Commemorating the Holocaust has become a central part of American culture, but the nation’s reaction in real time was another story.
A crowd fills a waiting room at the Ellis Island Immigration Station.Photograph courtesy PBS
When we begin “The U.S. and the Holocaust”—a six-and-a-half-hour, three-part documentary about America’s actions during one of history’s greatest atrocities, the Nazis’ attempted extermination of the Jews—we find ourselves in 1933 Frankfurt, where a bourgeois German-Jewish family is going out for an afternoon promenade. This is the Frank family, whose youngest daughter, Anne, has yet to begin the diary, chronicling her days in hiding until her capture and eventual death in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, that will one day make her a household name around the world. In 1933, all of that is still to come: the inhuman brutality of the Holocaust is still beyond the comprehension of well-to-do Jewish families like the Franks, and indeed of most everyone else. But now, after the rise to power of Adolf Hitler, in January of that year, it is clear that something in the air has shifted. The Franks knew they had to leave the country in which at least some of their ancestors had lived since the sixteenth century. By early 1934, the whole family had settled in Amsterdam, with plans to move to America—“only to find,” in the words of the film’s script, “like countless others fleeing Nazism, that most Americans did not want to let them in.”
“The U.S. and the Holocaust,” directed by Ken Burns and his longtime collaborators Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, is an examination of what Americans—politicians, journalists, and civilians—did and did not know about the Holocaust, and how they responded to it while it was happening and after it was over. Burns, now sixty-nine, is perhaps the most acclaimed American documentarian of his generation. He has used his work to investigate some of the most powerful symbols and totems of American life—in 1982, he won an Academy Award nomination, his first, for “Brooklyn Bridge;” in 1995, he won an Emmy for “Baseball.” Other topics since have included “The West” (1996), “Jazz” (2001), “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” (2009) and “Muhammad Ali” (2021), as well as several other series about America’s wars—the Civil War, the Second World War, and Vietnam.
Opinion ‘U.S. and the Holocaust’ immerses viewers in the limitations that define tragedy
It begins with an emotional wallop that is especially powerful because it is delivered offhandedly. The first minute of the six-hour, three-part documentary series “The U.S. and the Holocaust” features a black-and-white photo of Otto Frank, who had been a German officer in World War I, strolling in Frankfurt, Germany, with his wife and two daughters. It is March 1933, and Adolf Hitler has been chancellor for less than two months. One of the daughters, Annelies, the world now knows as Anne. She would write a diary even though she doubted that anyone would ever be interested in “the musings of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl.” She was mistaken.
In early 1934, the Frank family would be living in Amsterdam, hoping, like many Jews from Germany, to reach the United States. The Franks’ hopes, and those of most others similarly situated on the edge of Europe’s abyss, would be crushed.
The Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein documentary, which premieres Sunday on PBS, rekindles an agonizing debate: What and when did the U.S. government know about Nazi genocide, and what could, and should, it have done better? The answers that the film judiciously suggests lack comforting clarity.
As the documentary notes, the United States admitted about 225,000 refugees from Nazi terror, more than any other sovereign nation — fewer than it should have but more than public opinion favored. Before Hitler attained power, America’s receptivity to immigrants had waned, and antisemitism, especially in society’s upper reaches, had not. Today’s white nationalist anxieties about “replacement” recast the anxiety of the prominent eugenicist Madison Grant: “The man of the old stock is being crowded out.”
In the 1920s, Henry Ford’s antisemitic newspaper had the nation’s second-largest circulation, according to the documentary. “In 1932,” it reports, “for the first time in American history, more people left the United States than were allowed in.” In the mid-1930s, more than 25 percent of the population listened each Sunday to Charles Coughlin, an antisemitic radio priest.
U.S. newspapers published abundant reports of German antisemitic lawlessness, but many readers were skeptical, remembering discredited World War I propaganda about German atrocities. The State Department, hospitable to upper-crust antisemitism (the documentary names culprits), made visas difficult for German Jews to acquire, then cited the few applicants as evidence that Germany’s Jews were not in crisis. America’s millions of moviegoers saw newsreels in which content about Germany was usually produced by Hitler’s government.
Because Congress would not liberalize immigration, President Franklin D. Roosevelt could not ask other nations to do so. He did say that all Jews who were in America as tourists could stay. But when the United States entered the war, fear spread that European immigrants might include Axis agents. The chairman of the Senate Military Affairs Committee favored building a wall around the nation “so high and so secure” that no alien or refugee could enter.
Three-quarters of the Holocaust’s victims were murdered in 20 months, deep in Eastern Europe, before there was a U.S. soldier on the European continent. The victims could not believe what was happening to them; neither could distant Americans. When, at last, in 1943, the reality of industrialized murder became known, the pace of killing slowed because there were too few readily available Jews to be delivered to the death machinery.
By 1944, with 5 million Jews already dead, 70 percent of Americans now favored sheltering European refugees, temporarily. U.S. officials were neither wrong nor reprehensible when they argued that the best way to help the Jews was to win the war as quickly as possible. Bombing the killing camps would have diverted bombers from military targets, and — “precision bombing” was then an oxymoron — would have killed many Jews.
Some indecent attitudes, and then the inability of decent people to believe the reality of unbelievable indecency, prevented America from doing more than it did with its heroic World War II exertions and sacrifices. “The U.S. and the Holocaust” is an immersion in the limitations that accompany, and define, tragedy.
A Holocaust survivor who speaks in the film, Eva Schloss, was a new refugee in Amsterdam when she became friends with another 10-year-old girl who had been in the city six years and was living in what was now their shared apartment block: “She introduced herself and said her name is ‘Anna Frank.’”
A photograph of her then, about five years before her death, radiates cheerfulness. It is an imperishable, unforgettable image of what can be lost when we forget how perishable is the thin crust of civilization that protects us — until it doesn’t.