Ken Burns Turns His Lens on the American Response to the Holocaust

When we begin “The U.S. and the Holocaust”—a six-and-a-half-hour, three-part documentary about America’s actions during one of history’s greatest atrocities, the Nazis’ attempted extermination of the Jews—we find ourselves in 1933 Frankfurt, where a bourgeois German-Jewish family is going out for an afternoon promenade. This is the Frank family, whose youngest daughter, Anne, has yet to begin the diary, chronicling her days in hiding until her capture and eventual death in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, that will one day make her a household name around the world. In 1933, all of that is still to come: the inhuman brutality of the Holocaust is still beyond the comprehension of well-to-do Jewish families like the Franks, and indeed of most everyone else. But now, after the rise to power of Adolf Hitler, in January of that year, it is clear that something in the air has shifted. The Franks knew they had to leave the country in which at least some of their ancestors had lived since the sixteenth century. By early 1934, the whole family had settled in Amsterdam, with plans to move to America—“only to find,” in the words of the film’s script, “like countless others fleeing Nazism, that most Americans did not want to let them in.”

“The U.S. and the Holocaust,” directed by Ken Burns and his longtime collaborators Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, is an examination of what Americans—politicians, journalists, and civilians—did and did not know about the Holocaust, and how they responded to it while it was happening and after it was over. Burns, now sixty-nine, is perhaps the most acclaimed American documentarian of his generation. He has used his work to investigate some of the most powerful symbols and totems of American life—in 1982, he won an Academy Award nomination, his first, for “Brooklyn Bridge;” in 1995, he won an Emmy for “Baseball.” Other topics since have included “The West” (1996), “Jazz” (2001), “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” (2009) and “Muhammad Ali” (2021), as well as several other series about America’s wars—the Civil War, the Second World War, and Vietnam.

This latest project is both a departure from and a continuation of the Burns œuvre—a departure because he focusses, for the first time, on an atrocity that occurred far from the nation whose myths he regularly interrogates and advances; a continuation because he seeks to show that the Holocaust, too, forms part of a decidedly American history. If the film has a thesis, it is delivered in a line from an interview with the historian Peter Hayes: “exclusion of people, and shutting them out, has been as American as apple pie.” This new documentary lays bare how the United States government was mired by domestic politics during the war and how the American public was largely indifferent to the Holocaust at the time. It sets that indifference against a homegrown tradition of racism, tracing the xenophobia of the nineteen-twenties right up to the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally, in 2017, and the January 6, 2021, storming of the Capitol. If Holocaust memory seems well established today, the film nevertheless arrives at a moment when the nature—and the future—of historical truth, about the Holocaust but also about everything else, is in acute jeopardy.

The documentary is an enormous undertaking, and it enters a crowded field of Holocaust-related documentaries, a genre since at least the mid-nineteen-fifties, with Alain Resnais’s “Night and Fog,” which features footage of the abandoned camps of Auschwitz and Majdanek and whose script was written by the survivor Jean Cayrol. Burns, Novick, and Botstein are especially indebted to Claude Lanzmann’s monumental, nine-and-a-half-hour “Shoah,” released in 1985: their film recycles portions of Lanzmann’s famous interview with the Polish diplomat Jan Karski, who in 1943 met with Franklin Roosevelt in the White House and pressed the President to do what he could to save the Polish Jews—at least three million of whom the Nazis would murder by the end of the war. “The U.S. and the Holocaust” is not a typical Holocaust documentary per se, in the tradition of Lanzmann or even Marcel Ophüls, whose masterpiece “The Sorrow and the Pity” examined Nazi collaboration and resistance in and around a French city during the war; unlike the former, it offers no new meditation on how to treat survivor (and perpetrator) testimony, and unlike the latter, it has nothing new to say about the role of the filmmaker in constructing a trauma narrative. This is more of a useful public primer, a parallel story about a foreign power’s responses to events overseas, in which the actual catastrophe is referred to responsibly and respectfully but only whenever necessary.

In its first episode, “The U.S. and the Holocaust” begins with a long examination of America before the Holocaust, a country with its own tradition of anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant xenophobia as well as a perverse and all-consuming obsession with white supremacy, long after the abolition of slavery. Indeed, as the script reminds viewers, the fundamental racism at the heart of American life was a source of inspiration for Hitler, as he imagined a “pure” society devoid of Jews and other allegedly undesirable elements: following Hitler’s lead, Nazi advisers looked to the segregated reality of the Jim Crow South as a model worthy of emulation, as the professor James Q. Whitman, not interviewed in the film, has pointed out in “Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law.”

