The US and the Holocaust is a three-part, six-hour series, written by Geoffrey Ward, and directed and produced by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein, that examines America’s response to the greatest atrocity in human history.
Americans see themselves as a nation of immigrants, but as the catastrophe of the Holocaust unfolded in Europe, the United States proved unwilling to open its doors to more than a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of desperate people seeking refuge.
Through riveting firsthand testimony of witnesses and survivors who as children endured persecution, violence, and fear as their families were trying to escape from Hitler’s Nazi war machine and the Eastern European gentiles that helped it along with great dedication, this series by one of American television’s most inspired documentarians, Ken Burns, delves deeply into the tragic human consequences of public indifference, bureaucratic red tape, and immigration quota laws, exploring how America failed to live up to its ideals.
The series is inspired by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s “Americans and the Holocaust” initiative that focuses on Americans’ responses to the rise of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. The initiative is anchored in an exhibition of the same name currently on display in the Museum.
The US and the Holocaust combines first-person accounts of Holocaust witnesses and survivors and interviews with leading historians and writers, to dispel competing myths that Americans either were ignorant of the unspeakable persecution of Jews in Europe or that they looked on with callous indifference. The series tackles a range of questions that remain essential to our society today, including how racism influences policies related to immigration and refugees as well as how governments and people respond to the rise of authoritarian states that manipulate history and facts to consolidate power.
The US and the Holocaust features a fascinating array of historical figures that includes Franklin D. Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh, Dorothy Thompson, Rabbi Stephen Wise, and Henry Ford, as well as Anne Frank and her family, who applied for but failed to obtain visas to the US before they went into hiding. This unexpected aspect of the Franks’ story underscores an American connection to the Holocaust that will be new to many viewers.
The series also looks at American policy, from Calvin Coolidge’s staunch anti-immigration ideology to FDR’s Lend-Lease bill, and how these fights took shape on the home front, including the emergence of Nazi sympathizers. Some of America’s most well-known leaders, such as Lindbergh and Ford, were also among the most vocal antisemites. Similarly, new light is shed on many of the well-known controversies surrounding the American response to the Holocaust, including the dreadful story of the more than 900 Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis, who were denied entry to Cuba and the US in 1939 and were forced to return to Europe; and the debate over why the Allies didn’t bother to bomb Auschwitz.
Americans heard about Nazi persecution on their radios and read about it in the press. Many responded by denouncing the Nazis, marching in protest, and boycotting German goods. Individual Americans performed heroic acts to save Jews and stood up to Nazism at home and abroad. Some 200,000 Jews eventually found refuge in the United States, but many more were denied entry. As the Nazi industrial annihilation escalated over in Poland, the US responded by tightening its borders to refugees.
“If I had my way,” said Senator Robert Reynolds of North Carolina at the time, “I would today build a wall about the United States so high and so secure that not a single alien or foreign refugee from any country upon the face of this earth could possibly scale or ascend it.”
The US and the Holocaust’s conclusion is that nativism, antisemitism, xenophobia, and racism continue to drive American politics. “The institutions of our civilization [are] under tremendous stress,” warns writer Daniel Mendelsohn, who shares his family’s story in the series. “The fragility of civilized behavior is the one thing you really learn, because these people, who we now see in these sepia photographs, they’re no different from us. You look at your neighbors, the people at the dry cleaner, the waiters in the restaurant. That’s who these people were. Don’t kid yourself.”