PBS Holocaust film chronicles US failure to help Jews


Editor’s Note: This column has been updated to include Sarah Botstein and Lynn Novick as co-creators and directors of the PBS documentary “America and the Holocaust.”

Americans have long trusted Ken Burns to tell our stories: the Civil War, baseball, jazz, national parks, the Vietnam War and country music.

This trust in Burns in this moment of universal distrust is an important part of what we bring to the PBS series “America and the Holocaust,” which Burns co-created and directed with Sarah Botstein and Lynn Novick. Burns focused on difficult stories before, such as the Civil War and Vietnam. But it is perhaps the hardest to hear, especially for worshipers of the so-called Greatest Generation and American Exceptionalists in general.

The story we love to remember from that terrible time, what most of us grew up thinking, the story told in so many movies in the years after World War II, is how we saved the world from the horrors of Hitler and fascism. The Nazis were the bad guys and we were the good guys. It’s this story of complacency that Burns, Novick and Botstein’s film is supposed to correct.

Yes, once we entered the war after Pearl Harbor, we were crucial in winning it and saving what was left of the Jews of Europe. But the story is not so clear cut. As Burns, Novick and Botstein point out, for years we refused to allow the immigration of refugees fleeing Hitler’s genocide and left them to their fate.

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Despite newspaper articles making clear what Hitler was doing to the Jews in the 1930s and even as the Final Solution began to take shape, anti-Semitism was as widespread here as anywhere, as evidenced by polls opposing the immigration and showing that the majority of Americans thought the Jews had planned it.

Prestigious Americans such as Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh and his sweet wife, Anne Morrow, and the hugely popular Catholic Father Coughlin’s radio shows, supported Hitler’s rise in the 1930s and even during the war.

The PBS Holocaust documentary is much the same as Philip Roth’s novel “Plot Against America” ​​(2004). In Roth’s counterfactual novel, folk hero Lindbergh actually wins the 1941 election against Franklin Delano Roosevelt and rampant anti-Semitism makes America look like 1930s Germany until we’re saved by the bell , so to speak, by the attack on Pearl Harbor.

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Since we know the true history of this period, what really happened – that Roosevelt won the presidential election of 1941 and continued to push the United States to come to the aid of our allies and defeat the fascists – why bother telling the counter-story?

The answer is: because the counter-story is, in many important ways, a truer story than the version we, as victors, told. (“‘History is written by the winners.’ – Winston Churchill.)

We have long been accustomed to being told the importance of remembering the history of the Holocaust as a cautionary tale, ‘lest we forget’ the depth of depravity of which all humans are theoretically capable. . Holocaust denial is a crime in many countries.

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But the documentary is not only about what they did, an ocean away, but about what we did, our failure. Our role in the Holocaust.

It’s a very hard story to hear, to watch. In fact, I’m surprised that extremists in the GOP, our white supremacists, Tucker Carlson, and the rest of the right in this country haven’t loudly boycotted or tried to ban “America and the Holocaust.”

Why haven’t the anti-Critical Race Theory folks been out in force declaring the show, like the truth about our history’s chapter on slavery, unacceptably bad for our morale? Or simply dismissed as “fake news”? (My online foray turned up no such thing on the first two pages of Google search results.)

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He speaks reassuringly about the health of what remains of our troubled democracy that the PBS series took to the fore for a few days to be watched by millions.

Burns, Novick and Botstein are not content to simply leave implicit the parallels between their history and our current drift towards fascism. The series ends with footage from 2017 of the Charlottesville torch-carrying crowd shouting, “Jews won’t replace us,” and the 2018 attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. A clip from the January 6 attack on the US Capitol shows a man wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt.

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The history of that time has not been written. There are no anticipated conclusions. In the midst of it all, still creating it (part of the problem or part of the solution, as Eldridge Cleaver so aptly put it), without the benefit of hindsight, we don’t know how it will turn out.

But with an upcoming election that could well play a huge role in setting the next chapter in this story, the timing of the PBS Holocaust series couldn’t be more fitting.

Brent Harold, Cape Cod Times columnist and former English teacher, lives in Wellfleet. Email him at [email protected]

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