Burns’s classic style—a blend of historical images and footage narrated by voice-overs, often from prominent actors, such as Paul Giamatti and Meryl Streep—carries us, in the second episode, right into the wartime policies of the U.S. government under Roosevelt. It is an indisputable fact that the U.S. took in more Jewish and other refugees than any other sovereign nation between 1933 and 1945, but many other Jewish refugees who sought to come were excluded because of immigration quotas enshrined by the infamous Johnson-Reed Act of 1924. The film portrays Roosevelt as both mindful of isolationist public opinion as well as committed to winning the war to stop fascism and the Nazi assault on democratic freedoms, which in his mind would also apparently be the surest way to save the Jews, among other objectives. As viewers might expect, the so-called Voyage of the Damned, the May 1939 voyage of the M.S. St. Louis—a ship that carried nine hundred and thirty-seven passengers, most of them Jewish refugees, from Hamburg to Havana, only to be turned away by Cuba (where only twenty-eight passengers were able to disembark) and then by the American port of Miami—is a major focal point in the film.

The film’s third installment follows the American perspective through the Final Solution, the Nazi decision to attempt a total extermination of the Jewish people, with particular attention to the reactions of American Jewish leaders, such as the October, 1943, rabbis’ march to Capitol Hill to plead for Presidential attention. The script goes back and forth between Europe and the United States, following the devastating stories of individual survivors and their families. One of them, the story of Shmiel Jäger, a Polish-Jewish meat merchant from the Polish town of Bolechów, is particularly illuminating.

Jäger is the great-uncle of the writer Daniel Mendelsohn, who previously explored his life in “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million,” a haunting and beautiful family history. Jäger’s story is a rare example of a Jewish refugee who actually made it to the United States long before the war, as early as 1912, only to return to Poland about a year later, disgusted by the squalor and the daily humiliations of the Lower East Side. Along with his wife and four daughters, Jäger was ultimately murdered in his home town nearly thirty years after his return. But his story—which is not the only example of reverse immigration—is a necessary complication to the myth of America as the goldene medina, a land of opportunity, justice, and equality. Of course, this country offered a refuge for many Jewish families, and American Jews like me tend to grow up with a certain optimistic image of our country. But was America really a paradise for Jews, or is paradise an illusion constructed in hindsight? As Mendelsohn put it to me, “I think stories like [Jäger’s] are useful because they disrupt the fantasy and historical narrative of the inevitability of America as a refuge where everyone was always going to end up.”

In a documentary of more than six hours that examines America’s response to the Holocaust, a crucial part of the story is still somehow missing: the postwar era, in which “the Holocaust”—specifically under that name, a name now rejected by some within the Jewish world for its implication both of Jewish passivity and of a divinely sanctioned sacrifice—became in many ways an American fixation. From the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann until the present day, what we have come to call “the Holocaust” has become a national frame of reference, a constant source of comparison, and even at times a Cold War morality play whose final act has yet to be written.

In “We Remember with Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence after the Holocaust, 1945-1962,” the historian Hasia Diner, whose voice would also have been welcome in this documentary, dispels the pernicious idea that American Jews were somehow quiet or passive about the horrors of the Final Solution in the immediate aftermath of the war. But beyond the Jewish community, American public responses to the Holocaust coalesced into a narrative shaped by the sensibilities and the naïve self-image of an ascendant superpower. Look no further than the immensely popular miniseries “Holocaust,” which first aired in 1978, and whose depiction of two families in Germany, one Jewish and the other Christian, was the first time many Americans grappled with the Holocaust as a distinct narrative. Despite its public splash, many survivors attacked the show as kitsch. Reviewing the series for the New York Times, Elie Wiesel said that it “transforms an ontological event into soap-opera.” The question is why so many Americans were–and are–still attracted to this “soap-opera” rendition.

As with any historical atrocity, narratives about the Holocaust, its meaning, and its relevance are not handed down from on high; they are actively constructed. What we talk about when we talk about the Holocaust—or the Shoah, the Hebrew word for catastrophe or utter destruction, as the event is often referred to in countries such as Israel and France—differs wildly from nation to nation, and indeed the story that Americans now tell about one of history’s greatest crimes diverges significantly from the stories told in Israel, the former Soviet bloc, and Western Europe.

“There is no such thing as collective memory,” Susan Sontag observed in “Regarding the Pain of Others.” Rather, she argued, “what is called collective memory is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important, and this is the story about how it happened.” A missed opportunity of “The U.S. and the Holocaust” is examining the emergence of an extremely American stipulation. How, exactly, the Holocaust went from a nameless catastrophe that, as the film amply demonstrates, did not initially appear to sway the hearts of all that many Americans, into a trauma commemorated in a major museum just off the National Mall—years before America’s own historical crimes, such as the enslavement of African Americans, were ever similarly addressed—is an important story that would have greatly enriched this film.

