And high up above my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty
Sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying
Paul Simon, American Tune
Ken Burns is a documentary maker and storyteller without equal. All his films are masterpieces of American history. I’ve watched much if not most of his work. They are among the most unforgettable histories I’ve ever viewed, high up in what I’d consider the pantheon of the genre, alongside The Sorrow and the Pity, The Battle of Algiers, Salvador and Waco – Terms of Engagement. The Civil War raised the bar so high that very few documentary filmmakers have reached it, with its mix of surviving photographic images (in an style that Apple now promotes as its “Ken Burns Effect”) and the mesmerizing recitation of diaries, letters home, and official communications. The West confronted his country’s enduring creation myth with an honesty balanced by empathy. The Dustbowl was breathtaking in its images, its narrative and the spoken testimonies it presented. The Vietnam War was a relentless, harrowing story told in pictures and the witness of the people ground zero of a a conflict that has been called “chaos without a compass”.
The US and the Holocaust is Burns’ latest film. It does not make for easy viewing being a searing indictment of America’s response to the catastrophe that was approaching for European Jewry. It’s a significant exposition centred on just how much evidence was accessible to Americans during that appalling time, and asks just why rescuing Jews was no priority, except for those few individuals who actually took risks to help. As Burns observed: “There is an American reckoning with this, and it had to be told. If we are an exceptional country, we have to be tough on ourselves and hold ourselves to the highest standard. We cannot encrust our story with barnacles or sanitise our history into a feel-good story”. As historian Rebecca Erbelding suggests, “There is no real perception in the 1930s that America is a force for good in the world or that we should be involved in the world at all. There is no sense among the American people, among the international community, that it is anyone else’s business what is happening in your own country”. There is indeed a disconnect between America’s self regard as the land of the free and the “light on the hill”, and the cold reality – and realpolitik – of its actual record at home and abroad. There is a none too subtle irony in the titles Burns has chosen for each two hour episode, drawn from extracts from the poem by Emily Lazarus that adorns the base of The Statue of Liberty (see below).
Burns work reminds us that historical memory in America, Europe, and indeed Australia is often like a sieve. Give it a good shake and only the big chunks are left. The story of the US’ public opinion and government policy regarding the worsening plight of European Jewry during the nineteen thirties and the a second World War is not one of those. When I posted an article about the film on Facebook, many Americans commented that they were unaware of their country’s disregard and outright obstruction. Burns has opened a crack that has let the light in.
The quotations cited above are from a review published recently in the Weekend Australian which I have republished below – it is an excellent and quite detailed account of the issues and the incidents featured in this sorry tale, and I cannot better it. But I will note one distinctive feature of Ken Burns’ documentaries – his skill at recounting unfolding stories which he interweaves through the ongoing narrative, drawing viewers inexorably in and acquainting them with the characters, their hopes and their fears, and ultimately, their fates be these tragic – alas. in the most part – or fortunate.
In The Vietnam War, I followed the journey of an eager and patriotic young soldier, Denton “Mogie” Crocker, as he roved out from mall town USA to the battlefields of Indochina. I recount it. in The Ballad of Denton Crocker – a Vietnam elegy. In America and the Holocaust, there is the story of Anne Frank’s family as they sought asylum in the USA from the moment the the Nazi regime started to come down hard on Germany’s Jewish community. We all know how that ended for Anne and her sister. There is also the saga of what Hollywood called “the voyage of the damned”, the subject of an overwrought and overacted feature film, which nevertheless was based upon the actual voyage of the SS St.Louis which departed Hamburg with nearly a thousand desperate but hopeful travellers, but was refused entry into American and Canadian ports, and returned eventfully to Rotterdam where Britain, Belgium, France and the Netherlands gave them shelter. The latter three were conquered by the Wehrmacht in 1940, with harrowing consequences for those passengers who settled there, but a half of the St. Louis’ human cargo survived the war, predominantly those who were permitted to settle in Britain.
On a personal note, whilst I am myself of Irish descent, Catholic and Protestant in equal measure on each side, my wife’s father’s family were Jews from eastern Germany and Czechoslovakia and experienced the same travails as those described in Burns’ film. Many, including her father’s elderly parents, perished in the death camps, and are memorialised the Yad Vashem shrine of remembrance in Jerusalem – which I have visited many times. Others managed to leave Germany, including her father, who settled in London, where she was born, and her uncle who a lawyer who left Germany in 1933 after the promulgation of the infamous Nuremberg Laws, who settled in England and and then made Aliyah to Palestine, ending his days in Haifa, in an independent Israel. Others headed westwards to Latin America in the hope of securing entry to the US from there.
