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Watching the U.S. and the Holocaust, or, Thank You, Ken Burns


            Watching the Ken Burns documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust, the week before Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) was hard. The three night, six-hour documentary was advertised as being about America’s reaction to the treatment of Jews in Germany leading up to and during the Holocaust, and the ways our own prejudices and the resulting immigration restrictions we set up at the time, kept the United States from being a haven for those escaping Hitler. I felt myself shaking with rage and pain and frustration, and I started to yell at the TV (similar to the way I felt when Trump took that first trip down the escalator onto the world stage). But however difficult it was for me to sit with the pain and horror of the documentary, it was even more validating. The timeline of the film, and the clarity it brought to the questions of when people in the United States knew what was happening op the Jews in Germany, and how they chose to respond to that information, was edifying; some failed to act because of their ingrained anti-Semitism, but others were afraid that if they took action to help the Jews of Europe it would set off even more (!!!!!) antisemitism around the world, and especially at home. It’s painful, but important, to remember how prevalent anti-Semitism was at the time.

            Antisemitism has come racing back in the last decade, but it’s still not seen as much of a problem by the wider world, maybe because Jews are perceived as powerful and white and part of the majority, rather than as a very small minority with an outsized place in history. Jews have been blamed for things like the black plague, failed governments, and poverty, whenever a convenient scapegoat has been needed. Maybe the Jews are easy to blame because we are a small enough group that people think we can be easily removed, like a tumor, but even after expelling the Jews, converting the Jews, or killing the Jews, it has always become clear, again and again, that the Jews weren’t the problem in the first place.

            I felt strongly that I needed to watch this documentary as it aired, rather than recording it and watching it later, because I wanted to feel like I was watching it with other people. I needed that feeling of support. So when the second night of the documentary was postponed in favor of a recap of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral, for anyone who may have missed more than a week’s coverage of every detail leading up to and through the funeral on multiple channels, I felt minimized and pushed aside. I definitely took it personally.

“Me too.”

            There are around 7.6 million Jews in the United States today (according to Google), less than there were in Europe before World War Two, and we are only about 2.4 percent of the U.S. population, and yet, when the White Supremacists marched in Charlottesville they shouted “Jews will not replace us,” as if we are a threat to their place in the world.

            So when PBS aired the second episode, a day later than expected, I sat down in front of the television with my mom and crossed my fingers, hoping a crowd would be watching with us and that something would come of it.

“We’re watching with you, Mommy.”

            There were times when the documentary seemed to equivocate, trying very hard to soften its criticism of America, and especially of president Roosevelt. And there wasn’t much reference to the way the British actively kept Jewish refugees out of Palestine, leading up to and during the Holocaust, despite knowing full well that they were sending boats full of refugees back to Germany to die. But I appreciated the way the filmmakers bookended the documentary with the Anne Frank story, which is so familiar to the American audience, and then delved deeper into her real life than we usually see in discussions of her edited diary. Her former classmate, who went through very similar circumstances as Anne but survived the Holocaust, talked about the famous line in the diary where Anne says that she still believes people are essentially good, but she pointed out that it was written before the Franks were captured by the Gestapo, and before Anne was taken to Auschwitz, and before she and her mother and her sister died there. The optimism of that line has captured American hearts for generations but it has always bothered me, because many people are NOT essentially good, and Anne Frank’s life and death are proof of that. But the sugar coating of her story is very American, where we don’t just need a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down, but a cup, or five.

“I love sweet things!”

            The thing the documentary did best was to address the tendency of majorities to blame their problems on powerless minorities, and it made a clear connection between how the United States dealt with African Americans and Native Americans, and how the Nazis treated the Jews. Hitler is so often portrayed as an outlier in his hatred for Jews, and the disabled, and homosexuals, and the Romany, and on and on and on, but he was following models he’d seen in other countries, including ours, and the fact that most countries in the world refused to take in refugees from Hitler, allowing them no safe place to escape to, was a secondary cause of so many deaths.

