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Why Ken Burns Is Exposing America’s Evils During the Holocaust

I will not work on a more important film,” says Ken Burns about The U.S. and the Holocaust, a three-part, six-hour documentary (Sept. 18, PBS) about America’s response to the Nazis’ genocide. A comprehensive examination of both President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s actions and the anti-Semitic and anti-immigration climate in which he operated, Burns’ latest—co-directed by long-time collaborators Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein—seeks to grasp why we chose to admit so few Jewish refugees in the 1930s and 1940s, and whether we could have done more to stop, or at least slow down, Hitler’s “Final Solution.” The answers it comes up with are not always flattering, complicating our understanding of the country’s WWII legacy. Yet per Burns tradition, they’re handled with enlightening and affecting nuance and empathy.

An in-depth study of fascism, intolerance, and the push-pull between ideals and complex political/social realities, The U.S. and the Holocaust, buoyed by testimonials from scholars and survivors of the Holocaust, is informative and heartbreaking in equal measure. For Novick, it’s also an inquiry that’s apt to shock many.

“I think this will be, for the general public, somewhat surprising and a little hard to ingest,” she says. “That we could be both the liberators of freeing the world from tyranny and fascism, and unwilling—as Daniel Greene says in the film—to do much to rescue the victims of fascism.”

Inspired by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibition, it’s a film filled with individual heroes and tragic victims. Moreover, it’s an analysis of the 20th century’s darkest chapter from a distinctly American point of view, investigating the nation’s bigoted roots in order to comprehend the decisions that were made (or, often, not made) to welcome more Jews to our shores, and to oppose Hitler’s grand designs for slaughter and conquest.

To Novick, who’s worked with Burns since 1989, The U.S. and the Holocaust “is in the wheelhouse of the things we’ve been interested in, which is: Who are we as a country? And for this topic: Are we a nation of immigrants? Do we welcome people? Why haven’t we sometimes been more welcoming? What is our identity as a nation? This question of America’s response to the Holocaust gets right into that, and it’s enormously relevant to this day.”

Watching the documentary, it’s impossible not to notice echoes of MAGA fascism in the words of Charles Lindbergh and Father Coughlin, in the anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant sentiments that justified exclusionary policies, and in the refusal by many to confront the mounting domestic authoritarian threat out of naïveté, self-interest and/or prejudice.

“We’ve been aware, with every film we’ve made, how much each film—as Mark Twain might say—rhymes in the present,” offers Burns. “Because human nature doesn’t change.”

Ahead of The U.S. and the Holocaust’s premiere, we chatted at length with the illustrious director about past American failures and triumphs, and the way in which they inform—and continue to resonate in—the present.

[This conversation has been edited for length]

The U.S. and the Holocaust is about anti-Semitism, intolerance, immigration and fascism, which are exceedingly relevant topics. Was that timeliness the motivation behind it?

Not at all. In fact, we try to avoid that kind of contemporary motivation. We do believe the past is a great teacher, but we got down on our knees and proposed this project in 2015, before Donald Trump even announced that he was running for office. So we had no idea what was going to happen. We’ve been aware, with every film we’ve made, how much each film—as Mark Twain might say—rhymes in the present. Because human nature doesn’t change. All of these things are still in our system, and louder at some periods than at others.

I promise you, it’s really hard to make a documentary film. I’ve never made a feature film, and I’m sure it’s hard to make one of them too, but it’s hard to find out the natural Veristitalian poetics—the storytelling—in a documentary. In a feature film, you can just make stuff up and bake into that drama, even if it’s based on historical events. But here, there’s no place where you have the luxury to say, “Hey, isn’t this so much like the present!” unless you make a decision, as we did, to just bring it right up to the present, whatever that present is. For a while, that present didn’t include January 6 because we were so far in editing before January 6 happened. We were through Charlottesville.

Immigrants waiting to be transferred, Ellis Island, October 30, 1912.

Library of Congress

You have to understand that, if you tell stories, you have a chance to change people. If you make arguments, you don’t. I’m totally plagiarizing from the novelist Richard Powers, who said the best arguments in the world won’t change a single person’s point of view; the only thing that can do that is a good story. We’d rather tell a story. As you see, the first act of our episode is to establish American antecedents and precedents for treatment of indigenous peoples, for racism, nativism, anti-immigrant sentiment and, of course, anti-Semitism. To see the ways in which American society was primed to pass anti-immigration laws and to be susceptible to the pseudo-science of eugenics promoted by the left and the right. You begin to see that these are not just sui generis impulses in Germany, but in fact that Germany studies our Jim Crow exclusionary laws to base the first anti-Jewish laws that they pass. There’s not a complicity that we have, but there’s a human interconnectedness that we wanted to show.

