I implore readers to watch the new six-hour, three-part series on PBS, “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein. Please find time to see this series, and bring your teenagers along. Make it a teaching moment.
After 70 years, you might think there’s nothing new to say about the horror of 6 million Jews killed by a political regime intent on wiping out an entire people. However, this TV series shifts the lens and explores the story of America’s inaction as the Holocaust surged in Europe.
A few remaining survivors of the death camps speak to the camera and remember the moments that their parents sent them away or hid them in the woods or gave them a hug goodbye that turned out to be forever. The story is especially painful through the eyes of those kids who lived through unthinkable sorrow and now are old men and women who calmly speak of the days when mothers and fathers were rounded up by Nazis and taken to extermination camps. The only reason was that they were Jewish, and Germany, under Hitler, embraced an-cient antisemitic tropes, demonizing the Jews and targeting them for elimination.
What did the United States know, and when did it know it? I asked my own parents, who were in their 20s during World War II here in America, and they said they knew nothing about the death camps until the end of the war. But ample evidence exists that the American government at the time, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, saw the aerial photographs of the deportation trains and the camps.
The Burns documentary demonstrates that the deeply rooted antisemitism that existed in Europe for generations was alive and gathering strength in the U.S. during the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. Celebrities like Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford, and political leaders like Calvin Coolidge — who ran on the slogan “America must be kept American” — were openly antisemitic. Religious leaders like Father Charles Coughlin preached hatred and racial separation from the pulpit. We may know this history, but seeing the contemporaneous newsreels and photos reveals the anti-Jewish sentiment that was gaining traction among the American people.
The documentary works on several levels, resonating today, as American politicians shuffle immigrants around the country like political chess pieces.
One review stated, “Burns’ film . . . connects our nation’s history of antisemitic bigotry to the racist immigration legacy that Republicans are establishing in the present. It is, at once, a window into the past and a mirror showing present-day America an ugly reflection of who we are.”
Another review, at MSNBC.com: “In (Coolidge’s) slogan, we can hear the roots of the racist, Trump-obsessed ‘Make America Great Again’ movement.
“Coolidge’s successor, Herbert Hoover, took his predecessor’s antisemitism even further when he instructed his State Department to refuse visas to anyone who might need public assistance, which included many Jews who had escaped Germany with little to their name in the lead-up to Hitler’s reign.
“President Donald Trump revived that policy, known as the ‘public charge’ rule.”
It is unlikely that the folks who are in the book-banning business in America would consider exposing their schools to a TV series documenting this country’s blatant and persistent antisemitism, but if they did, they might learn that genocide doesn’t begin with tanks rolling into neighborhoods. It begins with book bans and rules restricting free speech and laws against gay marriage and gender identity.
What we are witnessing today in the U.S. are warning signs of the genocidal wave that tore Europe apart in the 1930s and ’40s. We find antisemitic leaflets in our driveways; we are told that our children can’t read “The Diary of Anne Frank”; we read in the news that groups of migrants are hustled around the country by hollow men like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to score political points.
The seeds are sown. They have always been in our soil. We need to monitor this garden very carefully. A good beginning is to watch “The U.S. and the Holocaust.” We could have done more. We could have saved lives. But too many citizens and American leaders believed what, decades later, became the chants of “Jews will not replace us!” They believed the lies, and they did nothing to stop the deportations and killings.
We need to own our history. If we deny the resurgence of bigotry and antisemitism, they will surely consume our democracy.
Copyright 2022 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.