A good documentary about a well-known historical epoch reaffirms what we knew. A great one reaffirms what we knew but, through relentless and surprising detail, makes the history new and relevant. The U.S. and the Holocaust, the new three-part documentary from Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein, makes the story of American reluctance to help the Jews bracingly new—and chillingly relevant.
The film, which debuts Sunday night on PBS, was born as part of a joint project with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It gives not only an honest assessment of the ways that President Franklin D. Roosevelt could have done more—but a frankly brutal look at a country that was deeply and relentlessly racist, jingoistic, and antisemitic. And it could not plead ignorance.
“We did know what was going on,” Burns says, noting that in 1933 alone, there were 30,000 newspaper articles sounding various alarms about what the Nazis were doing in Germany. But the American public of this documentary was not merely indifferent to Jewish suffering; it mostly thought they brought it upon themselves. “This is part of who we are too,” says Novick.
Burns and Novick go on to note in the video below about the chilling parallels between what happened in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s and what has been happening America at the time they were making this new documentary.
And just in case you thought the filmmakers view all this as ancient history, the film concludes with a sound-bite from Donald J. Trump and a montage of footage from Charlottesville and the insurrection of January 6, 2021. “It’s been frightening … to be working [on] this film and be immersed in that time period while these things were happening around us,” said Novick. We will all find out soon enough just how much history we’ve learned.
Some polls suggest that, as the generations which actually lived through the Holocaust die off, younger people — even many younger Jews — do not see the lessons of the Holocaust as readily as they might have otherwise having been around, say, grandparents with concentration camp numbers tattooed on their forearms.
Let’s hope documentaries such as this one help keep the horror alive and relevant.