The U.S. and the Holocaust, A film by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick & Sarah Botstein
Wednesdays, April 12 - 26 at 8 p.m. on KPBS 2 / Stream now with the PBS App
"The U.S. and the Holocaust, A film by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick & Sarah Botstein," a three-part documentary directed and produced by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, explores America’s response to one of the greatest humanitarian crises in history.
Inspired in part by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibition and supported by its historical resources, the film examines the rise of Hitler and Nazism in Germany in the context of global antisemitism and racism, the eugenics movement in the United States and race laws in the American south. The series, written by Geoffrey Ward, sheds light on what the U.S. government and American people knew and did as the catastrophe unfolded in Europe.
Combining the first-person accounts of Holocaust witnesses and survivors and interviews with leading historians and writers, "The U.S. and the Holocaust, A film by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick & Sarah Botstein" 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.
The film tackles a range of questions that remain essential to our society today, 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.
"The U.S. and the Holocaust, A film by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick & Sarah Botstein" features a fascinating array of historical figures that includes Franklin D. Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh, Dorothy Thompson, Rabbi Stephen Wise, and Henry Ford, 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.
The film also looks at American policy on topics ranging from Calvin Coolidge’s staunch anti-immigration ideology to FDR’s Lend-Lease bill and how these fights took shape on the home front, including the emergence of Nazi sympathizers. Some of America’s most well-known leaders, such as Lindbergh and Ford, were also among the most vocal antisemites.
Similarly, new light is shed on many of the well-known controversies surrounding the American response to the Holocaust, including the dreadful story of the more than 900 Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis, who were denied entry to Cuba and the U.S. in 1939 and forced to return to an uncertain fate in Europe, and the enduring debate over whether the Allies should have bombed Auschwitz.
Americans had heard about Nazi persecution on their radios and read about it in the press. Many responded by denouncing the Nazis, marching in protest and boycotting German goods. Individual Americans performed heroic acts to save individual Jews and stood up to Nazism at home and abroad. Some 200,000 Jews eventually found refuge in the United States, but many more were denied entry. As the Nazi terror escalated, the U.S. responded by tightening, not opening, its borders to refugees.
“If I had my way,” said Senator Robert Reynolds of North Carolina at the time, “I would today build a wall about the United States so high and so secure that not a single alien or foreign refugee from any country upon the face of this earth could possibly scale or ascend it.”
Ultimately, "The U.S. and the Holocaust, A film by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick & Sarah Botstein" offers little consolation to those who believe that the challenges posed by nativism, antisemitism, xenophobia and racism are buried deeply and permanently in the past.
“The institutions of our civilization [are] under tremendous stress,” warns writer Daniel Mendelsohn, who shares his family’s story in the film. “The fragility of civilized behavior is the one thing you really learn, because these people, who we now see in these sepia photographs, they're no different from us. You look at your neighbors, the people at the dry cleaner, the waiters in the restaurant. That's who these people were. Don't kid yourself.”
The series features interviews with some of the country’s leading scholars on the period, including:
- Daniel Greene
- Rebecca Erbelding
- Peter Hayes
- Deborah Lipstadt
- Daniel Mendelsohn
- Daniel Okrent
- Nell Irvin Painter
- Mae Ngai
- Timothy Snyder
On-camera witnesses include:
- Susan Hilsenrath Warsinger
- Eva Geiringer [Schloss]
- Joseph Hilsenrath
- Marlene Mendelsohn
- Sol Messinger
- Guy Stern, who recently turned 100 years old
Episode 1: “The Golden Door (Beginnings - 1938)” Encore Wednesday, April 12 at 8 p.m. on KPBS 2 - Reversing a history of open borders, a xenophobic backlash prompts Congress to restrict immigration. Hitler and the Nazis persecute German Jews, forcing many to seek refuge. FDR is concerned by the growing crisis but unable to coordinate a response.
Episode 2: “Yearning to Breathe Free (1938 - 1942)” Encore Wednesday, April 19 at 8 p.m. on KPBS 2 - As World War II begins, Americans are divided over whether to intervene against Nazi Germany. Some individuals and organizations work tirelessly to help refugees escape. Germany invades the USSR and secretly begins the mass murder of European Jews.
Episode 3: “The Homeless, The Tempest-Tossed (1942 - )” Encore Wednesday, April 26 at 8 p.m. on KPBS 2 - A group of dedicated government officials fights red tape to support rescue operations. As the Allies liberate German camps, the public sees for the first time the sheer scale of the Holocaust and begins to reckon with its reverberations.
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"The U.S. and the Holocaust, A film by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick & Sarah Botstein" is available to stream for free on all station-branded PBS platforms, including PBS.org and the PBS App, available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung Smart TV, Chromecast and VIZIO.
“History cannot be looked at in isolation,” said Ken Burns. “While we rightly celebrate American ideals of democracy and our history as a nation of immigrants, we must also grapple with the fact that American institutions and policies, like segregation and the brutal treatment of indigenous populations, were influential in Hitler’s Germany. And it cannot be denied that, although we accepted more refugees than any other sovereign nation, America could have done so much more to help the millions of desperate people fleeing Nazi persecution.”
“Exploring this history and putting the pieces together of what we knew and what we did has been a revelation,” said Lynn Novick. “During the Second World War, millions of Americans fought and sacrificed to defeat fascism, but even after we began to understand the scope and scale of what was happening to the Jewish people of Europe, our response was inadequate and deeply flawed. This is a story with enormous relevance today as we are still dealing with questions about immigration, refugees and who should be welcomed into the United States.”
“At the center of our narrative is the moving and inspiring first-hand testimony of witnesses who were children in the 1930s,” said Sarah Botstein, a longtime producing partner of Burns and Novick who is making her directorial debut on this film. “They share wrenching memories of the persecution, violence and flight that they and their families experienced as they escaped Nazi Europe and somehow made it to America. Their survival attests to the truth of the remark made by journalist Dorothy Thompson that ‘for thousands and thousands of people a piece of paper with a stamp on it is the difference between life and death.’”
A production of Florentine Films and WETA Washington, D.C. Directed by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein. Telescript by Geoffrey C. Ward. Produced by Sarah Botstein, Lynn Novick, Ken Burns and Mike Welt. Edited by Tricia Reidy, ACE, and Charles E. Horton. Co-producer is Lucas B. Frank. Original music produced by Johnny Gandelsman. Cinematography by Buddy Squires, ASC, and Wojciech Staroń, PSC. Narrated by Peter Coyote. Voices include Adam Arkin, Hope Davis, Paul Giamatti, Olivia Gilliatt, Elliott Gould, Murphy Guyer, Werner Herzog, Josh Lucas, Carolyn McCormick, Joe Morton, Liam Neeson, Matthew Rhys, Meryl Streep, Bradley Whitford and Helena Zengel. The executive in charge for WETA is John F. Wilson. Executive producer is Ken Burns.