About the Film THE U.S. AND THE HOLOCAUST, a new three-part, six-hour series directed and produced by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, explores America’s response to one of the greatest humanitarian crises of the 20th century. The series will air September 18, 19 and 20, at 8-10 p.m. ET (check local listings) on PBS stations, and all three episodes will stream the night of premiere on PBS.org and the PBS Video app. 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 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. History cannot be looked at in isolation. 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.
THE U.S. AND THE HOLOCAUST 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.
Exploring this history and putting the pieces together of what we knew and what we did has been a revelation. 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.
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 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.”
At the center of our narrative is the moving and inspiring first-hand testimony of witnesses who were children in the 1930s. 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.’
THE U.S. AND THE HOLOCAUST is narrated by Peter Coyote; Voice Actors Include Liam Neeson, Matthew Rhys, Paul Giamatti, Meryl Streep, Werner Herzog, Joe Morton, Hope Davis, Bradley Whitford and Helena Zengel. The premiere of THE U.S. AND THE HOLOCAUST will be accompanied by educational materials for middle and high school classrooms, highlighting recent research and perspectives. The materials, which were prepared by PBS Learning Media in collaboration with leading Holocaust education experts, are available at the Ken Burns in the Classroom site. These materials include clips from the film as well as other resources that connect to its core themes, such as immigration policy, racism, isolationism, discrimination and more. International release will be explored along with translation into Spanish and other languages. UNUM, Ken Burns’s website that looks at the connections between the past and current events, will also utilize other films from the Florentine Films library to facilitate conversations about the Holocaust and other moments in history.
THE U.S. AND THE HOLOCAUST 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 and Timothy Snyder. On-camera witnesses include Susan Hilsenrath Warsinger, Eva Geiringer [Schloss], Joseph Hilsenrath, Marlene Mendelsohn, Sol Messinger and Guy Stern, who recently turned 100 years old.
THE U.S. AND THE HOLOCAUST will be available to stream for free on all station-branded PBS platforms, including PBS.org and the PBS Video app, available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung Smart TV, Chromecast and VIZIO. PBS station members can view the documentary via PBS Passport as part of a full collection of Ken Burns films. For more information about PBS Passport, visit the PBS Passport FAQ.