Ken Burns is undoubtedly America’s most famous documentarian—a filmmaker of prodigious talent whose ambitious body of work has covered vast swathes of American history and popular culture. He has produced documentaries on country music, baseball, jazz, the blues, and of course, his epic 1990 series, The Civil War, which made him a household name. Now, Burns and his co-directors, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, have produced The U.S. and the Holocaust,which Burns has described as “the most important film” he has ever worked on.
Reviewing the new mini-series in these pages, Thomas Doherty called it “a film of extraordinary synoptic power and intelligence.” Many of the other reviews I’ve read have been comparably laudatory—indeed, most critics have taken the opportunity to celebrate Burns’s back-catalogue as well. The problem is that Burns has become something approaching a national treasure—an artist whose work is so imposing in volume, depth, creativity, and seriousness that ordinarily sharp critics find themselves intimidated into reflexive deference.
But like everyone else, Burns has his blind spots and his biases, and these were perhaps most evident in his 10-part 2017 production, The War in Vietnam, which he also co-directed with Lynn Novick. That series, Burns has said, was made with the intention of producing a “national conversation about what happened during the Vietnam War, what went wrong and what lessons are to be learned.” Like its predecessors, it was almost universally praised, but it did receive at least one devastating critique in the Weekly Standard by Stephen J. Morris, an eminent historian of the war (who was not asked to be an advisor). Burns and Novick, Morris argues, tilted their “analysis of the war toward the views of the antiwar movement,” repeating the myth that Ho Chi Minh and his comrades were primarily nationalists, not communists, who set out to establish a new government on principles enshrined in the US Declaration of Independence.
Following this tendentious account of the Vietnam War, it should be no surprise that The U.S. and the Holocaust is also fraught with problems. Although it successfully shows the failure of the Western Allies to protect the Jewish population of Europe, its errors of omission—and particularly its treatment of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s role as the Holocaust began—converge on an insistence that American citizens’ support for the war effort only extended as far as the destruction of the Nazi regime. They cared little about what happened to the Jews of Europe, and they opposed changing US immigration laws to provide more Jews with a safe haven in the United States. America’s failure, therefore, cannot be laid at the door of the administration. In short, FDR did what he could to save the Jews of Europe, but he was thwarted by public opinion and the antisemites in the State Department.
Ever since the publication in 1984 of David Wyman’s bestselling and highly influential book, The Abandonment of the Jews, it has become widely accepted that more Jews could have been saved from Hitler’s genocide had FDR helped them escape from Nazi-occupied Europe. Wyman’s book changed our understanding of America’s failure; it persuasively argued that the American president’s refusal to prioritize the rescue of European Jewry as a matter of policy cost countless lives. In an influential (and representative) review for the Sunday New York Times Book Review on December 16th, 1984, historian A.J. Sherman, wrote:
[Wyman’s] research in widely scattered sources meticulously reconstructs a complex story from which very few individuals emerge with credit, and some, notably President Franklin D. Roosevelt, stood clearly indicted for a cold indifference in practice utterly at variance with the lofty humanitarian sentiments publicly proclaimed for political advantage.
Wyman’s book, Sherman concluded, was “exemplary in its clarity and thoroughness,” and he praised its author for adopting a “judicious tone” and “marshaling evidence rather than apportioning blame.”
Wyman argued that Britain and the United States believed that Hitler planned to expel the Jews rather than exterminate them, which would mean more refugees arriving in both countries. Indeed, the question of where the six million would go posed a major problem—what Wyman called an “insoluble dilemma”—since neither Britain nor America were keen to receive them. On this, “the State Department and the White House were agreed.” So, the Churchill government in Europe and the Roosevelt Administration in the US agreed to oppose the development of a new and large refugee movement out of Europe. Many of the president’s Jewish advisors, like Samuel Rosenman, believed FDR had to be insulated from the issue. Rosenman even opposed the formation of a new rescue agency, because he feared that US aid to European Jews would be resented and “might increase anti-Semitism in the United States.”
