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The U.S. and the Holocaust—A Review

Ken Burns’s new six-hour documentary is a work of extraordinary synoptic power and intelligence.

· 15 min read
The U.S. and the Holocaust—A Review
Members of the US 5th Ranger Infantry Battalion outside the newly-liberated Buchenwald Concentration Camp, Germany, April 1945. Getty Images

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns—not Robert Caro, not Gordon Wood, not Doris Kearns Goodwin—is America’s most influential historian. For over 40 years, his PBS-sponsored interpretations of the American past, available without sticker-shock tuition or pricey textbooks, have offered a core curriculum in a dizzying range of people, arts, and events born in the USA—Father Coughlin, Huey Long, the Brooklyn Bridge, the civil war, baseball, jazz, country and western music, World War II, and Vietnam, to name just some. This coursework is wildly popular not just with the buffs but with the kind of people who hated history in high school (Burns’s 1990 nine-part masterpiece, The Civil War, was a full-blown, national memorial service).

The Burns formula is as plain and sturdy as a Shaker meeting house: forward narrative thrust with a clear thematic hook (in The Civil War, how the United States are became the United States is); a fluid back-and-forth between the momentous currents of history and the minnows caught in the riptide; and an accessible but not oversimplified style. He leaves the razzle dazzle to FX, and the animated sequences and garish reenactments to the History Channel. Burns’s preferred landscape is the black and white photograph, whether from Matthew Brady or the family album—a canvas over which his camera moves up, down, and laterally, telescoping in and out, as though a larger truth will emerge by interrogating the image. (The technique has been immortalized as “the Ken Burns effect” in software editing programs.)

Burns strays, somewhat, from his usual bailiwick in his new three-episode, six-hour series, The U.S. and the Holocaust. Directed by Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein, written by longtime Burns collaborator Geoffrey C. Ward, and given the imprimatur of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the film is of a piece with the Burns back-catalogue. Loquacious experts provide color commentary, eyewitnesses dredging up painful memories, and the testimony of both is supplemented with a treasure trove of archival footage. Peter Coyote, not a bombastic Voice of God but a learned companion who knows when to shut up, is again the off-screen narrator. He is backed up by a chorus of celebrated actors, happy to work for scale on a prestige project, who read letters, memoirs, and speeches. The match between personality and voice is mostly harmonious and sometimes exceptional: the young German actress Helena Zengel, who played the Indian captive opposite Tom Hanks in News of the World (2020), is heartbreaking as she channels Anne Frank, whose story serves as a connecting thread over the six hours. “I am terrified our hiding place will be discovered and I will be shot,” she confides to her diary, a precocious adolescent forced to grow up fast.

For the Americanist Burns, the topic may seem a stretch. After all, the destruction of the European Jews (to use the title of Raul Hilberg’s magisterial 1961 study) occurred on European not American soil, and was perpetrated by Europeans against Europeans. In the first moments of the series, historian Rebecca Erbelding, author of Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe (2018), obligingly finesses the problem: “Even though the Holocaust physically took place in Europe, it is a story that Americans have to reckon with too,” she says.

The topic may also seem an incursion into risky territory. Holocaust history is a minefield of contested terrain. Yet Burns, Novick, Botstein, and Ward (hereafter “the filmmakers” in the interests of simplicity) move through the material with confidence—careful but not trepidatious. In fact, the film is hard-nosed and gutsy, arriving as it does at a cultural moment in which what used to be considered the very worst of historical fallacies—presentism—is celebrated as a virtue in the profession (just ask the president of the American Historical Association.) The filmmakers never forget, and never want the viewer to forget, that we are time traveling—to Great Depression America, where a Democratic president must hold together the most unwieldy of coalitions, or to America at war, where the Nazis are a palpable military threat and not a thought experiment in a philosophy class.

The story unfolds in three chapters (Episode 1: The Golden Door [Beginnings–1938]; Episode 2: Yearning to Breathe Free [1938–1942]; and Episode 3: The Homeless, Tempest-Tossed [1942– ]) and along two parallel tracks. The American side is about antisemitism and immigration policy; the German side is about antisemitism and extermination. In America, Emma Lazarus’s promise at the base of the Statue of Liberty is quickly exposed as false advertising. In Germany, the Nazis are as good as their word.