            In the film, Freda Kirchway, who wrote for the Nation magazine in 1943, was quoted as saying, “We had it in our power to rescue this doomed people and we did not lift a hand to do it, or perhaps it would be fairer to say that we lifted one cautious hand encased in a tight-fitting glove of quotas and visas and affidavits, and a thick layer of prejudice.”

Even after Americans knew what had happened to the Jews in the Holocaust, and saw the concentration camps and their survivors, only 5% of Americans were willing to let in more Jews.

            I don’t know why this documentary aired in September, instead of around Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day, in the spring), but a week later, a far right leader, with direct connections to Mussolini’s fascist party, won the election in Italy, so it turned out to be very timely after all.

            There are people who, endlessly, deny that the Holocaust happened, despite all of the evidence. Right now, we’re watching the Ukrainians fight a war and at the same time have to document the atrocities done to them in granular detail, because they know they will need this evidence to prove what really happened, and even then, the people who don’t want to know will continue to deny it; believing what their minds can tolerate instead of what is demonstrably true.

            This phenomenon of disbelief haunts us. Most Jews had the same trouble believing that such a thing could happen, because no one wants to believe things that make them feel uncomfortable, or frightened, or guilty, or any of the other emotions we hate to sit with. Humans are great at forgetting or minimizing or compartmentalizing the knowledge we can’t deal with.

            People can’t take in a number like six million people killed. And when they can, they often choose to believe that the Jews were to blame for their own killings; that they were complicit, or weak, or evil, and that’s why they were targeted and killed in such large numbers. There were something like nine million Jews in Europe before World War Two, and six million of them were killed. Most of the rest left Europe, to escape Hitler, or to escape their neighbors who didn’t want them around even after the war.

            It’s a painful thing to look at all of that hatred and horror, but it’s necessary, and I’m grateful to Ken Burns and his colleagues for making an attempt to bring this history back to the forefront, and to remind America of the dangers we face when we refuse to believe the evidence in front of us. And in the aftermath of watching the documentary, I hoped to hear that everyone in the world, or at least in America, had been watching with me, but I only saw a few responses, and those mostly from within the Jewish community. I hope that when the documentary airs again, and again, more people will choose to see it. But even with the lack of public response, what I still feel most deeply is gratitude, to Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, Sarah Botstein and the rest of their team, and to all of the people who participated in the documentary, and to the people who chose to air it.

Thank you for being willing to see what really happened. Thank you for making it feel real instead of like it’s a bad dream or an exaggeration or so long in the past as to be irrelevant. Thank you for seeing the parallels in the world today. Thank you for saying that these horrifying things have to be looked at and acknowledged, over and over again, to combat the natural human desire to forget.

To Stream the U.S. and the Holocaust from PBS –

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

94 responses »

  1. Yes, thanks to Ken Burns and his team for once again asking us to confront our own demons of marginalizing entire minorities rather than honoring the promises of equality for all we originally espoused as a nation. Shame on us. Shame on all of us.

  2. Thank you for this powerful message. We have difficulty getting PBS live (poor connection to the downlink), so we watched via the PBS app. I wouldn’t say we enjoyed the program, but it was eye-opening and worthwhile. Current events are very worrying, as Dana Milbank writes in

  3. Wow, wonderful write-up, Rachel! I chose not to watch because I am so easily triggered into tears and depression, plus I already know how awful we (the US) were to Jews. We never seem to learn anything, as a country or a species supposedly brighter than all the rest. We keep going through the same terrible cycles and even now there are so many who blame things on the Jews, even though, as you say, we’re such a small minority of the whole. Unbearably sad…

  4. This is an excellent post Rachel. I have seen much of the work of Ken Burns and I have never been disappointed. This most recent one on the Holocaust was for me, a non Jewish person , both educational and enlightening. Also it was disturbing as it should be. I was moved and close to tears several times. I may not be American but I know some of the same attitudes exist here in Canada too.