Once the book became a bestseller, the argument Wyman made and the research he presented were accepted by the American public, especially its Jewish community, as well as by most American historians of Germany, European history, and Jewish history. Its popularity and influence led PBS to produce a major documentary on America’s role in the Holocaust for its prestigious series, “The American Experience.” It was titled America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference, and like the new miniseries by Burns, Novick, and Botstein (hereafter, Burns and colleagues), it was made with the cooperation of the United States Holocaust Museum. Appearing in 1984 to coincide with Wyman’s book, and featuring an interview with the author, the film reinforced Wyman’s message about FDR’s culpability.
The PBS film is only an hour and 50 minutes, but it covers much of the same territory as the new six-hour series by Burns and colleagues. Viewers of the new series will find much of the same footage first used by PBS’s writer and director, Martin Ostrow (Ostrow has expressed understandable irritation that Burns and colleagues reused “the precise Bach violin concerto passage from the most poignant moment of my film”). Its shorter running time meant that Ostrow could not examine certain aspects of the story in as much detail as the new series. Nevertheless, in some areas, it manages to provide a better account of events.
For instance, the US Department of State worked to ensure that Germans seeking American visas in the early days of Hitler’s rule were required to file vast amounts of unnecessary forms, so they’d never get their exit papers. Ostrow relays this information by concentrating on the story of one family, and one of its young members, Kurt Klein, who had managed to emigrate to the US aged 17. There, the young refugee became a US soldier and later participated in the liberation of one of the Nazis’ camps. Klein’s parents had sent their children to the States first on the assumption that they would follow. Instead, they became entangled in the State Department’s unending bureaucratic demands, and by the time their visas were finally approved, they had already been shipped to Auschwitz where they were murdered. Their story is illustrated by the letters they sent to their children in the US, in which they detailed each agonizing step of the process and expressed their longing to be reunited as a family in America.
Burns and colleagues handled this issue by presenting the story of Anne Frank’s father, Otto Frank, who had written to his friend Nathan Straus, the owner of Macy’s department store in New York, trying to get his support and sponsorship for visas for Frank’s entire family. Co-director Lynn Novick has explained the filmmakers’ choice “as a powerful framing device because … Anne Frank is the most well-known representative of the Holocaust for most Americans, or certainly for many.” Frank, Novick points out, “might still be here today if our policies had been different.” But unlike Ostrow, she is eager to muddy the point of culpability, adding, “We’re not saying America is responsible for what happened to Anne Frank in any way, shape, or form, but we're trying to help our audience and ourselves see that these narratives are connected and that in America we have to look at ourselves in this story.”
Before The U.S. and the Holocaust was released,Ostrow wrote a column expressing his hope that the filmmakers had “examined the historical research published in the years since my film came out,” and made room “for some of the uncomfortable truths about FDR, such as remarks about Jews [made] behind closed doors.” Ostrow wanted to know whether or not Burns and his team would address the “key controversies” he had made central to his own film:
[W]hat will merit special scrutiny in the new Ken Burns film is how he presents the key controversies:
Does he attempt to blame “American society”—as if the president was a helpless captive of public opinion?
Does he attempt to blame everything on the State Department—as if that branch made its own foreign policy?
Does he make it seem as if the immigration quotas in themselves were the problem, instead of acknowledging how FDR’s policies kept the quotas vastly unfilled?
Does he convey the impression that bombing the railways leading to Auschwitz was too difficult to accomplish, when we know that U.S. planes bombed railroad lines throughout Europe—with multiple bombing raids on German oil factories in the vicinity of Auschwitz, some less than five miles from the gas chambers…?
Ostrow already seems to have suspected that the answer to each of these questions would be a big “yes,” and that Burns and colleagues would seek to exonerate FDR and his administration. “Like many other Americans,” he wrote, “I will be watching closely to see if The U.S. and the Holocaust honestly portrays these issues or fails to confront the difficult truths that need to be faced.” Ostrow’s own experience, after all, provided him with good reasons to fear that the thorniest issues would be avoided.
