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.
The U.S. and the Holocaust is also, in part, a positive story. There are heroes like John Pehle, the lawyer whom FDR named in 1944 to head the War Refugee Board, which Burns described as “the single most important entity in saving human lives as the Holocaust is unfolding.” The documentary uncovers the less-known history of the board and the way it used back channels to help the Jews more indirectly—for example by getting American laws changed so that border officials in countries like Spain could be bribed to accept Jewish refugees there. Pehle saved many thousands of lives—but by the time the board he headed was created, five million Jews were already dead.
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.