  5. Rachel, I’ll keep a look out for this powerful documentary in Europe. Thanks for bringing it to my and our attention.

  6. Thanks for the link. I had not heard of the documentary and it has not aired in Australia as far as I know.

  7. Such a heartfelt, powerful post, Rachel. It’s one of my greatest heartaches that anti-semitism hasn’t been relegated to the dustbins of history, more less strengthening. There are no words. 🥵😥😥

  8. There has always been some question about Jewish blood in my veins, as some of my distant relatives spelled,and pronounced, their last name in the Jewish fashion, while others, German. Nevertheless, I count myself part Jewish. Having said that, there’s an individual who comes up on my mountain once a year who’s an anti semite, hates Jews, blacks, the military, and pretty much anyone who isn’t white, Anglo Saxton and protestant. I always greet him with the star of David, and in my military DCU’S. I also hang a pride flag where he can see it, drives him nuts, but he knows better than to mess with me. For the record, I cannot stand bigotry in any form.

  9. I attended a powerful zoom presentation this week with 3 Jewish authors speaking on the subject of how important it is to have positive representation in Children’s literature and how we need to help everyone understand that, not just Jews that we are not a monolith.

  10. I haven’t been watching this series. I just find it too painful. Antisemitism is such a sick societal disease that I don’t understand. It’s something that brings out the deepest evil in the human heart. How could this ever happen? After all that has happened how can it still exist? Luckily it has mostly been disappearing. In my birth country Sweden it has mostly been reintroduced by some Arab immigrants who have a big problem with the conflict over Israel and Palestinians, or so they say. Among the rest of the population it is not a big problem, I think. I hope Antisemitism will disappear soon.

  11. Great post right here, Rachel! Reading this one oddly reminded me of the role of former Philippine President Manuel Quezon — the inaugural leader of the Philippine Commonwealth — in saving many Jews from the Holocaust.

    Back in the late 1930s to early 1940s, Quezon planned to accept at least 10,000 Jews from Germany and Austria — with the help of former Indiana Gov. Paul McNutt (who was the high commissioner to the Philippines that time) and former President Eisenhower (who was a military advisor that time). They managed to convince Washington, with at least 1,000 allowed to stay in the Philippines.

    What inspired him to take in refugees fleeing the Nazi German government, however, were the Frieder brothers. The five Jewish siblings who hailed from Cincinnati ran a tobacco business in Manila, and often played poker with Quezon.

    With the Jewish refugees from Europe entering Manila, they were settled at a part of Quezon’s estate bordering the suburbs of Quezon City and Marikina — aptly named Marikina Hall. Today, the Philippine School of Business Administration occupies the former site of Marikina Hall after it was destroyed during the war.

    (Apologies for the rather long comment.)

      • Welcome! Incidentally, this part of your post struck me the most:

        “Some failed to act because of their ingrained anti-Semitism, but others were afraid that if they took action to help the Jews of Europe it would set off even more antisemitism around the world, and especially at home. It’s painful, but important, to remember how prevalent anti-Semitism was at the time.”

        As someone who lives in a predominantly Catholic country, there is an ingrained dislike of Jews (given the New Testament). There is even a certain stigma centering on people who portray Jewish characters (Hudyo in the Filipino language) during the traditional Good Friday plays depicting Christ’s passion.

        This also brought another piece to mind. Years ago, there was this article published in one of the main Philippine newspapers where the elderly Filipino writer recounted his youth — and having a Jewish refugee as a childhood friend. While most Filipino children of the author’s time bullied the refugee for being “Hudyo,” the author went against the grain and cultivated a friendship.

  12. Thank you so much Rachel for this new perspective. I had no idea about what was going on in the US during that time. We never have been told, not in school, not in books regarding that part of our history nor in the countless documentations.
    The question nobody ever could answer for me was from where all that hatred came. Ho can you hate for no reason at all?

  13. This is a very important blog post. Thank you.

  14. Ken Burns is a consummate documentary film maker. His ‘Civil War’ is one of the best things I have ever seen on TV, (and also bought on DVD to watch many times since) and later films such as ‘The Vietnam War’, ‘Jazz’, and ‘The West’ are superb. I have yet to see this one, but will look out for it on TV here.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  15. I’m upset at the resurgence of Nazism and antisemitism these days. The right-wing echo chamber, QAnon, and partisan voices amplify hate among their faithful followers while downplaying it for public consumption. Antisemitism and other bigotries are a clear and present danger and should be addressed more assertively.