When Ostrow’s documentary was announced in 1984, FDR’s most ardent supporters waged a public campaign against his film before PBS viewers had even seen it. In a magazine called Current, managing editor Karen Everhart wrote a column in which she reported that, “weeks before the debut of an American Experience film on the U.S. response to the Holocaust, defenders of President Roosevelt undertook a quiet campaign to influence and later discredit historical analysis presented in ‘America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference.’” Everhart quoted William vanden Heuvel, president of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, who described the film as “one-sided and grossly unfair, indifferent to the truth and deceitful in concept.” Vanden Heuvel appeared to believe that no honest interpreter of the US role in the Holocaust could possibly reach different conclusions to FDR’s supporters. Those who did were self-evidently uninterested in the truth.
Everhart, however, noted that the historical advisors who met with Ostrow to respond to the advance criticisms reached an altogether different conclusion. Those meetings gave the producers “confidence that the film was not only accurate, but it said what the authors of the film wanted it to say, and that they were on good ground.” These, said Judy Crichton, the film’s executive producer, “were issues of interpretation.” Yet, the Roosevelt Institute and the powerful historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., began to launch attacks on the film’s scholarship which succeeded in “influencing critical reception of the PBS documentary.” The question that provoked the greatest anger from them was “whether FDR did enough to save Jews from Nazi genocide.”
Everhart argued that the film’s main aim was “to document what the Nazis did to the Jews, the growth of anti-semitism in the United States, and the evolution and impact of the State Department’s obstructionist immigration policies toward Eastern Europeans”—the same approach, in other words, adopted by the 2022 documentary. Both films agree about the culpability of the State Department, and especially of the antisemitic executive in charge of granting visas, Breckinridge Long. But in a 1994 article for Newsweek, Schlesinger insisted that FDR “did what he could do to help the Jews”:
The attack on FDR shows a striking disregard of historical context. Alone among world leaders, Roosevelt stood in opposition to Hitler from the beginning. In a succession of speeches he explained to an isolationist nation that Nazism was a mortal threat to the United States. He denounced anti-Semitism, proposed the Evian conference in 1938 to help refugees and, after the terror of Kristallnacht, was the only head of state to recall his ambassador from Berlin.
The president, Schlesinger wrote, “had to deal with the world as it was” and “America admitted more refugees than any other country.” Besides which, he added, Roosevelt “knew that winning the war was the only way to save the people in the concentration camps.” But both documentaries show that arguments like these are beside the point, and do not address the concrete charges made by FDR’s critics. At issue was the admission of Jews, specifically—not refugees generally or those from other religious or ethnic groups. And if an antisemitic policy was followed despite FDR’s opposition to antisemitism, it simply underlines the president’s inability to lead on the issue of Jewish immigration.
As for Ostrow, after watching The U.S. and the Holocaust, he acknowledged that Burns and colleagues had handled “the unfolding of the Nazi genocide quite well, worthy of Holocaust education.” But he also complained that the series portrayed FDR as subservient to his underlings at State, rather than as a leader who could have resisted their antisemitism. FDR, Ostrow writes, “made no real effort concerning the plight of Jewish refugees, not even to let them stay temporarily in a U.S. territory such as the Virgin Islands.” He accuses Burns of making excuses for FDR’s inaction, and concludes that the series “brings nothing new to understanding Roosevelt’s troubling decisions and motivations.”
This brings us to what is perhaps the most important and bitterly contested question of all—should the US have bombed the death camp in Auschwitz? Critics of FDR have argued that he could have ordered American bombers flying to other nearby targets to also bomb the death camps. His supporters reply with variations on one argument: bombing the rail tracks leading to Auschwitz would have served no purpose, since they could have been repaired in a day. And since precision bombing did not yet exist, the planes might have missed their targets anyway. So, the only way to help the remaining Jews in the camps was to defeat Hitler and obtain a German surrender.
Burns and colleagues take the view that bombing would not have accomplished anything, and would have required diverting bombers from targets that would help end the war. That was also the argument used by administration officials at the time to answer those at home who called for the camps to be bombed. One such group of agitators was led by a Palestinian Jewish leader living in America named Peter Bergson (aka Hillel Kook), which staged marches and theater and ran ads demanding action the administration was unwilling to take.