In the curtain-raiser, historian Nell Irvin Painter (The History of White People, 2010) reminds us that the American experience of racism and genocide pre-dates Nazism, a backdrop the filmmakers use as prelude to the nativist revulsion to the flood of swarthy non-Christians pouring in at Ellis Island in the late 19th century. The exclusionists claimed to be following the science, namely the crackpot eugenics promulgated by the likes of Madison Grant, author of the white-panic screed The Passing of the Great Race (1916). Grant was not a fringe voice: like-minded eugenicists included Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, and even Helen Keller. An older, Medieval strain of Judeophobic bigotry also thrived, some of it underwritten by automobile magnate Henry Ford, peddler of the fraudulent The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

It was all fertile ground for a political action group revived by D.W. Griffith’s blockbuster The Birth of a Nation (1915) and, later that same year, by the lynching of Leo Frank. In 1913, Frank, a New York Jew, was convicted, in an atmosphere of antisemitic hysteria, of the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, who was found dead in the basement of the pencil factory he managed in Atlanta, GA. After his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, a vigilante group calling itself the Knights of Mary Phagan broke into the Georgia State Prison in Millidgeville, drove Frank to a tree outside Phagan’s hometown of Marietta, and lynched him. The episode led to the founding of the Anti-Defamation League of the B’nai B’rith. Oddly, the Frank case is not mentioned here, but the filmmakers illustrate the mainstream respectability of the Ku Klux Klan with panoramic shots of tens of thousands of robed Klansmen marching down Pennsylvania Avenue against the backdrop of the US Capitol.

The surge of nativism culminated in, but did not crest with, the passage of the US Immigration and Nationality Act of 1924, which tied immigration to quotas that favored northern white Europeans already on American soil in 1890. Only a mere trickle of later arrivals—Italians, Greeks, and Eastern Europe Jews—was allowed to squeeze through the cracks in the door. For Jews, the ascension of Adolf Hitler to the chancellorship on January 30th, 1933, and the swift transformation of Germany into a gangster state, emigration was not simply a means of upward mobility but of basic survival. The streets in America may not have been paved with gold but at least they were not packed with thuggish stormtroopers. However, the US State Department (a “small, hidebound [agency], dominated by conservative members of the Protestant establishment,” as the narration describes it) was packed with Brahmin patricians who no more wanted Jews diluting the Anglo-American gene pool than entering the freshman class at Harvard. Would-be Jewish immigrants had more than the numbers stacked against them.

The parallel histories of American immigration policy and the rise of Nazism are related on screen by a faculty club’s-worth of prominent historians and writers, all eloquent, temperate, and rueful. To a person, they are acutely aware that they know how the story ends and how easy it is now to say this decision was wrong, or stupid, or cruel. David Greene, who curated the exhibition, “America and the Holocaust” at the USHMM, and Peter Hayes, author of Why? Explaining the Holocaust (2017), set the tone. Both caution against smug hindsight and vicarious morality, the impulse “to wag your finger at people in the past.” Less willing to let our ancestors off the hook is Deborah Lipstadt, the recently confirmed US Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism and author of, to name but one of her landmark works, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (1993). “The episode of America and the Holocaust is not one that redounds to our credit,” she says. But no one is bitter or hectoring.

The survivors of Nazism do not need scholarly credentials to speak with authority. The engaging Guy—nee Günther—Stern recalls drawing a lucky hand, escaping to St. Louis in the 1930s, and assimilating by way of baseball, jazz, and girls. His kinsmen are not so lucky, though their presence before the camera reassures the viewer of their ultimate survival. In keeping with the generational code of conduct, they are stoic, sometimes speaking haltingly, but mainly dry-eyed. The first and only tears are shed by Joseph Hilsenrath, who escaped Vichy France as a child in 1940. Recalling his first sighting of the Statue of Liberty, materializing like an angel out of an early morning fog, he breaks down and weeps. He will likely have company.