  16. This post makes painful reading, and all credit to you for sharing it with us. As a well-educated Brit – and one with a university history degree too – I was intrigued by your assertion that “there wasn’t much reference to the way the British actively kept Jewish refugees out of Palestine”. This not something that I have ever been taught, or read about, or even heard reference to, at any point in my life. I’ve just done a bit of research online to find out more, and knowing what I now know, I find myself ashamed that while Britain’s role in supporting some Jewish refugees via the Kindertransport initiative is rightly mentioned here with pride, the limitations placed on Jewish immigration to Palestine are never spoken about. While history has not been re-written, it has certainly been edited! From what I’ve just read British policy was a tragic mistake, one we have since swept under the carpet in the hope that nobody will notice. I’d be happier if we, as a nation, owned up to it and learned from it. Thank you for bringing it to my attention/

  17. Several weeks ago I took an excellent guided walking tour in Paris that dealt with these same issues:

  18. A documentary proving just how “Great” America once was. If I can stream it I will.

  19. I don’t think I will be able to watch the film, but your post gives a good sense of what it’s about. And that is sad and shocking, even though we should be past being shocked at how people behave. In India we have similar things happening and even though we who feel it’s wrong try to speak out, it feels unstoppable. Why is it so hard for so many humans to see that we’re all the same? I believe J Krishnamurti is right when he ascribes it all to fear. However irrational the fear may be.

    On a happier note, I read Yeshiva Girl and loved it! Here’s my review on Amazon:
    Same review also posted on Goodreads.

  20. It is a sad world, we live in. 2022 and we are still holding hate. I will never understand. I was lucky. I met three people who survived the Death camps in Europe in 1976-1980. They were the kindest, smartest and wisest people. I had ever known. All we do dear Rachel is teach the children to be kind to each other.

      • I was at the park yesterday. A white woman with a mix child. She told me, they needed guns in Texas because of the illegal immigrants. I told her. Do you believe the immigrant are coming to commit crimes? I told her. Don’t believe the media. I told her. You have mix children with dark skin. What does the media say about them? She got quiet and she walked away. I wanted to tell her. The Mexicans are not the illegal. It was the white people illegal residents. The race of the Mexicans had lived in Texas and California for 5,000 years. New generation don’t read, they don’t know history. We must remind them. Great women and great men tried to ensure. USA is a safe place for everyone. I keep trying my dear friend.

      • Learning history, without prejudice if at all possible, always helps.

      • We must seek the truth dear Rachel. Controlled media. We are the teachers of the future. But we cannot forget the past.

  21. I imagine it must have been equally as painful to write this important post, Rachel

  22. This is one of your more profound and enlightening posts. By way of praise, I say, “I learn from you.”

  23. I’ve been to the Holocaust Museum in D.C., the memorial in Berlin, Nordhausen in Germany, even the Anne Frank House. Man’s inhumanity to Man will amaze, confuse, and sadden me for the rest of my days, as it has for all of my past ones.

  24. My mother was 21 in 1940, the year of the last Presidential election before American entry into the Second World War. Among my parents, aunts and uncles, she was the only one eligible to vote.
    In a little over 2 years, my father and uncles went off to war. My Uncle Ed was wounded in Italy, fighting the Germans. All of my uncles and my father experienced the full horror of war. None of them set policy, in the 1930’s. They were boys.
    They are all dead now.
    Mr. Burns and his devotees are fond of extrapolating the past into the present. That isn’t scholarship. Rather it is polemic. So if a person supports Donald Trump, he/she is an antisemite. Tell that to Larry Kudlow, Ben Shapiro, or Mark Levin.
    But dredging up the Holocaust is a great way to ignore the perversion and murder, specifically transgender ideology and abortion, that American Liberals endorse.
    Respectfully, I won’t be going on your guilt trip.

  25. A thought-provoking post. This is not yet available to watch in the UK but when it is I shall watch it. Thanks you.

  26. I find documentaries by Ken Burns enlightening and insightful; however I’m out of the loop AND behind on his recent projects. Thank you for bringing this one to my attention.
    I know I will need to be emotionally prepared for such heavy content. America’s past is RIFE with racism and bigotry, and it hurts to my core to see that kind of pain inflicted.