But Burns and colleagues are adamant that the Allies could have done nothing to save Hungary’s last 800,000 Jews, who were moved by railroad to Auschwitz where they perished in the gas chambers. The chambers, crematoria, and railroad lines were all within the range of US bombers, and US authorities knew that without action, once these Jews got to Auschwitz, those who did not die during the transport would quickly be murdered. My late friend Jack Schwartz (who succumbed to COVID-19 during the pandemic) wrote in the Daily Beastthat,“the Allies learned of the Hungarian deportations and their lethal destination in late June.” For the advocates of bombing, he argued, striking “a blow against Auschwitz was a symbol of defiance against the Nazi genocide. Failure to rally the world to such an endeavor was seen as a sign of impotence on the part of Jewish wartime leadership and an act of betrayal by the Allies.”
Schwartz noted that the deportations of Hungary’s Jews began on May 15th, 1944, and continued through July 8th. The Allied powers did not learn of this development until the Normandy invasion was underway five weeks after the first transports to Auschwitz had set off. The bombs’ accuracy was not guaranteed, and might have resulted in killing close to 3,000 Jewish prisoners. In a second essay, he concluded that the Nazis had all the cards, and that America’s choices were limited. Schwartz possibly had the most complete and yet brief case for this argument, and like others, he ended up concluding that “the end of the Reich was the quickest means of saving these Jewish lives.”
In a rejoinder to Schwartz, historian Rafael Medoff stated that the US administration had held a press conference in late March 1944, at which they acknowledged that Hungarian Jews were “threatened with annihilation” and that they already knew the Nazis were preparing “the deportation of Jews to their death in Poland.” So, the bombing of Auschwitz would certainly have made a great difference to their chances of survival. Meanwhile, two escapees from the camp had sent a report to rescue squads in Slovakia and Switzerland. They ended by appealing to the Roosevelt administration to bomb “vital sections of these [railway lines], especially bridges” between Hungary and the camp, which they argued was “the only possible means of slowing down or stopping future deportations.”
On this issue, there are two very different analyses offered by serious scholars, historians, and journalists. There are points of agreement, but none about whether the US and the Allies could have successfully bombed the camps themselves. It is therefore reasonable for Burns and colleagues to have concluded that it would not have made a difference. But their film argues that point with certainty, and doesn’t allow viewers to hear contrary arguments and then decide for themselves whether American policy was correct. This is a grave editorial error that does a disservice to the audience as well as to the truth.
Viewers are not even told that synthetic oil factories in occupied Poland, not five miles from Auschwitz, were successfully bombed. It would not even have required a diversion of planes to also bomb the railroad tracks and gas chambers. These flights occurred 22 different times, and no orders were given to bomb the camps. Medoff wonders whether official reluctance can be explained by concerns that a successful operation would have produced new cohorts of Jewish refugees to which the US would then be expected to offer asylum.
Indeed, official War Department policy since 1944 held that it would not use its weapons “for the purpose of rescuing victims of enemy oppression unless such rescues are the direct result of military operations conducted with the objective of defeating the armed forces of the enemy.” They might have concluded that destroying bridges and railroad tracks were military purposes, but they did not. Once again, Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy called it “impracticable” since it would require the diversion of air support needed by US forces fighting elsewhere.
A 22-year-old air force pilot who flew some of those missions spoke out after the war. He was the future Senator from South Dakota and the Democratic Party’s candidate for President of the United States in 1972, George McGovern. In 2004, the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies arranged an interview with McGovern, conducted by Holocaust survivor and philanthropist Sigmund Rolat, Chaim Hecht of Israel Television, and Stuart Erdheim (who had directed the 2001 documentary, They Looked Away). During that meeting, McGovern dismissed the Roosevelt administration’s arguments against bombing as “rationalizations” without merit. Had Burns and colleagues included some of this footage, it would have been especially valuable since McGovern had run on an anti-Vietnam War ticket in ’72 which had made him a hero to American liberals. His was a point of view to which they might have paid particular attention had it been shown.