The survivors are all now octogenarians, nonagenarians, and even a wizened centenarian (Benjamin Ferencz, former chief prosecutor at the second round of Nuremberg Trails in 1947–48, still sharp as a tack at 102). Looking at the gallery and doing the arithmetic, one realizes that if The U.S. and the Holocaust is not it, we are within sight of the last major Holocaust documentary to feature fresh interviews with living eyewitnesses. (The filmmakers include no Nazi perpetrators—though they too are dying off, as Luke Holland’s pointedly titled documentary Final Account [2021] testifies.)

Of course, the real stars of a Burns documentary are not the experts or eyewitnesses but the archival material. When the topics are baseball or jazz, the viewer can ease into the flow of the footage. Not so here. Though much of the footage is familiar, it never fails to stupefy: brownshirts marauding through the streets of Berlin during the boycott of Jewish businesses on April 1st, 1933; the midnight book burning at the Opernplatz on May 10th, 1933; a film noirish montage of frenzied students, silhouetted by the flames, tossing books into a raging bonfire; and the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returning from the Munich Conference, waving his white piece of paper assuring “peace for our time.”

Dedicated archeologists of the cinema, the filmmakers and their researchers always return from the field with rarer finds: Paramount News clips of an anti-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden on March 27th, 1933, featuring Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and former New York governor Al Smith condemning the Nazis with blunt force and prophetic insight; the Soviet newsreel coverage of the Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 23rd, 1939, the devil’s bargain that lit the fuse for World War II; and crisp 35mm film of screenwriter Ben Hecht’s pageant We Will Never Die, a cry from the Jewish heart meant to sound the alarm about the millions who were in fact dying, first staged at Madison Square Garden on March 9th, 1943. A haunting passage highlights 16mm home movie footage shot by American David Kurtz during a 1938 visit to his family’s hometown in Poland (the footage also provides the source material for Bianca Stigter’s recent meditation Three Minutes: A Lengthening [2021]). The people, the buildings, even the tombstones in the Jewish cemetery are preserved now only in celluloid.

The filmmakers are not stingy with the archival goods, letting us get an eyeful, making no concessions to TikTok attention spans. Yet he is not stubbornly old school. For the Anglophone viewer, he (or his software-savvy editors) performs a slick piece of digital magic, translating the German signage into English and using the same Germanic font for the English lettering. Thus, “Juden sind hier unerwünscht” morphs seamlessly into “Jews are not welcome here.” The phrase sums up the official America policy, albeit without the signs on the benches. As conditions in Europe turn ever more lethal for Jews (Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, on November 9th–10th, 1938, convinced all but the blindest that this was not their father’s antisemitism), existence becomes a life and death paper chase in pursuit of passports, identification cards, transit visas, and affidavits. “One piece of paper pushed from the right here to the right there can save a life,” says Yale University historian Timothy Snyder, author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2010).

The problem is to get out you need somewhere to go. Just how tightly the door to America was barred is made clear by the melancholy fate of the passengers aboard the German liner St. Louis, denied a safe harbor in America in May 1939, a true-life voyage of the damned. Not that other countries were rolling out the welcome mat. “As we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one,” says the supercilious representative from Australia at the Évian conference, an international gathering held in 1938 to address the plight of Jewish refugees. The Nazis gloated: no one else wants the Jews either!

On September 1st, 1939, the outbreak of war in Europe confirmed, for many Americans, the wisdom of keeping the door to the nation locked while huddling safely behind it. Having been burned in the Great War, they wanted no part of the sequel. Looking back, it is sometimes difficult to gauge how much of the isolationist impulse between 1939 and 1941 was a principled antiwar stance and how much was functionally pro-Nazi and nakedly antisemitic. But not in the case of aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, the most prominent spokesman for the America First Committee. On September 11th, 1941, in Des Moines, Iowa, he brought the subtext to the surface: Jews, especially the moguls in Hollywood and the heads of the radio networks, were conspiring to sucker America into the European maelstrom for their own nefarious purposes.

