When Ken Burns makes a documentary, attention must be paid.
Whether on Baseball or the Vietnam War, the Civil War or the West, Burns has the well-earned reputation as one of this nation’s greatest documentary filmmakers. His work is detailed and disciplined, his research prodigious and exhaustive. His films are long, deliberately so. They take time to develop, yet their cumulative impact lingers. Because they always raise important, uncomfortable questions, they force a look inward and invite public discussion. The confrontation with the past imposes not only an agenda for the present but a challenge to the future.
So, when the word came out that Burns was doing a film series on the U.S. and the Holocaust expectations were high. Joined by his colleagues, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, they have directed a six-hour documentary that initially will be aired on PBS for three consecutive nights September 18-20th.
Their approach is chronological, first things first. The chronology was imposed by the evolution of German policy toward the Jews. American policy was forced to react—or not respond—to events not of its doing. The first night deals with the rise of Nazism through the events of the November 1938 pogroms known as Kristallnacht, the second with the pivotal events of 1939 through 1941, German expansionism and ghettoization and intensification of discriminatory German policy toward the Jews in the Third Reich and each country allied with or occupied by Germany. The final part deals with the Holocaust defined in a very specific way—the systematic murder of the Jews, what the Germans called “The Final Solution to the Jewish Problem,” which commenced with the German invasion of Soviet held territories on June 22, 1941, and the unleashing of the Einsatzgruppen, what we now call the Holocaust by Bullets.
The distinction is important historically—and morally.
Persecution of minorities in the lands in which they dwell happens often and in many places. Total annihilation of a people, the murder of men, women and children, is very rare; the Shoah, the attempt to annihilate Jews everywhere on the scale envisioned and practiced by the Nazis, was without precedent, and one dares say was unique.
The filmmakers make that clear. They avoid one of the mistakes of people dealing with the Holocaust often make. They don’t read back into 1933 what could only be known in 1942. Hitler, the Nazis, the German menace differed in 1933, 1940 and 1942. The nature of the threat, the urgency of the issue cannot be treated as the same. No one—not Hitler, not the Nazis who supported him, not the Jews who were to be his victims, and certainly not the Americans—could know in 1933, in 1938 with the Evian Conference or the Pogroms, not even in 1940, what would happen to the Jews in 1941 or 1942 onwards.
The series has a double task to inform the readers of the what was happening in Europe and then how the United States responded to those events.
Historians tell the facts—and Burns, Novick and Botstein have chosen some of the best, serious, measured, restrained, judicious, passionate, respected colleagues of mine who have devoted a lifetime to this study because they understand its urgency. Survivors provide context, texture: bearing witness, they incarnate these events in their own life and give voice to their experience.
Hitler came to power with an openly antisemitic program. Some voted for him because he was an antisemite; others despite his antisemitism, believing that once in power he would moderate, the majesty of office forcing him to the center. They hoped that polarization and violence would ebb. Conservatives, men of experience accustomed to power, thought they were the ones who could control him. Hitler’s vision: Jews must be eliminated from German culture, German lands, and German life. The Nazis’ initial strategy was that if they make it difficult for Jews to live as Jews in Germany, they will leave—voluntarily. A little coercion would not hurt; economic exploitation both helped the German economy and made the Jewish condition more precarious. That was the cause of the refugee crisis.
There were two obstacles to this German policy—no country or set of countries were willing to accept the Jews in the numbers required. And—most importantly–the German Reich kept expanding, and whenever it expanded, more and more Jews came under its control. Germany took over Austria and the Sudetenland in 1938, invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia and Poland with its more than two million Jews in 1939 and then Western Europe in 1940.
When voluntary, coerced emigration would not work, the Nazis contemplated putting Jews on reservations, modeled after the American treatment of our native Americans, first in the Lublin region of occupied Poland and then on the Island of Madagascar. But when they Germans lost the Battle for Britain and could not control the seas, that, too, proved unrealizable.
Then the killing process began, first by sending mobile killers to their victims, murdering them one by one by one, bullet by bullet, town by town. And when that proved inefficient, psychologically difficult for the killers, the process was reversed. Jews were made mobile by putting them on trains and shipping them to stationary killing centers, where an assembly line was created to produce dead Jews and recycle their possessions and their bodies.