“There is no question we should have attempted … to go after Auschwitz,” McGovern said. “There was a pretty good chance we could have blasted those rail lines off the face of the Earth, which would have interrupted the flow of people to those death chambers, and we had a pretty good chance of knocking out those gas [chambers].” Even if there was a danger of accidentally harming some of the prisoners, he added, “it was certainly worth the effort, despite all the risks.” The prisoners, he pointed out, were already “doomed to death” and an Allied bombing attack might have slowed down the mass-murder process, thus saving many more lives.
Finally, it is worth considering what the condemned Jews rotting in the crowded and filthy bunks of Auschwitz felt. They knew the fate that awaited them if the Nazis were not be stopped. In his bestselling 1958 memoir of the camps, Night,Elie Wieselwrote, “If a bomb had fallen on the blocks it alone would have claimed hundreds of victims on the spot. But we were no longer afraid of death; at any rate, not of that death. Every bomb that exploded filled us with joy and gave us new confidence in life.”
At a forum held at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City in 2013 to coincide with the publication of Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman’s FDR and the Jews, the participants took up the topic of whether Auschwitz should have been bombed. Breitman joined Deborah Lipstadt for the event, and the Nation’s Laurence Zuckerman reported that they “discussed Roosevelt’s strengths and weaknesses as he confronted demands that he rescue Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany while preparing America for war in the face of fierce isolationism, nativism and anti-Semitism at home.”
When the session was opened up for the Q&A, Zuckerman wrote, “an elderly woman stood up and identified herself as a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who had been a prisoner at Auschwitz. She recalled seeing Allied planes in the sky over the camp (‘little silver birds, maybe thousands of them’). But the bombs never fell.” Breitman had already said, echoing his book, “that the planes were not able to reach Auschwitz until late in the war and that, in any case, bombing the camp would probably not have stopped the killing. But that did not satisfy the woman.”
“‘If they would have bombed the crematoria, they could have at least stopped them from murdering the Jews,’ she said, her voice rising in indignation. ‘That’s why I blame the Allies for it, including the United States. My parents died there—my whole family died over there. OK? And I was 16, so it’s not like you said that Roosevelt couldn’t do nothing.’” At which point, the previously subdued audience “suddenly erupted in applause and shouts of encouragement.”
Like Breitman and Lichtman, Zuckerman found it hard to comprehend how a president who had won 80 percent of the Jewish vote was suddenly seen as a villain for failing to bomb Auschwitz. He was clearly upset that FDR’s “reputation has been tarnished” and was being judged only by his actions relating to the Holocaust. What started as “legitimate historical revisionism,” he wrote, “has morphed into caricature.”
John Pehle, the first director of the War Refugee Board established in 1944, told Ostrow that “after we recommended to the War Department that the extermination facilities at Auschwitz be bombed, we were told this would involve bombers being sent from England … and therefore, it was not possible to do this. Later, perhaps after the war, we discovered at the very time we were recommending this, bombing all around Auschwitz was going on from Italy, and we had been misled.” By the time Burns and colleagues made their documentary, Pehle had died. But they elected not to include the interview footage of Pehle from Ostrow’s film in which he made his case. Instead, their narrator, the actor Peter Coyote, acknowledges that Pehle had called for the bombing of Auschwitz, but then asserts that he was wrong to have done so.
Peter Hayes, a historian who sits on the Board of the US Holocaust Museum, is brought on instead to argue that there were no way American planes could have reached Auschwitz in 1942–43. “Remember,” he says, “Nazi propaganda was that Roosevelt and Churchill were the tools of the Jews, they were fighting the war for the Jews, and the Nazis used this propaganda to great effect and anything the Allies did that seemed to be explicitly defending Jews ran the risk of playing into the hands of that propaganda.”
Let us take a moment to parse that amazing statement. The United States should not have bombed Auschwitz because it would have allowed the Nazis to argue that the Allies were doing the Jews’ bidding? Certainly, such an action might have unintentionally reinforced Nazi propaganda, but so what? Was US policy to be constructed around the fevered beliefs of Nazi propagandists? And to what end, since the Allies’ overriding war aim was the destruction of the regime?