Then as we emerge from our narrative into the present, there’s so much going on, and that current has only gotten stronger. The flow of anti-Semitism has only increased in size. The proto-fascist—or what Biden calls “semi-fascist”—tendencies have only increased lately, and have been given voice, mainly because permission was given as never before in the history of the United States by someone in the highest office of the land. We’ve had racist presidents, but we’ve never had them express the kind of anti-governmental and anti-institutional views—along with that racism and anti-Semitism—so profoundly and so loudly, and with the ability to carry so far and wide, which is having terrible consequences. I’ve made films about the Civil War, I’ve made films that covered the Depression, and I’ve made films about WWII—those are the great crises. This [present-day] one is as important a crisis as any we’ve ever had, if not the most consequential.

The film illustrates that if you appease tyrants, they view that as a sign of weakness. Do you think that’s true with Trump—and, also, with Putin?

And [Hungary’s] Viktor Orbán. It’s absolutely true. I’m so happy you saw this. The key phrase is: Deborah Lipstadt, the greatest of all Holocaust scholars, says the time to stop a Holocaust is before it starts. But what you have, as you see painfully: there’s public opinion, there’s political realities, there’s elections to be won, there’s entrenched bureaucracy, and all sorts of reasons why we don’t act, collectively and as individuals. And there’s no one person to blame. You can’t say it’s all Roosevelt’s fault. It’s much more complicated and, to me, much more interesting.

When do we wake up and say, I’ve learned that when there’s smoke coming out of a house, there’s fire, and when can we call the fire department? “You can’t call the fire department until it’s on fire; you’re just seeing smoke”—that’s what happened. That is human nature. The Johnson-Reed Immigration Act with quotas, Roosevelt can’t do things, people have progressive ideas, but they withdraw them. Why? Because they think that by putting that bill up, all these other bills that are waiting there to restrict immigration even further will actually pass. And you just go, holy Toledo, doesn’t that seem like almost everything we’re talking about now—or even ten years ago?

The film shrewdly looks at the Holocaust via the context of the time…

That’s why I answered your first question exactly the way I did. Because we are married to that. We would rather err conservatively than try to wink-wink or point at something. We say Hitler would travel around Germany promising to restore Germany’s greatness, right? We could have just as easily said, “Promising to make Germany great again,” which is another translation. I did, for a point, and then we all looked at it and said, yeah, it’s a little bit too much, let’s pull that out [laughs].

One big question in The U.S. and the Holocaust—raised, in part, by Deborah Lipstadt—is when we knew what was happening, and when and how we should have acted. In hindsight, do you think there was a specific moment when we might have responded differently/faster/better?

We did more than any other sovereign nation—which to say, let in more refugees than any other sovereign nation. It’s important to say, “sovereign nation,” because people escaped to other places, like Palestine. But we could have done more. In my eyes, and this is me personally speaking, the film doesn’t say this anywhere, and I’m just telling you after the fact: we were a failure. But I agree completely—you picked up on another great thing. Deborah said, maybe we could have gotten more people out from those ports that would have allowed more people in. More importantly, we could have yelled louder about what was going on; publicized it a lot more so that, yes, we’re not interrupting the war effort, but we could have just made the world more outraged by it. We didn’t do that either. This is a failing grade which doesn’t, as she says in the introduction, redound to our benefit.

You also discuss how movie studios did business with Hitler’s Germany throughout the ‘30s, prioritizing profit above all else.

Can you imagine that the German vice consul in L.A. had green-light power over scripts that had anything to do with Germany, and what got made or didn’t get made as a result of that? Mind-boggling to me. But you think about the kinds of ways in which we capitulate to the Chinese, because they’re paying for it or their market is big, and you begin to see the way human beings compromise in things that are central to our humanity. That’s really important. Human beings compromise things that are central to their humanity. What compromises them? Fear of “the other.” Making people “the other.” Grievances. Money. All of this stuff is the stuff that gets in the way. Power—I won’t be reelected if I’m suddenly interested in bringing in poor Jewish people because my constituents will think they’ll take their jobs in the middle of the Depression. That’s very understandable political calculus 101.

Human beings compromise things that are central to their humanity. What compromises them? Fear of “the other.”

