut in immigration. Ratified by both houses of Congress and signed by president Calvin Coolidge, the law set the scene for the disaster that would come barely a decade later.

The law, the film points out, wasn’t overtly antisemitic.

“There was no explicit quota for Jews, but it wasn’t an accident that recent Jewish immigrants had come from the Eastern European countries that now had minuscule quotas.”

Narrator

“There was no explicit quota for Jews, but it wasn’t an accident that recent Jewish immigrants had come from the Eastern European countries that now had minuscule quotas,” says the film’s unnamed narrator. In 1921, before the law took effect, 120,000 Jews immigrated to the US legally. Five years later, that number had dropped to 10,000, and there were many more hoops to jump through before one could move to the US.

Under the new law, the State Department – the US government’s most antisemitic branch with a “heartbeat muffled in protocol,” at least according to pro-immigration congressman Emanuel Cellar – took charge of immigration. Now erstwhile immigrants needed to produce visas from US consuls in their home countries and plenty of other paperwork, such as multiple copies of birth certificates and letters vouching for good citizenship – a near impossibility for people escaping countries where they were hated, historian Deborah Lipstadt points out in the film. 

Lipstadt is one of nine prominent historians who form a Greek chorus of sorts, offering both narration and explanation.

During the Great Depression, the State Department upped the ante, expecting would-be immigrants to secure refundable $5,000 guarantees known as affidavits – a fortune in those days (roughly $100,000 in today’s dollars). 

“You couldn’t come if you had a job because then you’d be taking a job away from an American; but if you didn’t have a job, you’d go on the dole (and you couldn’t come if you couldn’t support yourself),” says Lipstadt. Despite Emma Lazarus’s beautiful words about Miss Liberty’s hands being extended to the “tired, poor and wretched refuse yearning to breathe free,” there was no exception for refugees and no popular support for one.

“If I had my way,” said Robert Reynolds, then the North Carolina senator, “I would build a wall so high and so secure that not a single alien or foreign refugee from any country on the face of this Earth could scale or ascend it.” 

Quoting journalist Dorothy Thompson, the film points out that for thousands (even millions) of people, “a piece of paper with a stamp on it is the difference between life and death.”

IN THIS film, we meet some of these people. Making a choice that plays up this story’s drama, The US and the Holocaust is framed with the stories of a half dozen elderly survivors who suffered on account of the US’s cruel immigration policies.

 GUNTHER STERN (L) with brother Werner and mother, Hedwig Stern (née Silberberg), Hildesheim, Germany, 1932.  (credit: Guy Stern) GUNTHER STERN (L) with brother Werner and mother, Hedwig Stern (née Silberberg), Hildesheim, Germany, 1932. (credit: Guy Stern)

At 100, Guy Stern is the oldest of them. Looking dapper in a black turtleneck and rose-pink sports jacket, Stern recounts that as a teenager, he was sent to an uncle in the Midwest. His family expected him to secure visas for the rest of his family members, who were stuck back in Nazi Germany. He couldn’t do it.

“This story is unimaginably heartbreaking,” says Novick. Burns’s film includes footage taken by Nazi soldiers of Stern’s family being deported from their home in Hildesheim, Germany. “From the way it’s filmed, it looks orderly and polite,” says Novick. Of course, it was anything but that.

For Novick, the film’s most powerful moment is Susan Hilsenrath’s recollection of her escape as a five-year-old from Germany to France, then still a haven. 

“She doesn’t remember saying goodbye to her parents. That blank space speaks to the trauma of separation,” says Novick.

Surprisingly, the personal stories provide this otherwise depressing film with a few uplifting moments.

“Here you have these people decades later, and they’ve had a life. The human spirit has a resiliency that is so powerful that it’s a privilege to be a part of that. Seeing how these survivors organized their stories to show how they’ve coped was a gift to the project and the world,” says Novick. 

Sadly, the spiritual component which was a primary coping tool for many survivors is absent from this film. Though at least half of prewar European Jewry identified as religiously observant, that community is ignored. Another unfortunate omission is the remarkable history of the Vaad Hatzalah, the Orthodox community’s homegrown and often effective effort to help Jews stuck in war-torn Europe.

Despite this, The US and the Holocaust is still worth watching, especially because it explodes another important myth – that Americans didn’t know what was going on overseas.

“This is a misconception that is very popular among American Jews,” says Novick. “There were lots of front-page stories about persecutions, deportations, violence, all covered at length,” she points out.

The US and the Holocaust ends with clips from the Charlottesville riots, the Tree of Life shootings, and the January 6 Capitol uprising, including a shot of an insurrectionist wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words “Camp Auschwitz.” In this final montage, the filmmakers broadcast the not very subtle message that the US far Right members are today’s Nazis. While the rise of homegrown antisemitism in the US is disturbing, the comparison feels overstated. And what about the antisemitism of the pro-Palestinian Left? This film doesn’t address that at all

Even with its flaws, Burns and his team deserve kudos for their outstanding work.

With survivors dying and ignorance rising to startling proportions – a 2020 survey revealed that 63% of young adults, including Gen Z and millennials, were unaware that Hitler had murdered six million Jews – Burns and his team have brought much-needed attention to the Jewish people’s toughest hour. ■