Historian Deborah Lipstadt, now the US Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, tells Burns and colleagues that had the US carried out bombing raids on the camps, it would have sent a “message” to the Nazis—that the US knew what they were doing and would not “abide” it. Rebecca Erbelding, author of a book about US rescue efforts and an advisor on the film, says on camera that “no matter what we did, I think we’d look back and wonder what would have happened had we done the other thing.” But any decision that cannot be run a second time involves an unknowable counterfactual. That is hardly a good argument for not bombing the camps.
The only contrary voice to appear in The U.S. and the Holocaust belongs to a staunch supporter of FDR who was serving as the Nation magazine’s editor-in-chief during the war. In a 1943 editorial, Freda Kirchwey wrote a scathing attack on US policy, arguing that “if we had behaved like humane and generous people instead of complacent, cowardly ones, the two million Jews lying in the earth of Poland and Hitler’s other crowded graveyards would be alive and safe.” Unlike the pessimists, Kirchwey believed that the United States “had it in our power to rescue these doomed people and we did not lift a hand to do it.”
In an essay for Time magazine, Olivia B. Waxman raises another question not dealt with by Burns and colleagues: “One of the big questions is whether the U.S. could have done a better job of publicizing more of the private intelligence on the murder of Europe’s Jews as the details became available, and whether that could have turned public opinion around.” She points out that antisemitism and nativist xenophobia were widespread in America at the time, and that US propagandists therefore chose to emphasize “broader themes of freedom-fighting.” In the film, Lipstadt adds that while the newspapers and radio news did report on the mass killing of Jews, “You either missed it or if you saw it, you would say the editors don’t think this is true,” because if it were, “this would be on the front pages.” It is now well-known that stories like these in the New York Times tended to be buried in small entries in the middle of the paper.
Defenders of Roosevelt point to the fact that, in 1944, the president had created the War Refugee Board by executive order, meant to counter the State Department’s opposition to dealing with the issue. After Roosevelt appointed his upstate New York neighbor and friend, the Jewish businessman Henry Morgenthau, to be Secretary of the Treasury, Morgenthau had his office prepare a report detailing how the US government had acquiesced in the murder of Europe’s Jews. The film strongly implies that it was pressure from Morgenthau that finally led the president to create a War Refugee Board, which indeed saved the lives of some 200,000 Hungarian Jews. It is true, as historian Erbelding says in the film, that FDR issued the order “after a meeting with Morgenthau and Pehle.” But viewers are left with the impression that as soon as he heard what was happening from his Secretary of the Treasury, FDR did the right and necessary thing.
This is a good example of how the omission of important factors can change how one understands an event—in this case, the Board’s creation. Viewers do not learn that that it was Jewish activist Hillel Kook (acting under his assumed name Peter Bergson) who relentlessly lobbied for this move, that a resolution to create one was brought before the Senate, and that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the resolution that the US should act to save Europe’s remaining Jews. It is arguably more accurate to say that the Bergson group’s nationwide propaganda efforts had an effect on the Senate, and that only after that did Morgenthau act to influence the president.
Like Ostrow’s film before it, The U.S. and the Holocaust notes that the 250,000 refugees from Nazi Germany taken in by the US (not all of whom were Jews) was not the maximum permitted by law. Historian Daniel Greene points out that hundreds of thousands of Jews who were kept out could have entered our country. Nevertheless, Burns and colleagues claim that despite this dismal record, the US admitted more Jews—225,000—than any other country. But even this isn’t true. As the Holocaust Museum’s own website acknowledges, the Soviet Union admitted 300,000 Polish Jews who were fleeing the Nazi takeover of the country.
The documentary also omits any mention of the farcical Bermuda Conference on Refugees held in 1943, which as two scholars note, “was conceived as a gesture rather than a serious attempt to rescue Jews from the raging Holocaust.” Almost every book on the Holocaust and refugees devotes a great deal of time to it. Its omission is only explicable because any honest appraisal of the event would have shown that the conference did virtually nothing, and only served to emphasize the administration’s unwillingness to act to save European Jewry.
The tragedy of the St. Louis not being allowed to dock and let its Jewish passengers gain entry to the US, is now also well-known. The administration argued that admitting the Jews on board would have violated the terms of immigration law. Burns and colleagues fail to acknowledge that the passengers could have gone to the US Virgin Islands or other Caribbean territories whose leaders welcomed them, instead of the mainland of the United States.