In fact, the film coincides with an ongoing exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Americans and the Holocaust,” and was developed with the assistance of the museum’s historians (many of whom appear in it) and rich archives. But the museum itself, established by an act of Congress in 1980 and officially opened in April, 1993, in the midst of the Bosnian war and the Rwandan genocide, is an impressive institution whose story belongs in any broad look at American responses to the Holocaust. Thirty-five years after the end of the war, the museum was—and remains—the U.S. government’s official response. I can think of no better example of what has become of the American response to the Holocaust than the museum’s own dedication ceremony. Wiesel—also largely absent from this film, although few people were as influential in shaping a durable Holocaust memory in the United States—turned to President Bill Clinton as they were both sitting in the rain outside the new museum. “And, Mr. President, I cannot not tell you something,” Wiesel said. “I have been in the former Yugoslavia last fall. I cannot sleep since for what I have seen. . . . We must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country! People fight each other and children die. Why? Something, anything must be done.” In America, the Holocaust is now often seen as a “lesson.” It means “never again”—although both genocide and the menace of anti-Semitism have continued regardless.

In its last twenty minutes, the film returns to the story of Anne Frank, who serves as something of a leitmotif for the entire six-hour documentary: a young girl who might have come to America and been spared the brutal fate known to the millions of readers of her diary, one of the most iconic and well-known pieces of Holocaust literature. We follow the American publication of the diary, in 1952, and the prominent Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, now the U.S. government’s official anti-Semitism envoy, walks the viewer through the ways in which the subsequent Broadway and Hollywood adaptations essentially tried to gloss over Anne’s story of Nazi violence and murder. “It’s not the story of the Holocaust, it’s not the story of the Shoah,” Lipstadt says, quite rightly. But the film might have gone deeper into Anne Frank’s American reception, especially given its interest in the true feelings of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the fact that, shortly after this segment, Eleanor Roosevelt’s reflections on visiting a displaced-persons’ camp in 1946 are read as a voice-over. “I have the feeling that we let our consciences realize too late the need of standing up against something that we knew was wrong,” the former First Lady observed in that instance. But it was also she who penned the introduction to Anne Frank’s diary for its American edition, a text that bears revisiting.

The destruction of the European Jews, in Eleanor Roosevelt’s telling, was not really about the Jews: it was a parable for right and wrong, a “teachable moment” about perseverance in the face of adversity—could there be anything more hopelessly and terminally American than that? As Roosevelt wrote, Anne’s diary was among “the wisest and most moving commentaries on war and its impact on human beings that I have ever read. . . . Despite the horror and humiliation of their daily lives, these people never gave up.” Anne, she concluded, “tells us much about ourselves and our own children.” Not once did Eleanor Roosevelt use the word “Jew”; the story of “these people” was not the point. By then, the Jewish catastrophe was everyone’s to claim, and the “lessons” of the Holocaust were already in the process of becoming a strangely American form of national self-help.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, a generation of survivor-historians, whose lives were forever altered by the unspeakable horrors they had endured and who are responsible for much of what we now know about the atrocity, tried to preserve the facts of the Holocaust from the tidal wave of self-serving narratives about it that they already saw coming. No one said it better than the writer Rachel Auerbach, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto who risked her life preserving evidence of Nazi persecution as a part of the Oneg Shabbat task force, and who later became the head of the testimonies department at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem. “The mass murder, the murder of millions of Jews by the Germans, is a fact that speaks for itself,” she wrote. “It is very dangerous to add to this subject interpretations or analyses.” One wonders what Auerbach would have made of America, circa 2022.

“The U.S. and the Holocaust” takes a keen interest in the American political landscape of today, and it rightly sees chilling parallels between the rise of fascism and the Trump Administration’s assault on American democracy. These comparisons have been made in newspaper columns for the last five years, but they can never quite be made enough, especially those that speak to institutional fragility. All throughout, the film points out certain historical antecedents to the “great replacement” conspiracy theory and the decidedly anti-Semitic “America First” slogan, originally popularized by the likes of Charles Lindbergh, which has since become a rallying cry of the Trump movement.

But if contemporary America is of interest, there is an important institutional story to tell here as well, about the U.S. government’s ultimate embrace of Holocaust history beginning in the late nineteen-seventies, when a commission established by President Jimmy Carter proposed the creation of a national Holocaust museum. And also a strange story about a civil society in which a very particular tragedy became universalized and mass-marketed, leading people who may have little or no connection to Jewish life to feel entitled to make a Jewish catastrophe about themselves. Examining the evolution of that uniquely American obsession might have strengthened the film in its final installment. After all, America is still responding to the Holocaust, and often in troubling ways.

The persecution and mass murder of European Jews between 1933 and 1945 loom so large in our culture that even our own homegrown brownshirts now have the Holocaust on the tips of their tongues. In recent years, a sitting member of Congress, Marjorie Taylor Greene, has styled her enemies as “Nazis” and posted a video of a fake-looking President Biden with a Hitler mustache. Beyond the arena of electoral politics, a number of ordinary people wore yellow stars on their lapels to protest coronavirus-vaccine requirements. Given its interest in the contemporary, “The U.S. and the Holocaust” might have confronted, or at least acknowledged, these fixations and distortions. They, too, turn out to be as American as apple pie. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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