‘The past echoes in the present’: A review of ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’
The Statue of Liberty graces the screen more than once during the film. (Detroit Publishing Company photograph collection | Library of Congress)
This story was updated on Oct. 2 at 8:30 a.m.
The three two-hour episodes of “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” a documentary by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein, debut on PBS beginning Sept. 18.
Toward the end of “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” the new documentary by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein, the audience hears the last entry in the wartime diary of Anne Frank: “It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”
Moments later, the historian Deborah Lipstadt appears onscreen to declare that these words are “not the story of the Holocaust.” The American reaction to the German campaign to exterminate Europe’s Jews, the principle subject of the film, “does not redound to our credit,” she says.
Of all the films Burns has made, this is the timeliest and most disturbing. It tells two intertwined stories in graphic detail: Adolf Hitler’s maniacal determination to murder the Jews of Europe and the forces that kept the United States from doing more to stop him. As the film notes in closing, the anti-Semitic rants and lies in the America of 1930s and ’40s still echo in the nation’s political climate in 2022.
The Statue of Liberty graces the screen more than once during the film. Americans take such pride in this national symbol that 3.5 million of them visit it each year. Many identify with the lines of Emma Lazarus’ sonnet hailing the majestic statue as “the Mother of Exiles”:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, tempest-tost, to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
The film clarified how short of these ideals America fell during the years before World War II. The Ku Klux Klan re-emerged as a murderous vigilante force in the 1920s. Much of the country supported euthanasia to strengthen the gene pool, racial segregation, the social ostracism of Jews, and the virulent anti-Semitism of Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh, among others. Hitler-loving German Bunds drew more than 20,000 people to a 1938 rally at Madison Square Garden.
Rolled out one after another in the film, these strains of hatred portray an America far removed from the country described in high school history books.
After Kristallnacht, the Nazi rampage of rape and terror that killed hundreds of Jews and destroyed 2,500 Jewish-owned businesses in Germany, survivors flocked to U.S. embassies seeking to immigrate. The magazine Christian Century warned that letting in more Jews would only exacerbate “our Jewish problem.” The Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Legion also opposed raising the immigration quota for Jews.
In addition to expert historians and contemporary film footage, the filmmakers use the fate of families to tell their story. These include Otto Frank, Anne’s father, and the Franks’ Amsterdam neighbor-in-hiding Elfriede Geiringer, whose father and brother died in the camps. Now 100 years old, Guy Stern, the only member of his family to escape, returned to Germany in 1944 as a U.S. Army linguist to interrogate German POW’s. “If I can shorten the war by an hour, maybe I can save a family,” he told himself. He broke into tears at a liberated concentration camp. “It was skeletons you were talking to,” he said.
Daniel Mendelsohn undertook a global odyssey to learn what had happened to his family. “The Lost: A Search for Six of the Six Million,” his book about this quest, lends particularity to the unimaginable death toll. In the film, he suggests one reason Americans failed to comprehend the plight of the Jews: “As it was happening to us, we couldn’t believe it. If we couldn’t believe it, how could anyone else believe it?”
The film describes the evolution of Hitler’s thinking. When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, adding 139,000 Jews to his realm, he realized that his thirst for territorial expansion, especially in the East, would increase this population. Extermination became his solution. Four years later, when the Germans discovered that Zyklon could kill Jews for a penny a victim, he ordered a major escalation of the gassing.
By then, President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew what was happening, and much of the American public did, too. In November of 1942, the New York Herald-Tribune exposed the existence of the death camps on its front page. “Millions of Jews and others are being gathered up and killed,” Edward R. Murrow, the popular radio reporter, told his listeners.
The United States had been at war for less than a year, and its mass bombing of Germany had scarcely begun. D-Day remained a year and a half away. The film describes both Roosevelt’s dilemma and the lingering anti-Semitism in high places. The president knew he could not divert his military to save the Jews, and he saw no practical way to accomplish this. He aimed instead to win the war as soon as possible and punish the murderers of the Jews afterward. Meanwhile, as rabbis marched on Washington pleading for action, some State Department officials lied about the situation and resisted raising the Jewish immigration quota.
In 1944, Americans at last acknowledged the tragedy, but as the film captures the moment, even this did not induce a willingness to act. Seventy percent of respondents told pollsters they knew Jews were being murdered, but they greatly underestimated the scale of the killing, estimating the death toll at a million when 5 million had already been exterminated. Just 5 percent of those polled favored allowing more European Jews to come to America.
In the film’s closing scenes, the horrors of Nazi Germany echo in the American present as white supremacists converge on Charlottesville, racists carry out mass shootings of Jews and Black people, Donald Trump scorns immigrants, and a mob assaults the Capitol. Comparing the past to the present so directly is rare in a film by Burns, but sadly, it seems relevant here.
Even when his films stay in their moment, the past echoes in the present. In this one, Daniel Mendelsohn suns up one lesson of studying the Holocaust: “The fragility of human behavior is the one thing you really learn. These people we see in the sepia photographs, they’re no different from us. You look at your neighbors, the people at the dry cleaners, the waiters in the restaurant, that’s who these people were. Don’t kid yourself.”
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.