Epilogue. Antisemitism, the devil that never dies
It has been said, with reason, that antisemitism is the devil that never dies. And yet, is antisemitism a unique and distinct form of racism, or a subset of a wider fear and loathing insofar as people who dislike Jews rarely dislike only Jews?
Fear of “the other” is a default position of our species wherein preconceptions, prejudice and politics intertwine – often side by side with ignorance and opportunism. it is no coincidence that what is regarded as a dangerous rise in antisemitism in Europe, among the extreme left as much as the extreme right, is being accompanied by an increase in Islamophobia, in racism against Roma people, and indeed, in prejudice in general, with an increase in hate-speech and incitement in the media and online, and hate-crimes.
We are seeing once again the rise of nationalism and populism, of isolationism and protectionism, of atavistic nativism and tribalism, of demagogic leaders, and of political movements wherein supporting your own kind supplants notions of equality and tolerance, and the acceptance of difference – the keystones of multicultural societies. It is as if people atomized, marginalized and disenfranchised by globalization, left behind by technological, social and cultural change, and marginalized by widening economic inequality, are, paradoxically, empowered, energized, and mobilized by social media echo-chambers, opportunistic politicians, and charismatic charlatans who assure them that payback time is at hand. These days, people want to build walls instead of bridges to hold back the perceived barbarians at the gates.
© Paul Hemphill 2023 All rights reserved
From Little Sir Hugh – Old England’s Jewish Question
Also, on American history and politics, My country, ’tis of thee- on matters American
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Ken Burns’ “The US and the Holocaust” tells of a shameful past
Graeme Blundell, The Weekend Australian, 11th March 2023
It’s a significant exposition centred on just how much evidence was accessible to Americans during that appalling time, and asks just why rescuing Jews was no priority, except for those few individuals who took the risk to help.
For Burns, the series is the most important work of his professional career.
“There is an American reckoning with this, and it had to be told,” he says. “If we are an exceptional country, we have to be tough on ourselves and hold ourselves to the highest standard. We cannot encrust our story with barnacles or sanitise our history into a feel-good story.”
The US and the Holocaust was originally supposed to be released in 2023 but Burns accelerated production by several months, “much to the consternation of my colleagues, just because I felt the urgency that we needed to be part of a conversation”. That conversation for Burns and his colleagues is about “the fragility of democracies” and demonstrating how, “we’re obligated then to not close our eyes and pretend this is some comfortable thing in the past that doesn’t rhyme with the present”.
The filmmaker is fond of quoting Mark Twain’s, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes,” and like all his films he wants this one to rhyme with the present.
“We remind people that it’s important that these impulses are not relegated to a past historical event,” Burns says. “It’s important to understand the fragility of our institutions and the fragility of our civilised impulses.”
As Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, a significant voice in Burns’s documentary, says with some alarm in the series, “The time to stop a genocide is before it starts”.
And Peter Hayes, also a revered historian, says, underling the subtext of the documentary, “exclusion of people, and shutting them out, has been as American as apple pie”.
The three-part, six-hour series is directed and produced by Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, two of his long-term collaborators, and beautifully written by another Burns regular, Geoffrey Ward. As always Burns manages to find major actors to play the parts of his central characters in voice over, including Liam Neeson, Matthew Rhys, Paul Giamatti, Meryl Streep, Werner Herzog, Elliott Gould, Joe Morton and Hope Davis.
And like so many of Burns’s films it’s narrated in that mesmerising way by Peter Coyote, who Burns calls “God’s stenographer”. Coyote is able to voice such complex ideas with authority and empathy, often with a kind of beguiling liturgical intonation.
Stylistically recognisable and cinematically audacious, Burns’s memorable documentaries (many of which he has co-produced with Lynn Novick) include The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, The War, The National Parks, The Dust Bowl, Prohibition, Country Music and more recently Hemingway. He constructs a compelling narrative by using almost novelistic techniques, imaginatively selecting archival material, photographed in his now famous way, immersing us in photographs, developing characters and arranging details around their stories.
The filmmakers present their story in this new series across three overflowing episodes in six challenging, engrossing hours: the first The Golden Door (Beginnings-1938); the second Yearning to Breathe Free (1938-1942); and the final The Homeless, Tempest-Tossed (1941-).
There are two parallel storylines that continuously reverberate off each other – the American side details the history of American anti-Semitism, the notion of “race betterment” and the evolving immigration policy; the German narrative arc deals with the way hatred of the Jews sprouted over time, how the Nazis pursued the end of Jewish intellectualism, and of course the process of their extermination.