The US State Department was of the same mind. Acting as a one-man roadblock to Jewish refugees was Breckinridge Long, assistant secretary of state (1940–44), whose very name seems to ooze the clubby “genteel antisemitism” of the patrician classes. As Lindbergh raved and Long obstructed, individual Americans took matters into their own hands. They formed refugee relief agencies, donated money, signed the necessary affidavits attesting to a refugee’s financial solvency, and stretched the law—sometimes violating it outright—to rescue the Jews of Europe from their death sentence. At the US Treasury Department, John Pehle emerges as a kind of anti-Breckinridge Long—a bureaucrat with a conscience, determined to sound the alarm and save as many refugees as possible.

And what of the man best positioned to alleviate the suffering of Europe’s Jews and raise his voice on their behalf? The filmmakers, and the historians they forefront, take pains to remind us that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a lot on his plate and, besides, his hands were tied. Bound by the Neutrality Act of 1936 and restrained by a doggedly isolationist electorate, he had neither the Constitutional power to intervene in the Spanish Civil War and confront the Fascists early on, nor the political capital to fight publicly for more generous immigration quotas. FDR was “an internationalist presiding over an isolationist country” who had to be “careful not to get too far ahead of public opinion.” Viewers unsatisfied with the brief for the defense might want to read Phillip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America. What makes Roth’s counterfactual scenario so terrifying—Lindbergh runs for president against FDR on an isolationist platform in 1940 and wins—is that it is so plausible.

On June 22nd, 1941, Hitler invaded Russia, which meant more Jews fell under the hegemony of the Third Reich. So began the systematic mass slaughter of Jews by SS killing squads, the Einsatzgruppen, and willing executioners recruited from among the locals. “As it was happening to us, we couldn’t believe it,” a survivor of the Einsatzgruppen executions tells Daniel Mendelsohn, author of the memoir The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million (2006). “So how is anybody else going to believe it?”

On January 20th, 1942, at an ornate villa in Wannsee, a suburb of Berlin, leaders of the SS and concerned agencies met to contrive a more efficient means of extermination that would be less emotionally draining for the perpetrators. It was there that the so-called Final Solution—death camps and extermination in gas chambers with Zyklon B—was blueprinted. On the soundtrack, the filmmakers play a chilling recording from October 1943 of the voice of SS head Heinrich Himmler, giving the troops a motivational speech. For once, there are no euphemisms: “Most of you know what it means when 100 bodies lie together, when 500 lie there, or if 1,000 lie there,” he says. “We have carried out this most difficult task for love of our own people.” Although the clinical horror of the gas chambers and the body count racked up at the six death camps in Poland has dominated the imagination of the Holocaust, Mendelsohn argues movingly of the need to expand the field of vision to capture “the particularity of what happened.” The victims, he says, “were not statistics to themselves,” nor should they be to us.

In Episode 3, the filmmakers turn dutifully, almost wearily, to two well-worn paths in Holocaust historiography, debates that have roiled around dinner tables and history departments since 1945. What did we know and when did we know it? And what could have, and should have, been done?

Not much, conclude the experts, certainly when the Third Reich was at its peak, the period of greatest lethality for the Jews of Europe. Peter Hayes bears the grim tidings that three-quarters of the Jews murdered were killed in a spasm of bloodthirsty efficiency in a 20-month period and that 90 percent of the victims were killed when they were beyond rescue and hope. As for the suggestion made by the War Refugee Board in 1944 that the rail lines to Auschwitz or the camp itself be bombed, the plans were of dubious effectiveness and, not incidentally, “Allied aircraft were otherwise engaged”—namely in destroying the still deadly Nazi war machine as American troops pushed into Germany. Lipstadt dissents, arguing that Auschwitz should have been bombed “as a statement” and insisting that “both [tactical and symbolic bombing] could have been done at the same time.” But the weight of evidence presented here is on the side of the hard-nosed military calculus: you send your bombers to destroy military targets not to make a statement.

The other perennial question is the extent of the knowledge—both among highly placed decision-makers and home front civilians—of the extermination of the Jews in Europe. Greene notes that “the information was there,” but that most Americans were unable to grasp the scale of the numbers, to process the information. If people knew, they didn’t really know. The backstory is crucial here, and, to its credit, the film does not neglect it. To a generation made cynical by the hysterical anti-Hun propaganda of the Great War, news of Auschwitz would have had all the “earmarks of a war rumor,” as a skeptical American diplomat said. When Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski visited Washington, DC to tell what he had seen in the Warsaw ghetto, and heard directly from death camp escapees, he was met with skepticism and disbelief.

