The new Ken Burns documentary, United States and the Holocaust, is streaming now on the PBS app and other platforms. David Nasaw is a historian and biographer whose most recent book is The Last Million: Europe’s Displaced People from the World War to the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, washington postY the nation. This interview, originally broadcast on the start to make sense podcast, has been edited for length and clarity.
JW: What sets it apart from other Ken Burns documentaries is that it’s about what America could have done and should have done, but didn’t. It’s about American apathy and, let’s face it, American hostility toward immigrants in general and Jews in particular. And it’s also about the malevolence of some powerful Americans, not just Hitler supporters like Lindbergh, but high-ranking FDR New Deal officials like Breckinridge Long, the deputy secretary of state. The documentary also tells the stories of people who did the right thing, especially a young Treasury Department lawyer named John Pehle, along with his boss, Roosevelt’s Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. They pushed Roosevelt to create the Board of Directors. War refugees in 1944.
DN: Ken Burns and his collaborators had a difficult task. They have to find heroes, and they go out of their way to do it. Pehle is a good man. Morgenthau does the best he can. The War Refugee Board is created, but it is too late. By 1944, more than 5 million Jews had been murdered. The only Jews who survived up to that point were those who went into hiding, those who joined the partisans in Poland, a quarter of a million Polish Jews who escaped to the Soviet Union, and the Hungarian and Romanian Jews, because their ruling Nazi allies did not give up their Jews. That changed in 1944 for the Hungarians. But when the War Refugee Board was established, the worst was already done.
JW: What about FDR himself? How much responsibility do you have? How much blame? Ken Burns has a soft spot for Franklin and Eleanor. He made an earlier documentary about them. I wonder if he agrees with critics who say he treats them with kid gloves here, always giving FDR the benefit of the doubt.
DN: I think that’s unfair. The focus cannot be on Roosevelt. He should be the American public. Maybe Ken Burns isn’t doing enough. Men and women could have spoken out against quotas, from the 1920s when they were established to the 1930s. But they didn’t. The problem is with the American people and their leaders. The elected representatives who approved the discriminatory quotas imposed and refused to change them to allow Jews to enter this country were following the wishes of the voters.
Roosevelt decided early on that the first priority was to defeat Hitler. If the diversion of resources to rescuing Jews detracted from the war effort or war morale, it could not be allowed. Roosevelt is not a villain here. If we want to look for villains, we have to look in churches, in educational institutions, in the press, in people of privilege and responsibility who should have spoken up and didn’t.
JW: Ken Burns makes it clear that the American public overwhelmingly did not want to fight a war to save the Jews of Europe. He has one of his historians saying that the War Department didn’t want the soldiers to know much about the persecution of the Jews because they were worried they wouldn’t fight hard if they thought they were being sent to save Jews.
The failures of the press is one of Ken Burns’ continuing themes, showing how the press downplayed and cast doubt on reports documenting the murder of Jews. He also cites some notable exceptions, including the nation magazine and its editor, Freda Kirchwey, who wrote in early 1943: “You and I, the President, Congress, and the State Department are complicit in the crime and share in Hitler’s guilt. If we had behaved as humane and generous people instead of complacent and cowardly, the 2 million Jews who lie today in the land of Poland and other crowded cemeteries of Hitler would be alive and safe. We had it in our power to rescue these doomed people, but we did not raise a hand to do so. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that we raise only a cautious hand, encased in a tight glove of quotas, visas, affidavits, and a thick layer of prejudice.”
DN: One of the great features of this film is the way it makes it clear that what Hitler was doing to the Jews was no secret. For a long time, Americans have gotten away with saying, “We didn’t know anything about it,” exactly as German citizenship did. But it is false. Americans in government and in the press and large segments of the public knew what was going on, and nothing was done.
JW: Ken Burns ends the story of the Holocaust with the liberation of the camps. Is this how you would end it?
DN: No. The story cannot end there. And there is a bit of misrepresentation in the documentary. There is a film of Rabbi David Eichhorn leading a service in Dachau. It is filmed by George Stevens, who was attached to the Army at the time. But we see only half the story. Eichhorn had planned to hold this service on the first Saturday after liberation. He arrived at camp on Saturday morning to find that nothing had been set up. He was told that non-Jewish Polish inmates had threatened that if a Jewish service was held in the square, they would break it up by force. George Stevens approached the American commander and said, “If you don’t let Eichhorn provide this service, I’ll let the world know.” Without Stevens’ threat, there would have been no service.
Another example: we listen to part of the famous radio transmission from Buchenwald by Edward R. Murrow. If you listen to the entire speech or read the full transcript, you won’t find any mention of Jews. Eisenhower does not mention the Jews. weather The magazines, the newspapers, the press and the news, when reporting on the liberation of the camps, do not mention the Jews. At the end of the war, the Americans celebrate the defeat of this evil empire, but without acknowledging the 6 million who have died.
The abandonment of the Jews continues long after the war. Displaced Jews did not arrive in this country in large numbers until after 1950. Before then, they were transferred from concentration camps to displacement camps, where they spent three to five years. The state of Israel was recognized by Truman in 1948 because the Americans did not want to let Jews into the United States and could not remain in Germany indefinitely. They are realities that are lost in this documentary.
There is another problematic ingredient in a Ken Burns documentary: people speak with sadness, with remorse, with melancholy, but not with anger. And I want anger. I want someone to yell, “Hey, that’s 6 million Jews! It is almost all of European Jewry!”
JW: We also have to talk about the way Ken Burns ends his story of the United States and the Holocaust. He finishes it on January 6. The last segment is a quick montage. Police dogs attacking civil rights protesters in Birmingham in 1963, the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. Then Trump supporters demonstrating against Muslims, Trump at a rally saying, “My first day in office, this people are gone!” white nationalists marching in Charlottesville chanting: “The Jews will not replace us”; a neo-Nazi killing 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. And finally, the attack on the Capitol on January 6. We see, again, the guy carrying a Confederate flag inside the Capitol, the flag of slavery and treason. We see that the mafia includes neo-Nazis; we focus on a guy wearing a sweatshirt that says “Camp Auschwitz.”
Then Daniel Mendelsohn says again that something like Hitler could happen again, this time in the United States. “Don’t kid yourself,” he says. Unlike any other Ken Burns special, this one ends almost with a call to arms: We have to stop neo-Nazis and white nationalists in America. We can’t let them win.
DN: I think that ending should be there. But I also think that, with that ending, we lose sight of the fact that this is a unique moment in history. There are other genocides. There are other massacres of innocent people. But these are 6 million Jews who were killed. I don’t want that lesson to be lost. I do not want the fate of European Jewry to be reduced to a lesson and a warning. It is a lesson, it is a warning, but it is also a unique event in our history and must be recognized as such.