The first episode covers the period from roughly the end of the 19th century to the late 1930s, a historical background that delivers context and perspective for the complex narrative that follows.
It’s broken by a short pre-titles sequence that involves new archival material from the centre of Frankfurt in 1933 of Otto Frank, father of Anne, Hitler having been in power for some months. Otto is desperate to get his family to America, but in the absence of an asylum policy, Jews seeking to escape Nazi persecution in Europe had to go through a protracted emigration procedure. It’s an unanticipated and surprising piece of the Franks’s story highlighting an American connection to the Holocaust.
(It’s a lovely, if distressing, example of the way Burns likes compelling personal narrative to wrap his ideas around, finding “characters” who become involved as events dictate.)
There was limited willingness to accept Jewish refugees. America did not want them, as Coyote says. Frank would continue to apply when they moved to Amsterdam but his immigration visa application to the American consulate in Rotterdam was never processed.
As the filmmakers later show so tragically, existence for European Jews became a deadly, exhausting pursuit of passports, identification cards, transit visas, and affidavits. As the journalist Dorothy Thompson, who features in the series, said, “For thousands and thousands of people a piece of paper with a stamp on it is the difference between life and death.”
We then cut to a beautiful period film sequence of the Statue of Liberty, Mother of Exiles, surrounded by slowly floating clouds, and a beautiful reading of the famous poem by 19th-century poet Emma Lazarus printed on a bronze plaque mounted inside the lower level of the pedestal:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
But the Golden Door, which gives the title for the first episode, had begun to close. The filmmakers take us back through history at quotas and the favouring of northerners over immigrants from southern or eastern Europe. Asians were largely locked out by the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
A so-called “racial abyss” was feared by Americans as the new century began; white people feared they would be outbred by the newcomers and their offspring. The white Protestant majority at the end of 19th century was certain that unless things changed they were about to be replaced.
A “mordant sentimentalism” was blamed by some for the US becoming “a sanctuary for the oppressed”, and “suicidal ethics” were leading to the extermination of the white people.
Helen Keller called it “cowardly sentimentalism” and Henry Ford, the series reveals, blamed Jews “for everything from Lincoln’s assassination to the change he thought he detected in his favourite candy bar”. He even published a hugely successful newspaper to triumphantly publish anti-Semitic harangues.
Jews were dismissed as “uncouth Asiatics” and the hogwash “science” of eugenics, the theory that humans can be improved through selective breeding of populations, was promulgated by conservationist Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race. The filmmakers show how it evolved and thrived in response to America’s changing demographics.
It was a concept taken up by Hitler who also admired America’s expansion across the continent from east to west, brushing aside those who were already there. This was manifest destiny. “The immense inner strength of the US came from the ruthless but necessary act of murdering native people and herding the rest into cages,” he wrote. His dream was of territorial expansion and Germany would in time conquer the wild east of Europe he believed. “Our Mississippi,” he said, “must be the Volga”.
Jews, scapegoats for centuries, watched as anti-Semitism was normalised in the US, in and out of Washington. Burns and his colleagues closely follow the complex manoeuvrings of President Roosevelt as he coped with the anti-immigrant xenophobiaas well as a wilful, and for many, all-consuming obsession with white supremacy.
As historian Rebecca Erbelding suggests, “There is no real perception in the 1930s that America is a force for good in the world or that we should be involved in the world at all. There is no sense among the American people, among the international community, that it is anyone else’s business what is happening in your own country”.
The series unfolds with Burns’s typical elegance: the stylised organisation of personal anecdote, Coyote’s sonorous narration, erudite, subdued commentary from historians and some ageing witnesses to atrocities, an elegiac soundtrack from Johnny Gandelsman, and gracefully realised visual documentation.
Much of the German archival footage is not unfamiliar but some new sequences horrify and disturb deeply. SS soldiers parade in the streets, chanting “When Jewish blood spurts off a knife, everything will be all right”. And the midnight book burnings on May 10, 1933, are a frenzied, phantasmagoria of volumes hurled into bonfires, including the works of Jewish authors like Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud as well as blacklisted American authors such as Ernest Hemingway and Helen Keller.
The series is an extraordinary piece of work, resonant and at times frightening. As historian Nell Irvin Painter says, “Part of this nation’s mythology is that we’re good people. We are a democracy, and in our better moments we are very good people. But that’s not all there is to the story”.
The US and the Holocaust is streaming on SBS On Demand.