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Home POLITICS Ken Burns reaches into the underbelly of American history

Ken Burns reaches into the underbelly of American history

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.

jin Wits: Before seeing the new Ken Burns documentary, I thought: “We already know this story. We’ve been reading about it all our lives.” Ken Burns knows this. He has one of his expert historians, Daniel Mendelsohn, saying, “You think you’ve heard it all, but trust me, you haven’t.” I found the show fascinating What did you think?

David northa saw: I totally agree. I began to see it almost as a duty. I didn’t think I was going to learn anything, or be as moved as I was. It is an extraordinary achievement. It arrives at the right time. I hope it gets the widest possible audience, reaching high schools and colleges. It’s remarkable, especially as it gets to the nastiest part of American history.

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.


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