  27. Reblogged this on Ramblings and Ruminations and commented:
    I’m at a loss for words after reading this. My heart feels sore at learning in much more detail about this time in our world’s history and our country’s reaction to it. This is not easy reading, but please take the time to read it nonetheless.

  28. Rachel, I’ve always chosen to live in “my own little world” as a form of protection because I’m easily emotionally overwhelmed when humanity falls short of my expectations for it. This blog post literally punched me in the gut and made my heart hurt. While I was not yet born during the Holocaust, hearing you talk with authority about its effects and the world’s reactions to it hurts not only my heart, but my spirit. I’d like to ask for a mulligan – a do over – but I look at humanity today and honestly question if we’d do any better this time around…

  29. Yes, it’s fine. I’m grateful for your response.

  30. I used to teach adolescent lit to college students (future teachers), and we sometimes read Anne’s Diary and sometimes other books about the Holocaust. I always stressed that about the famous Anne quote because I think it is the wrong take-away from the book. Her father was so instrumental in the editing of the diary that it’s hard to see why he slanted it that way other than the fact that he was still living with what must have been horrific PTSD. And we know survivors have had dramatically different responses. I also used to teach how Roosevelt let down the Jews. Very hard to see why this country has “canonized” him.

  31. Well written/said. And powerful.

  32. Thank you, Rachel, for what you wrote. A lot of the ugly underbelly of America was both exposed and encouraged by our former president. We can’t let him take the reigns again in 2 years.

  33. Reblogged this on ❀ Welcome To LSS Attitude of Gratitude❀ and commented:
    Thank you Rachel for bringing this information to us all.

  34. Nothing ever changes , never, people deny, justify , hide it away , not me, not me!
    People are not essentially good sadly as a species we are not good!
    I don’t know why the Jews have been percicuted since time immemorial? Why. I do not have the answer.
    On a side note I am sorry the Queen’s funeral sidelined the second episode of this program …. It was saturation viewing over here in the UK. …but the Americans like all that pomp and ceremony, I agree with you though everyone must of seen it!
    It not just America that’s guilty it’s the whole world. 💜💜

  35. Thanks for your review of the PBS special. It is shameful that the US did not help more Jews escape. My husband and I plan to watch the film this month. You may find my article today interesting: do you know the story of Mortiz Hochschild saving Jews from Germany during WWII in South America?

  36. I enjoy Ken Burns but did not know about this. I remember first seeing the images of stacked concentration camp victims in middle school as a young girl in Texas. Those images have always stayed with me and as I learned more about World War II. It was hard to believe that people could do that to other human beings, especially since I can’t recall ever hearing anti-Semitic comments growing up or going through college or living my entire life in Texas. Maybe it’s because we put a huge value on freedom, including freedom of worship. Even serving in Christian churches for years and going to Bible Study, no one has ever said anything disparaging against the Jewish people. I don’t understand hating an entire race or ethnicity. I don’t know how anyone could see the hairless women or young children, the piles of glasses and shoes, or the fingernails raked into walls and not know that evil exists, that Satan exists as he existed in Hitler’s heart. All the more reason to shine a light in the darkness.

  37. The urge to whitewash history is dangerous and naive and definitely sets us up to repeat the worlds worst offenses. It’s important to speak out. Kudos to Burns and crew for an important documentary and kudos to you for pushing awareness forward.

  38. Hi Rachel- Thank you for reminding me to uphold those high standards of Jewish advancement in life that my descendants set for me to carry on.

  39. Thank you for sharing this. It is an important reminder.

  40. My husband and I watched the documentary, and I will share your powerful post with him. You are spot on. On a completely other note – I love the Pup’s haircut!!!

  41. Thank you for bringing this documentary to my attention. I have read many things about the Holocaust and am continually horrified by it and the responses to it. “We must study our past or we are doomed to repeat it” rings all too true.

  42. The US and the Holocaust has been screened in the UK this week, prior to Holocaust Memorial Day.


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