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Ken Burns Explores America’s Inaction Throughout the Holocaust


A latest documentary in regards to the Holocaust opens with photos of perhaps probably the most familiar faces from that dark chapter of history: those of Anne Frank and her family, whose story has been read or seen by thousands and thousands world wide.

So why would a six-hour film that provides fresh illuminations about America’s response to the Holocaust begin with such well-worn images? The reply is prone to surprise even those that know all in regards to the arrest and eventual deaths of Anne, her sister and their mother. Their deaths, the documentary argues, were also a stain on america and the foundational myth of its benevolent open door for “huddled masses” of immigrants and refugees.

As recounted in “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” Ken Burns’s latest deep dive into America’s past, Otto Frank tried desperately to hunt sanctuary within the U.S. for his family “only to search out,” the narration says, “like countless others fleeing Nazism, that Americans didn’t wish to allow them to in.” Seeing no other recourse, he arranged for the development of the Franks’ ill-fated hide-out in Amsterdam.

Premiering on Sept. 18 and airing over three nights on PBS, “The U.S. and the Holocaust” goals to upend other longstanding historical assumptions as well, and in addition draw a thematic line connecting past tragedies and current struggles.

It highlights the racism and antisemitism that was laced through the nation’s purportedly democratic institutions and led to their inaction in response to Germany’s persecution of Jews. Modern footage points up how these failings stubbornly endure. This includes clips from the 2017 white-supremacist rallies at Charlottesville, Va., where marchers chanted “Jews won’t replace us,” and the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, where rioters sported pro-Nazi emblems like a much-discussed Camp Auschwitz sweatshirt.

“It’s been very eerie to see the past echoing louder and louder throughout the time that we made the film,” said Lynn Novick, who co-directed and produced the film with Burns and Sarah Botstein.

The film also foregrounds parallels between America’s past and present hostilities toward immigrants and refugees.

“We remind those that it’s necessary that these impulses usually are not relegated to a past historical event,” Burns said in a telephone interview. “It’s necessary to grasp the fragility of our institutions and the fragility of our civilized impulses.”

True, because the documentary chronicles, for an excellent portion of its history the U.S. took in thousands and thousands of Irish fleeing famine, Jews fleeing pogroms and Italians fleeing poverty. But a fierce backlash against unrestricted immigration arose within the late nineteenth century abetted by a specious eugenics movement that downgraded entire nationalities and racial groups as potential pollutants of the American gene pool.

Highlights from the humanities world this coming season.

Lady Liberty’s golden door shut to Chinese laborers in 1882, then, with the watershed 1924 immigration act, to people from Eastern and Southern Europe and virtually all Asians. (A telling statistic: While 120,000 Jews immigrated in 1921, five years later the number dwindled to 10,000.) During World War II, first European refugees in search of to flee the murderous Nazi juggernaut were denied entry, then the skeletal survivors of the concentration camps.

Pieces of this story have been told in books, including David S. Wyman’s “The Abandonment of the Jews,” in regards to the American government’s failure to rescue imperiled refugees; Daniel Okrent’s “The Guarded Gate,” in regards to the genesis and impact of the 1924 immigration law; and David Nasaw’s “The Last Million,” in regards to the treatment of displaced individuals after the war. Burns and his team weave those threads right into a seamless whole.

The story is enhanced by many trademarks of the Ken Burns aesthetic: haunting and substantiating film clips and images, plaintive music, lucid reflections from scholars, testimonies from engaging witnesses, personal letters read by actors like Meryl Streep. The erudite script was written by Geoffrey C. Ward.

The stories by survivors who were children within the Thirties are particularly poignant, told with an air of lingering disbelief that such horrors could occur within the twentieth century.

Guy Stern, a 100-year-old scholar of German literature, recounts how, as a teen, he was sent by his desperate German-Jewish parents to St. Louis, where he lived with an aunt and uncle while he searched for somebody willing to sponsor the family’s entry into the country, a requirement of immigration laws on the time. The one one that agreed to place up the essential $5,000 was a gambler, so immigration authorities rejected him as financially unstable. On the war’s end, Stern learned that his parents, brother and sister were deported to the Warsaw Ghetto and died there.

The filmmakers sought to emphasise the story’s ambiguities and complications, Burns said. For one thing, the U.S. let in additional Jewish refugees than another country‌ — roughly 200,000 between 1933 and 1945 — the result partly of efforts by rule-benders just like the journalist Varian Fry and the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, whose clandestine dealings were financed by the War Refugee Board, under the direction of John W. Pehle.

