“America and the Holocaust,” a three-part film by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, will debut Sept. 18 on PBS. Burns, his partners, and the staff of Florentine Films work out of a production studio in Walpole, New Hampshire. After seeing the film, I interviewed Burns. Our discussion has been shortened and slightly edited for length and clarity.
Pride: Has your thinking on this project changed from when you started it, before the Trump presidency, to when you finished it?
Burns: We did it because we were interested in the subject. We are not interested in scoring contemporary points. We know that whatever we work on will resonate with today, that the echoes of yesterday will fully join the present moment, but it is our responsibility not to pay attention to it.
After the 2007 World War II movie “The War” came out, we were approached by people who said, “How come you didn’t talk about what an anti-Semitic FDR was ? or “Why didn’t you investigate why the St. Louis (a ship carrying Jewish refugees) was diverted from American shores?” or “Why didn’t the United States bomb Auschwitz?” Finally, we said, “You know what? We really have to.
Coincidentally, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, had just launched an exhibit called “Americans and the Holocaust” and asked us if we would be interested in making a film about it. We said yes, we would love to partner with you and get your help in identifying sources, archives and scholars.
Then it was just a matter of pushing to come to a complex relationship between what happened 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 simply follow the story of the Holocaust while traveling back and forth between the United States and Germany and seeing uncomfortable echoes between the two places.
Pride: What do you hope people will take away from the film in the current political context?
Burns: We are storytellers, and each person will tell, or not tell, in their own way. And this is a good thing.
A sensitivity to our fragility is an important reason why we accelerated the project, it was due out next year. I think everyone in the movie articulates that, but no one more specifically than Daniel Mendelsohn when he says, make no mistake, there’s no background to what human beings can do and how badly our institutions are fragile.
I insisted on putting a paragraph at the start of episode one saying that if you wanted to be in the hippest, most democratic, artistically exciting and vibrant place in 1931 and 1932, you wouldn’t do better than Berlin: in the arts, architecture, music, intellectual circles. And the change was almost instantaneous.
People’s willingness to believe the lies of an evil regime and manipulative, demagogue rulers is not unique. It’s not, oh, it’s a shame that it happened. We see the rise of authoritarianism, we see the constraints on democratic institutions, we see the superficial appeal of order has enormous human consequence.
Pride: I was happy to see Mendelsohn in the film. Years ago I read his book, “The Lost: A Search for Six of the Six Million”. He goes in search of six members of his family “killed by the Nazis”. The book changed my view of the Holocaust.
Burns: The number 6 million is impenetrable. It doesn’t mean anything anymore. We start the movie saying let’s reconfigure this equation. There were 9 million Jews in Europe in 1933, and in 1945 two out of three were missing. We watch a woman staring out the window joined by, presumably, her father and mother, and you realize that in any given threesome, two are missing.
Or it’s Mendelsohn who dedicates much of his life to finding out what happened to his great-uncle, Shmiel Jager, his wife and four daughters, no matter what. And he particularizes it, that’s the word he used.
More than half of 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, Hitler wanted places where he treated people as stateless and nameless, just like we treated Native Americans, he ended up acquiring Jews. This led to the decision to kill them all.
Pride: In your film, the pre-WWII United States is rife with anti-Semitism, racism, eugenics, the Chinese Exclusion Act, forced deportations of Mexicans who became US citizens, attempts to restrict of immigration to the Nordic races. It’s so different from the history I learned in high school. Should this be part of the curriculum?
Burns: Nell Irvin Painter (historian quoted in the film) is smart about this: We are an exceptional country, but sometimes we are not. If you say, as Lincoln said, that you are the last best hope on earth, you must be harder on yourself than anyone else.
We can no longer get by with a sanitized view of our history. It exposes women to everything the “me too” movement is trying to say. It relegates Indigenous peoples and African Americans to the background, passive victims or non-existent people whose stories don’t need to be told because it bothers some. It’s not correct.
You have to tell a more complete story, and that makes it richer. We have to honor what is really happening.
Pride: Your film depicts Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Holocaust strategy. It was about winning the war as quickly as possible and punishing the perpetrators afterwards, not saving the Jews. He saw no way to save them, and with all the casualties his armies were taking, he thought it was rude to lose more lives in a rescue attempt. Was he wrong?
Burns: Politically, there is nothing wrong with that. It’s precise. He is not an absolute king or dictator. He cannot by decree save Jews and admit them to the United States.
He does not ignore the problem. He just knows what he has to do. It seems, in retrospect, perhaps cruel, but backtracking, we are all guilty. We speak to you several times about the polls carried out at the time. They are devastating. Even after hearing about Kristallnacht, even after seeing the images of the liberated concentration camps, no one wants to let any more Jews in.
Roosevelt, a masterful politician, knows this: what he can get through, what he can’t. Let’s not just put it on FDR. There are many forces operating.
If we had been more public about the crimes committed, earlier and louder, it might have helped. We haven’t done that. It’s about FDR, but it’s also about members of his administration who were virulently anti-Semitic and who walked slowly or obstructed all that is good. That’s true of Congress, reflecting the mood of the country, a large majority of American citizens.
Pride: Holocaust survivors, long the storytellers of this story, are dying. Has this reduced the attention that rising generations give to this tragedy and what they know about it?
Burns: You are unfortunately right, we are losing a lot of witnesses. In a generation, there won’t be any left, so it seems important to hear their stories.
Fortunately, Steven Spielberg and the Shoah Foundation saved 54,000 testimonies. He has an elaborate hologram project that has asked dozens of survivors questions. It’s nearly impossible, when a school group arrives, for someone to ask a question that these survivors haven’t yet been asked and for a hologram to answer it. It’s a way to keep him alive.
But there were themes that needed to be told. There were backlashes from the American experience relating to this story, whether it was the Germans modeling their exclusion laws against Jews in the early 1930s by studying our Jim Crow laws in the South, whether it was the Hitler’s endorsement of our treatment of indigenous peoples or our immigration law.
And then to hear that some of the titans of our mythological past, Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, to name but two, were virulent anti-Semites. And the eugenics movement, that creepy Helen Keller comment basically endorsing death committees. Here is a kind of eugenics which would not have let her live.
Pride: How do you think what your film tells about our behavior 75-80 years ago can help us deal with the issues we face today with similar issues: a rise in anti-Semitism, a divided race, white supremacist violence, prejudice against immigrants?
Burns: Yes, there are similar issues, which is why in the past we have rarely brought our films back 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 will not change a single point of view. The only thing that can do that is a good story, and we hope we told a good story.
Pride: Why do you think anti-Semitism persists in the United States today?
Burns: When I was working on the country music film, I realized that I had been making films about the United States for almost 50 years. But I had also made films about us, the lowercase two-letter plural pronoun: all of our intimacy and all of the majesty, intricacy, intricacy and controversy of the United States.
The epiphany was that it’s just us, there’s no them. When you see someone creating one, we’re on our way. It was the malicious strategy and tactic of an evil demagogue to blame a group of others. In this case, they were Jews, people without a homeland, people who brought us the ideas of the golden rule, fair play, the ideals of socialism, an internationalist vision.
If you appeal to the lowest common denominator in people, it’s easy to make Jews, or someone with slightly different skin pigmentation, the enemy.
Mike Pride, editor emeritus of the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and former Pulitzer Prize administrator, writes history books. He lives in Bow, New Hampshire.