As you see, the film is filled with heroes. Organizations that never get enough credit. The Jewish Joint Distribution Committee—let’s write and talk about and celebrate them! The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society—they did so much. People went over and saved human beings. Then you’ve got the War Refugee Board started by John Pehle, and that funds Raoul Wallenberg and all these efforts to forge documents and go beyond the red tape and bureaucracy, once we leap over the anti-Semites at State Department. These are good stories. Varian Fry, a writer in New York, who goes with Hiram Bingham III—about as WASP-y and non-Jewish as you can get—and saves Max Clay, Piet Mondrian, Wanda Landowska, Max Ophüls and lots of so-called “ordinary” people, human beings just trying to escape murder because they are of a particular faith.

Why tackle the Holocaust through the prism of the U.S. and its attitudes toward Jews and immigrants, versus a broader, overview-style approach?

We could have, and it would have been legitimate, and I think it would have been fine to do it. I actually think, paradoxically, focusing it through America not only made the American story important, but it actually focused—in great detail, precisely—what actually took place in the Holocaust. It helped discipline us to say what actually happened and not just digress about the Pope or the British. It’s just us and this thing that happened. Us meaning the USA, and us meaning, individuals.

We finished a film in 2007 on the history of the second World War, and we did a huge section on the Holocaust—obviously not enough, since a huge section of a seven-part series is just a section—and it was very moving. But people would come to us and say, FDR was an anti-Semite. And you’d go, okay, tell me why you think so. Or they’d say, how come we turned away the St. Louis? And I’d say, it’s a really complicated story. They’d say, why didn’t we bomb the rail lines in Auschwitz? We’d get that over and over again. We started talking among ourselves and thought, we really have to do something about America and the Holocaust. Then we skip ahead, and Geoff [Ward] and I make another film on our own, about the Roosevelts, that comes out in 2014. All the same questions come up. We looked at each other and said, we have to do this.

The next year, the Holocaust Museum in D.C. came to us and said, we just mounted an exhibition called “Americans and the Holocaust,” and would you be interested in doing a film about this? We said yes, yes, yes, because we were thinking of coming to you! And can we depend on an association with you, to identify scholars and archives and survivors? They said, yes, yes, yes. So we plowed into it. It wasn’t an attempt to answer those questions, but those questions are in some ways addressed, in some cases answered, and in some cases perhaps not to the satisfaction of anyone who’s certain that they know. Everything is complicated and there’s undertow to everything.

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Immigrants seated on long benches, Main Hall, U.S. Immigration Station at Ellis Island in 1902 or 1913.

Courtesy of The New York Public Library

We got so into it that I think Geoff Ward would say this, and I know Lynn and Sarah would say this, and I’ve been saying this: I will not work on a more important film. Maybe the Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, Vietnam and The Roosevelts and other things we’ve done are equal to it. Maybe—I hope—films that I’m working on now about the American Revolution and the history of Reconstruction in the United States are equal to it. But I’ll never work on a more important film than this. And we just suddenly found ourselves caring—as we do with all films—with this intensity to get it right. To learn what the scholarship is. The footnotes to our operating scripts are so intense. Where is the citation for this? Which scholar says that? Let’s err on the conservative side and take the lower number; let’s not be sensationalistic. Let’s calibrate the footage and the pictures that we show. Let’s not indulge in any Holocaust porn, like rubbernecking at an accident.

While people were upset with you in the past for not addressing certain contentious issues, The U.S. and the Holocaust is a critical work that arrives in a 2022 in which certain domestic right-wing forces want to sanitize American history. Was there a concern that you might face a backlash from them over this complicated portrait of our Holocaust response?

No. I think this is a terrible, terrible thing, and the precedents are always with totalitarian societies: you limit the media, you rewrite your history, you sanitize it, you don’t talk about complicated stuff. Democracy thrives, like many things—such as sports—on the truth. If the coach comes out and says, “I know we got beat 52-0, but we were great today,” your coach does not last. Football is a religion in Texas and Florida, and no coach gets away with that sort of shit. So we’re just sort of shaking our head, thinking, how come your Pop Warner guys can take criticism, but you can’t learn that we had a past that had slavery and treated Native Americans about as bad as you can treat other human beings? Everybody is able to tolerate contradiction.

If you’re going to be the most exceptional country on Earth, then you have to hold yourself to the highest possible standard. You will very quickly not be the greatest country on Earth if you do not do that. I can’t control anything a Texas or Florida school board does, but I can continue to make the films that we make, and they’re big stories, and they live in schools for decades after.

If you’re going to be the most exceptional country on Earth, then you have to hold yourself to the highest possible standard. You will very quickly not be the greatest country on Earth if you do not do that.