The documentary, which was inspired by an exhibition on the identical topic on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, also softens somewhat the unfavorable portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt drawn by many historians for having done little to rescue Jews and stop the slaughter.

Specializing in two of the higher known critiques, it suggests Roosevelt was restrained from admitting the over 900 Jewish refugees on the passenger ship the MS St. Louis due to quotas legislated by an immigration-resistant Congress. And drawing up plans to bomb the rail lines to Auschwitz would have been wasteful, one featured historian contends, because bombing was highly inaccurate and the Germans were able to switch damaged tracks overnight.

Despite pleas from his wife, Eleanor, and from Jewish leaders, Roosevelt selected to devote his attention to defeating the Axis.

“The U.S. and the Holocaust” undermines the ceaselessly heard rationale that Americans within the Thirties didn’t know the way ugly the persecution of Jews had develop into. It offers newsreels and newspaper headlines that trace how Americans saw or examine random attacks by Nazi thugs and punitive laws that targeted Jewish-owned business and denied Jewish residents access to parks and theaters. It notes that the restrictions emulated Jim Crow race laws within the American South.

But nearly all of Americans, encouraged by antisemitic voices like those of the radio preacher Father Charles Coughlin, the auto magnate Henry Ford and the lionized aviator Charles Lindbergh, scarcely altered their views, even after Kristallnacht — the brutal “Night of Broken Glass” in 1938 — during which 1,400 synagogues were torched, tons of of Jewish businesses ransacked and a minimum of 91 were killed.

State Department mandarins, particularly Breckenridge Long, devised or rigorously enforced immigration hurdles that required letters from sponsors, exit visas and transit visas and payments of hundreds of dollars. Even well-connected people like Otto Frank couldn’t assemble all of the paperwork in time.

In a video interview, Botstein noted that the survival of those that made it to America validated a well known quote by the journalist Dorothy Thompson: “For hundreds and hundreds of individuals, a chunk of paper with a stamp on it’s the difference between life and death.”

Americans continued to oppose loosening immigration at the same time as Hitler overran Europe and herded Jews into ghettos, then turned to systematic murder with so-called Einsatzgruppen — mobile killing squads — and human slaughterhouses like Treblinka.

The film features a radio dispatch by Edward R. Murrow, from December 1942, that described the campaign in plain language. “What is going on is that this,” he said. “Thousands and thousands of human beings, most of them Jews, are being gathered up with ruthless efficiency and murdered.”

But such revelations didn’t sway most Americans or their government. Two of each three of Europe’s estimated 9 million Jews would perish.

Even after the war ended and newsreels showcased American liberators stunned at encountering walking skeletons and piles of corpses, antisemites within the State Department and Congress continued to withstand. Because of this, tens of hundreds of Jewish survivors idled in spartan displaced individuals camps into the Fifties at the same time as Nazi collaborators in Ukraine, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia were admitted because they were considered dependably anti-Communist.

Making the film left its creators with feelings of each anger and sadness. Burns reflected on “all of the symphonies that weren’t written, all the nice literature that wasn’t written, all the kids that weren’t raised right with love.”

Botstein is the daughter of Leon Botstein, the orchestral conductor and president of Bard College, whose parents lost most of their relatives within the war. She was surprised by “how little I knew or understood of the family history until I made this film.”

For the author Daniel Mendelsohn, who appears within the film, the emotions were much more intimate. He tells the story of his great-uncle Shmiel Jäger, a butcher who in 1912 left his village of Bolechow, then in eastern Poland, for America together with Mendelsohn’s grandfather and other siblings. Disenchanted with the squalor of the Lower East Side, Jäger returned inside a 12 months. With the rise of antisemitism within the Thirties, Jäger sought to maneuver back to the U.S. but there was by then a 10-year waiting list of Poles in search of visas, and Jäger, his wife, Ester, and 4 daughters got snared within the Nazi extermination maw.

“All those people you simply saw,” Mendelsohn says within the documentary, referring to photos of his relatives, “I might have known those people. A few of them would have been alive today. And the explanation they’re not alive is since the United States principally did its absolute utmost to make it as difficult as possible for Jewish refugees to flee the maelstrom that was engulfing them.”

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