What then was American policy?
From the series opening moments, the filmmakers present two very different images of the United States: one welcoming to the would-be immigrant and the other exclusionary, wanting to preserve the United States along the racial stock of its White Christian founders. By 1924, a quota system was enshrined in American law. By 1929, the United States was in the midst of The Depression. Immigrants, it was feared, would take American jobs. America was isolationist, concerned with its own internal problems. Furthermore, there was a long tradition among powerful and prominent Americans to retain power and to breed a superior elite. Hitler’s Germany borrowed much from the United States, including how to segregate minority groups, place others on reservations, the so-called euthanasia programs and sterilization. It was not a pretty picture, not one Americans are comfortable admitting and certainly not one conducive to accepting a large number of immigrants, especially Jews.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in March 1933, his primary, secondary and tertiary concern was the economy. All other matters were peripheral.
Walter Laqueur, himself a child refugee, once remarked of German Jewry: “The pessimists left, the optimists died.” German Jews who thought they knew the German people, German culture and the German language, could not imagine that Hitler could long endure, so they were reluctant to give up the comfortable life they knew, the culture they embraced, the country they regarded as their fatherland. By 1935, they had lost most rights, they were no longer considered citizens but wards of the state in a process of dis-emancipation, loss of civil rights, segregation, and apartheid—and that was only the beginning.
The State Department place obstacles in the path of immigrants. They required an “LPC” document, certifying that applicants were not “Likely to become a Public Charge, and a Certificate of Good Conduct. US Consuls had the power to decide who could and could not enter the US– they had the power to decide who shall live and who shall die—though in all fairness, they could not know that yet. A young Gunther Stern was asked to add 48+52 by a compassionate Consul in Hamburg, the Consul in Stuttgart was not as kind, few could pass his interrogations, few of them were admitted to the United States.
The filmmakers properly see the 1936 Olympics as a German triumph, showing the power of propaganda and pageantry. They tell the story Jesse Owens, the great African American athlete who won four Gold Medals. They properly criticize Avery Brundage, head of the American Olympic Committee for his known antisemitism, his sympathy for Nazism, his admiration of Hitler. They fail to tell the story of the two Jewish Olympics athletes he benched from that final relay, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, who qualified for the team and were not allowed to run. The victory of Jewish athletes would have been ever more offensive to Hitler than the triumph of a Black man. Thirty-six years later—50 years ago this month—it was Brundage, then head of the Olympic Committee, who, without shame, without remorse, announced that, “The Games would go on” as 11 Israeli Olympians were being carried to their graves.
The events of 1938 made the “refugee problem” even more acute.
Did they seemingly call it the Refugee Problem, to avoid uttering the word Jew, even though everybody knew it was about the Jews?
American historian Henry Feingold wryly comments: “If a distinction between Jews and non-Jews was made, only the latter would be resettled, and Jews would be left stranded.” Therefore, the word Jew was seldom said out loud.
FDR convened but did not attend the Evian Conference, nor did the Vice President or the Secretary of State. The President invited 32 nations to consider that problem in the summer of 1938. He was not prepared, and even if he was willing to do so, he would have been unable to change the quota system. He promised Great Britain that Palestine would not be on the agenda and assured all attendees that they would not be required to expend government funds to resettle refugees. The Jews would take care of their own. Still, aside from the Dominican Republic, no nation was forthcoming with a haven. For the Nazis, this signaled that Jews were unwanted; only they were willing to do something about the problem.
By 1939, the situation abroad became ever more acute. FDR was facing a double-edged conflict at home—Isolationism and anti-immigrant sentiment. Despite the massive national anger caused by the state-sanctioned actions on Kristallnacht—burning synagogues violated the basic American tenant of freedom of religion—American public opinion toward accepting more refugees did not change, and the Wanger-Rogers bill to accept 20,00 German, Austrian and Czech children did not get out of Committee. FDR understood that war was coming, a war the American public did not want—and would not then support—but one for which he would have to prepare his country. He also knew that he alone would have to lead this effort. His fiercest opponent was the famed charismatic American hero, Charles Lindbergh, who was a Nazi admirer, and even contemplated moving to Nazi Germany.