Another inexplicable omission is any reference to one of the most important people fighting to save Jewish refugees—James G. McDonald. In 1933, McDonald was appointed as High Commissioner for Refugees at the League of Nations, a position he resigned in December 1935 to protest inaction. He later became FDR’s head of the consultative committee on refugee policy and Director of the President’s Committee on Political Refugees, and ended his career as the first US Ambassador to the new nation of Israel. He was responsible for obtaining 2000 visas for Jews seeking to flee Germany after Hitler took power. The US Holocaust Museum has previously devoted a major exhibition to his role, and with his daughters’ permission, became the publisher of his diaries. It may be that the decision to leave him out had something to do with McDonald’s eventual support for bombing Auschwitz.
After October 1941, Peter Coyote gravely intones in the voiceover, “occupied Europe was to be a vast prison for Jews, from which there was no escape but death.” But many Jews did, in fact, manage to escape, and without US help. Zionist groups smuggled some 26,000 European Jews to Palestine between 1941 and 1944. Seven thousand Danish Jews were secretly transported to safety in Sweden in 1943. Thousands of French Jews fled Petain’s France and deportations in 1942 by crossing the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain. Others made it to Italy where Mussolini’s policy was less exacting than that of Hitler, which allowed some Jews to survive. Most well-known was the diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who devoted himself to saving Hungarian Jews. As Sweden’s envoy to Hungary, he used his position to shelter Jews in embassy buildings, and provide them with passports so they could leave. He saved at least 4,500 of Hungary’s Jewish population. He later vanished and it was finally established that the Soviet occupation forces had arrested him in 1945 and put him to death.
Most interesting of all is the treatment of the Polish diplomat, Jan Karski, who informed the world and FDR himself of the Nazi actions taking place in Europe and in the death camps. In 1942, Karski was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto, and was able to report on the conditions imposed upon Poland’s Jews by the Nazis. “I remember,” he wrote, “degradation, starvation and dead bodies lying on the street. We were walking the streets and my guide kept repeating: ‘Look at it, remember, remember.’ And I did remember.” Karski was the first to bring Allied leaders an eyewitness account of the extermination of Poland’s Jews and the methods employed in the camps.
On July 28th, 1943, Karski met with FDR in the White House to offer a direct briefing about affairs in occupied Poland including the Holocaust engulfing the Jews. Years later, he recounted that audience in lengthy detail to filmmaker Claude Lanzmann for the latter’s prize-winning film, Shoah. Karski testified that Roosevelt told him he had “been informed of your great contribution to the Allied cause.” Karski proceeded to deliver a briefing about the state of the Polish resistance to the Nazis. “I remember every second of this conversation,” he told Lanzmann.
“Then,” he recalled, “I come to the Jewish problem. ‘Mr. President, I have also a mission on behalf of the Polish Jews.’” He was given this mission, Karski stated, “by the most important Jewish leaders. They organized for me two visits in the Ghetto. I saw an extermination camp, the name is Belzec … Mr. President, the situation is horrible. The point is that without outside help the Jews will perish in Poland. The end.” Here, Lanzmann interrupted, “What did he [FDR] answer specifically?” Karski’s devastating reply: “Nothing.”
Turning the conversation away from the Jews, FDR said, “The Allied nations are going to win this war! No more wars! Justice will be done! Your country will be alive again, more prosperous than before! Criminals will be punished! The United States will not abandon your country.” A short discussion with the Polish ambassador-in-exile followed, which concluded with FDR saying, "You will return to Poland, you will tell your Polish leaders that this country will never fail them. They have a friend in the President of the United States.”
To Karski’s shock, Roosevelt had not a word to say about the situation facing Poland’s Jews. Instead, he asked about the country’s underground movements and how many horses Germany took from Poland for use in the Russian campaign. “He asked me other questions” Karski continued. “I was given no chance—except my initial statement—to tell [him], “Mr President, listen to me…’ … No Jewish problem was mentioned until the end of the conversation which lasted one hour and 20 minutes.” But, Lanzmann persisted, "about the Jews—did he ask specific questions?” “No,” Karski replied. “None?” Lanzmann asked again. “Not a single one,” Karski affirmed.
