The story of the Holocaust is a failure of humanness, said filmmaker Ken Burns. “It’s such an abysmal lapse of all the things that are what humanity should be about,” he said.
The new three-part documentary The U.S. and the Holocaust—directed by Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein and written by Geoffrey C. Ward—sheds light on how the American people grappled with one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century and the humanitarian crisis that followed and how this struggle tested the principles of our democracy. The U.S. and the Holocaust airs Sunday (9/18), Tuesday (9/20) and Wednesday (9/21) at 8pm on GBH 2.
The idea about making a film specifically about the Holocaust started to take shape after Burns, Novick and Botstein produced The War, a seven-part PBS miniseries released in 2007. Also written by Ward, that film recounted life during World War II as told by residents from four communities across America.
“After The War came out, people came up to us and asked us questions that were familiar and recurring,” Burns said, including why more than 900 Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis were denied entry to the U.S. in 1939 and why the Allies didn’t bomb Auschwitz. “It made us want to delve into it more deeply,” he said.
“And then, very coincidentally, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., approached us. They were just launching an exhibition called Americans and the Holocaust filtered through the eyes of the United States,” he said.
The filmmakers worked in cooperation with the museum and scholars to refine the story. Combining the first-person accounts of Holocaust witnesses and survivors and interviews with leading historians and writers, the film dispels competing myths that Americans either were ignorant of the unspeakable persecution that Jews and other targeted minorities faced in Europe or that they looked on with callous indifference.
It also explores the historical record of Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford—American heroes at the time but among the most vocal antisemites. Also noted was Madison Grant, a well-known conservationist who helped save the Redwoods in California but was a major proponent of eugenics, a pseudoscience that promoted the propagation of a superior White race through genetics.
Other prominent historical figures include Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dorothy Thompson, Rabbi Stephen Wise, as well as Anne Frank and her family, who applied for but failed to obtain visas to the U.S. 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.
Although 200,000 Jews eventually found refuge in the United States, many more were rejected. “I realized that this is a story of all the missing human beings—who mostly do not have names, who do not have relatives to save their memories because, in many cases, entire families were wiped out,” Burns said.
“I can tell you that I have never cried once when I have read narration.” But reading narration for The U.S. and the Holocaust was different for the Academy Award-winning executive producer. “I broke down at all these unusual places,” he said.
“We plowed ahead for a long time, not really realizing how much it would affect us all,” Burns said. “The way I would describe this is that I will never work on a more important film than this one.”
And while many Americans remained detached from the genocide that was taking place a world away, others responded by denouncing the Nazis, marching in protest and boycotting German goods. Some Americans even performed heroic acts to save individual Jews and stood up to Nazism at home and abroad.
“We have told a very complicated and dark story punctuated by hopeful bits of light and heroism,” he said.
And the story is still relevant today. The U.S. and the Holocaust tackles a range of issues that remain essential to our society, 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.
“This film is us—all of us—at our worst,” Burns said. “We have an obligation as human beings to be better.”
See a preview and learn more here.