The liberation of the camps—first in Poland by the Soviet army in early 1945, then by the British and Americans in April 1945—removed all doubt. The cascading chain of media reports provided redundant verification: articles and wirephotos from the major news services; radio bulletins from trusted broadcast journalists, above all, CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow on site at Buchenwald (“If I’ve offended you with this rather mild account of Buchenwald,” he told listeners on April 15th, 1945, “I am not in the least sorry.”); photo spreads in Life magazine; and, finally, the indelible proof, the most shocking motion pictures ever screened in American theaters, the newsreel and US Army Signal Corps films of the concentration camps at Ordruf, Bergen-Belsen, Nordhausen, Buchenwald, and Dachau.

An extended clip from the Universal Newsreel issue, released on May 1st, 1945, is a window into the reaction of the first spectators. Knowing the tolerance levels of moviegoers raised on Production Code Hollywood, narrator Ed Herlihy sternly orders home front civilians not to avert their eyes when the door of a crematorium swings open to reveal the ghastly sight of partially burnt corpses. “Don’t turn away!” he barks. “Look!” General Eisenhower requested that the newsreels be shown in every theater in America, and they were.

After that revelation, the wrap-up is rushed and perfunctory, the passage of history suddenly moving into fast forward. An important stop in the aftermath is at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961–62, a ritual of remembrance that, says Lipstadt, marks a pivot point for the postwar reckoning with the Holocaust. (For what it’s worth, my own sense is that, for Americans, Judgment at Nuremberg, the Abby Mann teleplay broadcast in 1959 on CBS’s Playhouse 90 and Stanley Kramer’s all-star motion picture version in 1961, and the publication of Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, were no less important. Also, for better or worse, it was the NBC miniseries Holocaust (1978) that made the word the universal signifier for the genocide of the European Jews.) The other stop is the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which reversed some of the injustices of 1924 and “correct[ed] a cruel and enduring wrong,” said LBJ. This did not settle the issue.

The final moments of the film misfire: an abrupt and rapid-fire video salad of postwar incidents of racism and antisemitism: the tiki torch bearing neo-Nazis at Charlottesville, the murders of 11 Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and, inevitably, the January 6th riots. Ugly and tragic to be sure but not in the same ballpark, indeed the same galaxy, as what has transpired during the previous six hours.

Like all of Burns’s work, The U.S. and the Holocaust is a film of extraordinary synoptic power and intelligence, a motion picture textbook that high school and university educators will exploit long into the future. Not that I don’t have a few criticisms—some trivial, mere matters of taste (Werner Herzog as the voice of Herman Goering? That’s just wrong.) and some more substantive. The filmmakers are too hard on Hollywood (an industry which did more to alert Americans to the danger of Nazism than any other for-profit business in the 1930s) and too easy on the Communist Party USA (after the Hitler-Stalin Pact, American communists made common cause with the America First isolationists—until, of course, Hitler attacked Russia, and the party line zig-zagged back to a policy of interventionism).

Above all, I wish the filmmakers had noted that most of the archival footage tracking the rise of Nazism and the horrors of the Holocaust was not seen by Americans between 1933 and 1945. It only came to light after the war—discovered in the private stock of amateurs (like the home movies of Kristallnacht, not seen in November 1938) or in official Nazi footage not circulated in the West (or German theaters for that matter). Some of the most appalling visual documentation of the Holocaust came courtesy of the avid shutterbugs in the Nazi ranks—photographs and film of the brutal roundups of Jews, doomed Soviet POWs marching off to be shot or worked to death, and the mass executions by the Einsatzgruppen killing squads.

It is an amateur “trophy shot” taken by way of bragging rights that provides The U.S. and the Holocaust with one of its most instructive and heart-stopping moments. A group of cheerful German soldiers are shown holding up their cameras, like tourists, to photograph something not yet visible in the frame. The camera pulls back to reveal what is in front of their lenses—a corpse hanging screen right. No one uses the Ken Burns effect better than Ken Burns.

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