Full credit is given to FDR for preparing the United States for World War II and protecting Great Britain and later the Soviet Union by the Lend Lease Act. The President dramatically transformed American industrial production to military purposes, he instituted the draft, and he successfully battled to weaken American isolationism despite strong domestic support for isolationism, despite antisemitism. Immigration of Jews were peripheral, to what many regarded as these more urgent concerns.
Burns, Novick and Botstein and the historians they rely upon go against what has become the preferred narrative regarding America’s role and American Jews’ role while the Holocaust was actually taking place. It has become commonplace to contend that American Jews were silent, ineffective, divided, timid, self-absorbed, weak, and incapable of bringing a Judeocentric request to the American political establishment and did not come to the aid of their European brethren. It is assumed, often by projecting backwards from the power and influence of today’s American Jewish community, that the American Jews during World War II had the power to do something significant if only they had wanted to use it.
And the American government was antisemitic—at best, unconcerned about the Jews even when it was not antagonistic and they had the power, but not the desire, to save more Jews. Some even go so far as to believe that the Holocaust could have been prevented, its effect mitigated. And somehow the Jews could be saved.
The historians do not concur. The filmmakers present but do not emphasize the division among Jews. They do indicate that not unwisely, American Jews and the Roosevelt Administration were careful not to present the war as a “War for the Jews” for fear of losing national support. They present the Rabbi Wise-Peter Bergson conflict over how much public pressure should be brought on the Roosevelt Administration as a sub-chapter of the efforts to save Jews.
As one who has written widely in this area, I think they fall short in not understanding the difference between knowledge and information. Lots of information was available, often dismissed as rumors. Different people at different times internalized the truth of the information about the annihilation of the Jews and once they believed it, they had to act as if hundreds of thousands of Jews were being murdered each month. The situation was dire. They could not conduct business as usual. The situation was intolerable to them, though not necessarily to those who had not internalized the information that Jews were being killed by the millions.
They de-emphasized how the State Department double-crossed Rabbi Wise when he went public with the information the Department had just confirmed, when they told the press: “The State Department can neither confirm nor deny this information.” They also do not present the tentativeness of the famous Reigner telegram sent to Rabbi Wise in August 1942.
As to the American government, the historians are realistic. Most of the Jews being killed were in the East, not in reach of US bases or US forces until Spring 1944. The only route for rescue went through Southern France to neutral Switzerland or Spain and from Spain to Portugal. The Jews who could have come through those routes numbered in the thousands or the tens of thousands, not millions. Even the bombing of Auschwitz could only have come when more than 90% of the Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust were already dead—murdered by mobile killing units, shot in their hometowns and villages, starved in ghettos, and deported to death camps. Even if Auschwitz had been bombed as it should have been, it could have only have happened after more than 70% of the some 1.1 million Jews who were murdered there were already dead. By 1944, Sobibor, Belzec and Treblinka were already closed; their task of gassing more than 1.6 million Jews completed.
Germany fought two wars: the World War and the racial war—the War against the Jews. The United States and its Allies fought only one war, the World War.
American policy presumed, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt told Polish courier Jan Karksi, “We shall win the War, and then we shall take care of the refugees.” Karski knew that by then it would be too late. And it was!
In all of his films Ken Burns probes the past but poses challenges to the future. What type of America shall will be? One that is open to refugees fleeing for their lives, seeking freedom and opportunity, or Fortress America, closed to the world, responsible only for and to ourselves? Do we open our gates or wall in our borders?
Does America have a role to play in the world as a beacon of liberty, a model for democracy?
Are we to be a pluralistic, democratic society—tolerant and open, or one that divided by hatred and venom?
Burns, Novick and Botstein raise these questions throughout the six-hour documentary, and also present a montage of contemporary America—Charlottsville and Tree of Life Synagogue killings, skinheads and swastikas.
Their questions could not be more-timely. The answers are ours to give.