Also, it wasn’t criticism [from others]. It was more, why didn’t you go into this? And it’s often a conspiracy theory. FDR is an outrageous anti-Semite and he secretly did this and that, and we have the proof! Then you go and it turns out, there’s no proof, and the “scholars” who promote this are just beating dead horses. It’s why we have conspiracy theories about all assassinations: because the person who did it seems so puny compared to the person who was taken away that you obviously have to build up one side to equal the story. But in fact, Roosevelt is not a king. He cannot do this. He’s got the Johnson-Reed Act and he cannot do anything about it. Congress has to do that. He knows what Congress will and won’t do. Could he have done more? Yes, indeed. Could he have yelled louder? Of course. But as Peter Hayes so brilliantly says in the film, FDR could have been focused on this humanitarian stuff, and in retrospect, it seems to us, why didn’t he focus more attention on this? But he’s spending all his political capital trying to revoke the neutrality act! And if he hadn’t been able to revoke the neutrality act, we might feel a lot different today. We might be speaking German. The stakes are as high as they can possibly be. The time to stop a Holocaust is before it happens.

As in most of your work, you balance the big picture with intimate first-person stories. What’s the key to making that macro-micro dynamic work?

First of all, you can think of the intimate stories as the tent stakes. The pole at the center of the Big Top may be high, and that may be the geopolitical view, but all of it is anchored by individual stories. The problem with Holocaust storytelling is that “6 million” means nothing. It has the opacity of the most impenetrable substance, and it just goes by, tripping off people’s tongues. Daniel Mendelsohn, he took six of those six million—his great uncle Shmiel Jager, his wife and their four daughters—and he particularized them. It turns out, only one of the six died in a gas chamber. Most died horrifically in the Shoah by bullets and in other horrific circumstances. But by doing that, you begin to erode the opacity of the number 6 million.

Our opening is beautiful footage of a young attractive woman leaning out a window in Berlin, and we say, in 1933, when the Nazis came to power, there were 9 million Jews in Europe. Then she’s joined in the window by what look like parents, and they lean in and they’re smiling, and we say, by 1945, two out of three European Jews were dead. Meaning two of those three people are gone. Maybe not specifically those people, but in every accounting of every picture, you have to take two-thirds of the human beings away. All that lost potentiality. The cure for cancer that was never discovered. The symphony not written. The garden not tended. The child not reared with love. That’s why you have to particularize.

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The Statue of Liberty seen from Ellis Island.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

A lot of the stories we know come from German and Austrian Jews, more than half of whom escaped because they had connections to the West, and they were more affluent. But the 3.3 million Polish Jews, and the millions of Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Latvians, Hungarians, Romanians—not so much. They have to be remembered too. They had lives that are as important as yours and mine. That’s why this film was so important for us. In every breath, with every particular, with every fiber of our effort and being, we had to figure out how to acknowledge that these were all people and not statistics. Like an amputated limb that is still felt long after it’s gone, we can’t not still feel them.

Given how long these projects take—and considering their momentous subject matter—do any of them ever feel daunting?

I’ll tell you right now, the very first one—Brooklyn Bridge—was as daunting as anything. An hour about a bridge, how could that be daunting? You’re figuring out how to do it. The process of filmmaking is the same for a good-natured film or a celebration of music as for this. There are ones that are particularly complicated, but they’re not daunting. You just lean into that.

We’re making a film right now on the American Buffalo, which is a parable about extinction. We nearly took this animal down to nothing, and then we brought it back. Bison have this amazing thing in which they actually face the storm. They don’t turn away from it; they face it. That’s what we do as filmmakers. It’s not like you’re welcoming it, or that it’s something prideful. It’s just that you’re drawn to something organically, and it’s emotional. There’s no intellectual calculation. It’s like, yes! That’s why I said, we got down on our knees and proposed.

Geoff Ward’s script is beyond brilliant. It made me cry as the scratch narrator, and I’ve never in my life on any film broken down and cried in the narration booth, just reading what I know I’ll read ten or twenty more times before [narrator] Peter Coyote comes in and reads it, because we don’t bring him in until we’re 98% of the way through. I was just so moved by it. The efforts that Lynn and Sarah and our team made to find the pictures and footage, and to correct stuff and to talk to survivors and the Holocaust museum every single day, and to speak with Rebecca Erbelding and Daniel Greene—we talked to them almost every single day. It’s that kind of critical study that we do. So yes, it’s tough, tough, tough to get it right. But man, that’s what we’re here for! That’s our job. I feel like I’ve got the best job in the country.

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