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Filmmaker Ken Burns, the longtime New Hampshire resident known for his documentaries on poignant historical topics — “The Vietnam War,” “The Dust Bowl,” “The Central Park Five,” and “Jackie Robinson,” among many others — released his newest, called “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” along with co-directors Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein last month.
The three-part, six-hour series brings something relatively new (or at least lesser addressed) to the Holocaust media canon by focusing on America’s role in it. The series explores questions of what the U.S. didn’t do and what it could have done, while disproving the myths that Americans either didn’t know or didn’t care that Jews and other targeted minorities were being persecuted in World War II.
Raising points about racial and ethnic prejudice and how they can affect immigration policies as well as how authoritarian states gain momentum and control, the documentary feels very relevant to our political climate today, and has inspired commentary and think pieces around the globe.
Reckoning with this history and the role the U.S. played in the Holocaust is both hugely important and hugely overdue, and the documentary succeeds in pointing out the culpability of the American people, its proponents have noted.
It draws parallels to what the American government has done throughout history: a 1924 law imposing immigration quotas that were sympathetic toward the white and the Protestant and prejudiced toward anyone else; westward expansion that resulted in the killing and forced moving of Native Americans; Jim Crow laws that segregated white people from Black people that ended only just over 50 years ago.
“Every film that we’ve worked on, we’ve always been aware of the echoes in the present. Human nature doesn’t change. Mark Twain is supposed to have said, ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes,’” said Burns in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter. “As we worked on this over the seven years, the rhymes — as Mark Twain might say — grew louder and louder and louder.”
Burns, Novick, and Botstein had been working on the film since 2015, with a planned 2023 release, but those rhymes caused them to push it up by a year.
Perhaps the most important point the film makes, as described by Jeff Jacoby of The Boston Globe, is two-fold: for Americans who wanted to know what was happening to the Jews after Hitler assumed power, the information was available, and what suppression there was of this news coverage came not only from Germany but also from the U.S. government.
“Through it all, the U.S. government, with some rare and heroic exceptions, not only refused to help Europe’s Jews escape the Nazi genocide but went to extremes to suppress or downplay reports of the horror that was underway,” writes Jacoby.
Jonathan Wilson, a novelist and professor emeritus of English at Tufts University — where he once chaired the department and taught a class called “Representing the Holocaust” — said it was this focus on the U.S. that set the new documentary apart for him.
“With the focus on the U.S. and the Holocaust, I thought one of the parts that will probably have the greatest impact, perhaps, on American viewers, is the representation of Nazism as it existed in the United States,” Wilson told Boston.com.
He referenced a particular scene in the documentary that shows the German American Bund filling Madison Square Garden and doing Hitler salutes.
“It’s quite terrifying, because we tend to think that was not the case here,” Wilson said. “I think this will help people understand that it was.”
Wilson noted the importance of a big name covering this issue.
“Ken Burns, because of who he is, and rightfully, because of his reputation, he pulls in a very big audience and garners attention to, perhaps, an aspect of the Holocaust that hasn’t always been the foregrounded aspect,” Wilson said.
Sixty-two members of Wilson’s father’s family were killed during the Holocaust, though Wilson didn’t find this out until about 20 years ago, after his father’s death. He doesn’t know why he hid it.
“Maybe he wanted us to grow up without the burden of that knowledge; I think that was partly it, and also partly a grief that they couldn’t or didn’t want to share,” Wilson said.
Both personally and academically, he’s spent a lot of time thinking about and engaging with the Holocaust, and he still found much to be gained from the new documentary.
“Even for people who have immersed themselves in the studies of the Holocaust, I think it contained elements that were clarifying, chastening, fascinating,” Wilson said.
That’s the filmmakers’ aim, to “explode” your preconceptions, Burns told the Hollywood Reporter: “By the time you finish it, you can’t really remember how completely ignorant you were of the situation,” he said.
The filmmakers also experienced that expansion of knowledge. Novick said she went into the directing process thinking that Americans didn’t know much about the Holocaust at the time.
“Here we’re showing that, actually, Americans did know a lot about what Hitler was doing, what he was saying, what he was promising, threatening,” she said to the Hollywood Reporter. “So that just led us to deeply examine, well, why did we respond the way we did and not want to let people in, keep our golden door shut, treat immigrants as a threat to our national security?”
Jordan Hoffman, of The Times of Israel, wrote that even though we know the history of restricted visas, “learning that the red tape was put there deliberately is added salt on the wound.”
Dara Horn, in the Atlantic, noted that even for wealthy Jews, the “golden door” was “blocked by red tape.” America in the 1930s did not want more Jews, regardless of who they were.
She emphasized the timeliness of the documentary.
“Watching the rapid collapse of democracies in Adolf Hitler’s path on-screen in 2022 is hard to stomach, given the shellacking that democratic norms have endured in recent years both in the U.S. and elsewhere,” Horn said.
Hoffman echoed this sentiment, calling the film “essential viewing,” especially as antisemitism grows along with other prejudices.
“The timeliness of this all, and why it is ‘good’ the series is out right now, is that violent prejudice against Jews, post-Charlottesville, post-Tree of Life, is not merely academic in America,” Hoffman said.
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