“The U.S. and the Holocaust”: Documentary Throws Harsh Light on “Immigrant Nation”

It is a key piece of America’s foundational myth that, unlike the world’s mono-ethnic societies, we are “Immigrant Nation,” welcoming of any and all souls “yearning to breathe free.” The notional upshot of this myth is that America grew to become the “Exceptional Nation” precisely because of its “melting pot,” with all nationalities coming together to create new and historic things.

But a sobering six-hour documentary, directed by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein — “The U.S. and the Holocaust” — casts that myth in grave doubt. As the film makes clear, serving up proof after archival proof, the plight of the Jews in the path of Hitler’s genocidal war machine was there to see — for those who cared to see — almost from the start. The problem was: The Jews were not a high priority with the American behemoth — neither with its leaders, its press, nor its people. The “melting pot” simply did not care enough; ancient antisemitic prejudice had done its work here, too, just as it had done in Europe, leaving six million Jews dead by World War II’s end.

This is where the film operates: at the level of accepted “fact” of Jewish malignity, the urge to dominate, the parasitic peril. Little film-time is given to the evolution, in any one individual or ethnic grouping, of this pernicious antisemitism in the U.S. Instead, we hear the likes of Father Coughlin and Charles Lindbergh (“Lucky Lindy” of early aviation fame) and see how their poison brings out massive crowds — massive American crowds — as delirious in their avidity as the German people infected by Hitler. The sea of swastikas and Nazi salutes seen at, for example, Madison Square Garden and Andover Township in New Jersey is startling, sickening.

The directors’ intent is clear: Understand the consequences of what you believe, own the lethal through-line of cause-and-effect. People holding such inhuman views (the cause) lead inexorably to people committing atrocities and killing these fellow human beings (the effect). Which important point sadly needs sounding here now in America, with a proto-fascist former “president” actively — and with astonishing popular support — attacking the pillars of American democracy, having launched himself, and sustained his trajectory, with hideous ethnic smears. Because of this gathering peril in Immigrant Nation itself, the directors accelerated their film’s release date.

This lethal through-line — of cause-and-effect — looms throughout the film. From the increasing restrictions imposed by Hitler’s Nazi party on all things Jewish — businesses, school attendance, movement — to the labor and death camps where industrial-level killing took place. This Hell spread over most of Europe, as Hitler pursued his extermination policy to its Final Solution.

In the U.S., this spreading evil was tracked — but not given prominence, and because it was not given prominence, its evil was dissipated. News of “transfers” of Jews and their killing in ever-increasing numbers was buried inside newspapers. Too few reporters of depth like Dorothy Thompson and Edward R. Murrow were in the field, while too many other reporters couched their second-hand reports in doubting language (until they visited, at war’s end, the concentration camps).

It is at the policy level that America fails so badly and tragically, and here this documentary does important documenting. The State Department, in charge of immigration policy as enacted by a Congress comprising competing immigrant histories, is, as portrayed here, the iron hand that shuts the door to Jewish pleas for refuge, keeping it shut until nearly war’s end. One State Department decisionmaker, Breckinridge Long, is singled out, not just for keeping the door shut with absurdly low quotas for Jews, but burying the reports of Jewish killings sent to State. It is President Franklin Roosevelt’s Treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau, who, when he finally learns of Long’s scuttling and moreover the blatant lies in Long’s Congressional testimony, persuades FDR to establish the War Refugee Board. The Board, in short order yet tragically late — January 1944 — set up and saved thousands of Jews before war’s end in May 1945. The Board’s first director, John Pehle, a hero new to me, is shown in postwar interviews (he died in 1999). Pehle, son of immigrants, understood the immigrant story.

Roosevelt, revered along with Abraham Lincoln by many Americans (including me) as our most important Presidents for saving the country in war, is shown here in his full complexity. Recognizing that America sooner or later had to join the war against fascism, Roosevelt needed first to see to the lifting of the Neutrality Act, which a rising influx of Jewish refugees would threaten. Once in the war, he knew America’s stated war aim had to remain fascism’s defeat, as he doubted American troops would fight a war to “save the Jews.” All things historical considered, including through today, can we say FDR did not know his people…? Hitler, as the film notes often, took many cues from America’s racist history and policies.

The beating heart of the documentary, its warm salvation amidst so much sorrow, are the half-dozen Jewish survivors who were children at the time of the Holocaust — born in Germany, Poland, Austria — and who now speak from old age. One sailed aboard the ill-fated St. Louis, denied entry by both Cuba and the U.S. and forced to return to war-torn Europe. For all these survivors, nothing has dimmed their memories of parents, siblings, relatives, and friends lost in the Holocaust. Especially moving is their vivid recollection of how desperately hard their parents, notably the fathers, tried to get their families out of Hitler’s murderous reach. The viewer can feel the unending tension. (And to know that that tension was downplayed in the U.S., their beacon….) It is not clear which of these survivors now live in the U.S.: One is so identified — Gunther Stern, sent here as a teen to pull strings for his family stuck back in Poland, who went on to serve in the U.S. Army in the war.

As always with a Ken Burns work, never-before-seen footage is unearthed, this time from home movies, from film taken by concentration camp inmates and by soldiers, both American and Nazi. Nazi footage of executions and bodies tossed into pits is shown without sound or narration. Also, new information is unearthed. Here, that Otto Frank, father of Anne Frank, whose diary became a classic document prized the world over, spent years trying to get his family to America, without luck, finally going into hiding in the famous “secret annex” in Amsterdam. Now we know why his pleas got nowhere.

Compacted into six hours, the information and imagery of “The U.S. and the Holocaust” struck this viewer, who’s seen many such documentaries, with the rapidity of Hitler’s march and the clarity of his genocidal intent; the grinding struggle of the Allied troops and the utter destruction of war; the heroism of a few rescuers — in addition to Pehle, the American Varian Fry and the Swede, Raoul Wallenberg; also Eleanor Roosevelt’s heroic voice; and the various American-based Jewish refugee aid societies. But, mainly, the helplessness and despair of the European Jews.

Again, this film is sobering, but important to view. Americans can be forgiven for feeling all the component parts of American life are up in the air right now, flying about our heads — including the myth of Immigrant Nation. But: If we are to mature, as a people and a nation, we must understand how exactly our beautiful founding ideals are failing, the better to grasp our present peril and guide these component parts of America the Beautiful safely back to ground, reconfigured finally in a more just and humane way.

This three-part film can be viewed at PBS and online. Trailer for the film is here.

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Carla Seaquist

Our times examined via politics, culture, morality. Author, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?" (Vol. II). Playwright. Fmr. HuffPost. www.carlaseaquist.com.