Here is how that meeting is presented by Burns and colleagues:
NARRATOR: Roosevelt questioned him [Karski] closely about the situation in Nazi-occupied Poland.
KARSKI: No Jewish problem was mentioned until the end of the conversation. “Mr. President, I have also a mission on behalf of the Polish Jews. Without the outside help, the Jews will perish in Poland.”
NARRATOR: Before he left, Karski asked FDR what message he had for the Polish people. “You will tell them that we will win this war,” Roosevelt said. “You will tell them that the guilty will be punished. Justice and freedom will prevail. You will tell your nation that they have a friend in this House.
The discrepancies between these two accounts are telling. Burns and colleagues present FDR’s closing remarks as a sympathetic and reassuring response to a direct question. But Karski told Lanzmann that these words—which he described to Wyman as “generalities”—were a means of moving the discussion away from the account of Jewish persecution and annihilation that Karski had just provided. Absent is Karski’s palpable frustration at the president’s apparent indifference to the Jewish plight.
At issue here is not whether FDR should have made the plight of the Jews the central concern of American foreign policy; rather, it is whether ending the Nazi program of extermination was of any concern at all. If the Jews could have been saved by the defeat of the Nazis, that would have been fine. But their fate was not a matter of pressing concern otherwise.
One final point must be made. The last 10 minutes of the film shifts ground, from America’s guilt for not doing more to save Europe’s Jews to the current political situation in the United States. We are shown the attack on the US Capitol on January 6th, 2021; torch-bearing antisemites and white nationalists marching through Charlottesville; Donald Trump demanding the erection of a wall on the United States’ southern border, and the horrific shooting at a Synagogue in a suburb of Pittsburgh in 2018 that claimed 11 lives.
In case the viewer doesn’t get the connection, historian Daniel Mendelsohn says that our civilization is in danger of ending like Nazi Germany, and that the regular people we see every day could become like those rioting during Kristallnacht or killing Jews in the death camps. He’s not saying it will happen here, just that it could, because the people who committed atrocities during WWII are no different from us.
As an opponent of illiberal populist-nationalists who want to move the US in the direction of Orbán’s Hungary, I must say that the inclusion of this brief montage does the film a grave disservice. If there are inferential comparisons to be made with the contemporary political scene, it would have been far better to let the viewers figure those out for themselves. But Burns and his co-directors are obviously intent, as Jonathan S. Tobin writes in his own masterful critique of the documentary, on giving “a not-so-subtle nod in the direction of the contemporary Democratic Party’s pose as the defenders of democracy against their Republican opponents.”
The Holocaust was a uniquely cruel and barbarous moment in human history; to compare the extremists of the new Right like the Proud Boys and the white nationalists in Charlottesville to the Nazis before they took power is a partisan step too far. As Tobin notes, the use of Nazi analogies is a wildly inappropriate means of criticizing the antics of someone like Ron DeSantis, who recently sent undocumented southern border immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard as a political stunt.
Don’t Burns and his collaborators want other Americans—especially Republicans and conservatives—to learn about the Holocaust and the war against the Jews? Is Holocaust education now only to be provided for complacent liberals and progressives? Are they the only ones with something to learn from a six-hour series about the march to totalitarianism and fascism in the ’30s?
For those who know nothing about the Holocaust and WWII, The U.S. and the Holocaust is a gift. It certainly shows the horror in vivid detail, and raises uncomfortable questions about US culpability. But the answers it offers are not always satisfactory. The message is that we were all responsible, and that the blame cannot therefore be laid on anything FDR did or did not do as president. The evidence, to the contrary, shows that there was much Roosevelt could have done. By probing a bit more, Burns, Novick, and Botstein could have done more than simply use this series to reinforce what Tobin correctly calls “the preexisting biases of Burns’s liberal viewing audience.”
Correction: an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the George McGovern interview was conducted by Ostrow in 1994. This has now been corrected. Quillette regrets the error.