"The U.S. and the Holocaust," a three-episode film by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein, will debut on Sept. 18 on PBS. Burns and his partners and staff at Florentine Films work out of a production studio in Walpole. After watching the film, I interviewed Burns.
Our discussion has been shortened and lightly edited for length and clarity.
Did your thinking about this project change between when you started it, before the Trump presidency, and when you finished it?
We did it because we were interested in the subject. We’re not interested in scoring any contemporary points. We know that whatever we work on will resonate with today, that the echoes of yesterday will fully engage with the present moment, but it’s our responsibility not to pay any attention to that.
After the World War II film ["The War"] came out in 2007, we were approached by people saying, “How come you didn’t talk about what an anti-Semite FDR was?” or “Why didn’t you explore why the St. Louis [a ship carrying Jewish refugees] was turned away from American shores?” or “Why didn’t the United States bomb Auschwitz?” Finally, we said, “You know what? We really have to do this.”
Coincidentally, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., had just started an exhibition called “Americans and the Holocaust” and asked if we would be interested in making a film about it. We said yes, we’d love to be associated with you and get your help in identifying sources, archives, and scholars.
Then it was just pushing to get to a complex relationship between what transpired in the Holocaust through the filter of what Americans saw, what we knew, what we didn’t know, what we did, what we didn’t do, what we should have done. You could just march the Holocaust story along while going back and forth between the United States and Germany and seeing uncomfortable echoes between the two places.
What do you hope people will take from the film in the current political environment?
We’re storytellers, and every person will relate, or not relate, in their own individual ways. And that’s a good thing.
A sensitivity to our fragility is an important reason we accelerated the project – it was going to come out next year. I think everyone in the film articulates this, but no one more precisely than Daniel Mendelsohn, when he says, don’t kid yourself, there’s no bottom to what human beings can do and how fragile our institutions are.
I insisted on putting a paragraph early in episode one saying that if you wanted to be in the hippest, most democratic, artistically exciting, vibrant place in 1931 and '32, you’d do no better than Berlin – in arts, architecture, music, intellectual circles. And the change was almost instantaneous.
The willingness of people to believe the lies of an evil regime and manipulative leaders – demagogues – isn’t something that’s a one-off. It isn’t, “Oh, it’s too bad that happened.” We see the rise of authoritarianism, we see the stresses on democratic institutions, we see that the superficial appeal of order has a huge human consequence.
I was glad to see Mendelsohn in the film. Years ago, I read his book, "The Lost: A Search for Six of the Six Million." He goes looking for six family members "killed by the Nazis." The book changed the way I saw the Holocaust.
The number 6 million is impenetrable. It means nothing anymore. We begin the film by saying let’s reconfigure that equation. There are 9 million Jews in Europe in 1933, and by 1945, two out of three are missing. We’re looking at a woman looking out the window joined by, one assumes, her father and her mother, and you realize that in any given threesome, two are missing.
Or it is Mendelsohn devoting so much of his life to finding out what happened to his great uncle, Shmiel Jager, and his wife and four daughters, whatever it takes. And he particularizes it – that was the word he used.
More than half the Jews in Germany and Austria escaped. They often had connections in Western Europe and the United States. But when Germany expanded for the “breathing room” – the lebensraum – that Hitler wanted in places where he considered people stateless and nameless, much the way we treated Native Americans, he ended up acquiring Jews. That led to a decision to kill them all.
In your film the United States before World War II is full of anti-Semitism, racism, eugenics, the Chinese Exclusion Act, forced deportation of Mexicans who had become American citizens, attempts to restrict immigration to Nordic races. This is so different from the history I learned in high school. Should this be part of the curriculum?
Nell Irvin Painter [historian quoted in the film] is smart about this: We are an exceptional country, but sometimes we’re not. If you say, as Lincoln put it, you are the last best hope of earth, you’ve got to be tougher on yourself than anybody else.
We cannot get by anymore with a sanitized view of our history. It exposes women to all the things that the “Me Too” movement is trying to say. It relegates Native peoples and African Americans to backseat, passive victims or non-existent people whose stories don’t need to be told because it’s upsetting to some. That is not right.
We’re obliged to tell a fuller story, and that makes it richer. We need to honor what actually takes place.
Your film describes Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Holocaust strategy. It was to win the war as quickly as possible and punish the perpetrators afterward, not to rescue the Jews. He could see no way to rescue them, and with all the losses his armies were suffering, he thought it impolitic to lose more lives in a rescue attempt. Was he wrong?
Politically, nothing’s wrong with it. It’s accurate. He’s not a king or absolute dictator – he can’t by fiat rescue Jews and admit them to the United States.
He’s not unmindful of the problem. He just knows what he has to do. It seems, in retrospect, perhaps cruel, but let’s back up – we’re all culpable. We repeatedly tell you about the polls taken at the time. They’re devastating. Even after we learn about Kristallnacht, even after we see the footage from liberated concentration camps, nobody wants to let any more Jews in.
Roosevelt, a masterful politician, knows this – what he can pass, what he can’t do. Let’s not just put it on FDR. There are lots of forces operating.
If we had been more public about the crimes being committed, earlier and louder, that might have helped. We didn’t do that. That is on FDR, but it’s also on members of his administration who were virulently anti-Semitic and slow-walked or obstructed anything good. It is true of Congress, reflecting the mood of the country – a vast majority of American citizens.
Holocaust survivors, long the tellers of this story, are dying off. Has that reduced the attention rising generations pay to this tragedy and what they know about it?
You’re sadly right – we’re losing a lot of witnesses. A generation from now, there won’t be any around, so it seems important to hear their stories.
Fortunately, Steven Spielberg and the Shoah Foundation have saved 54,000 testimonies. He’s got an elaborate hologram project that has asked questions of dozens of survivors. It’s almost impossible when a school group comes through for someone to ask a question these survivors haven’t already been asked and have a hologram answer it. That is a way to keep it alive.
But there were themes that needed to be told. There were back eddies of American experience germane to this story, whether it’s the Germans modeling their exclusionary laws against the Jews in the early 1930s by studying our Jim Crow laws in the South, whether it’s Hitler’s approval of our treatment of Native peoples or our immigration act.
And then hearing that some of the titans of our mythological past – Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, just to mention two – were virulent anti-Semites. And the eugenics movement – that bone-chilling comment by Helen Keller essentially approving of death committees. Here is a kind of eugenics that would not have let her live.
How do you think what your film conveys about our behavior 75-80 years ago can help us face the problems we’re having today with similar issues: a rise in anti-Semitism, a racial divide, white supremacist violence, prejudice against immigrants?
Yes, there are similar issues, which is why, in the past, we rarely brought our films up to the present, but in this film we do. It’s just information, but it’s important.
As the novelist Richard Powers said, the best arguments in the world won’t change a single point of view. The only thing that can do that is a good story, and we hope we’ve told a good story.
Why do you think anti-Semitism persists in American today?
When I was working on the country music film, I realized that I had been making films about the U.S. for nearly 50 years. But I had also been making films about us, the lower-case, two-letter plural pronoun – all the intimacy of us and all the majesty, intricacy, complexity, and controversy of the U.S. That’s been my beat.
The epiphany was that there’s only us, there’s no them. When you see somebody creating a them, we’re on our way. It was the malevolent strategy and tactics of an evil demagogue to blame a group of others. In this case that was Jews, people without a country, people who brought us the ideas of the Golden Rule, fair play, the ideals of socialism, an internationalist view.
If you are appealing to the lowest common denominator in people, it’s easy to make Jews or someone whose skin pigmentation is slightly different the enemy.