Historians React to Ken Burns’ Holocaust Documentary

Ken Burns (Courtesy of Alvin Kean Wong)

If there’s one thing that Ken Burns’, Sarah Botstein’s and Lynn Novick’s new docuseries “The U.S. and The Holocaust” makes clear, it’s that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was only a big part of a much larger picture.

The question of why the U.S. didn’t do more to prevent the Holocaust is a question about the 32nd president, yes. But it’s also a question about the myopic worldview of the American population in those years.

As Burns, Botstein and Novick detail in their three-part series, which aired from Sept. 18-21 on PBS and is now available on PBS.org, The Immigration Act of 1924 severely curtailed immigration from Jewish regions. Years later, The Great Depression left one in four Americans without a job and fearful that newcomers would compete with them for the jobs that were available. And as war approached and ultimately broke out in Europe in 1939, aviator Charles Lindbergh’s America First anti-war movement built a following across the nation.

FDR was competing with all of this as he pondered how to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Europe. As a political animal who understood the deeply democratic spirit of his country, the president also knew that he had to follow the herd as much as lead it. His approach ultimately did lead to U.S. entry into World War II, victory over the Nazis and the liberation and preservation of the Jews. But at the same time, it’s hard to deny that FDR’s prioritization of politics over morality came with a price: countless Jewish lives.

It’s history; it is human affairs; and so it’s complicated. That’s why we talked to three prominent Jewish American historians to see what they thought of the much-hyped doc.

Lance Sussman

Sussman is the scholar-in-residence at the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center in Elkins Park. He’s also the rabbi emeritus at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in the same town. As a Jewish historian, he has taught classes at Princeton University, Temple University and SUNY-Binghamton, among other schools.

When he spoke to the Jewish Exponent, Sussman had completed the first episode of the nearly seven-hour docuseries. And he “basically thought it was excellent.”

Sussman appreciated that Burns, Botstein and Novick detailed the early history of immigration in America. Basically, for almost the first century and a half of its existence, the country allowed it. Leaders wanted to grow the population and build a great nation.

Franklin D. Roosevelt (Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

But between 1870 and 1920, southern and eastern Europeans, including many Jews, joined western Europeans in their pursuit of opportunity. This led to a backlash and to the attempt to limit those immigrants that The Immigration Act of 1924 represented.

For a viewer, it’s important to understand this background to “prepare the scene,” as Sussman put it, for what was to come.

Sussman also liked that the trio explained the antisemitism in both the American population and the State Department in the years leading to World War II. This showed the “political dynamic” that FDR had to deal with, and why it was so difficult to take action to stop the Holocaust.

Finally, the historian was delighted to see the co-creators highlight Emanuel Celler, the Jewish congressman who represented his Brooklyn and Queens district for 50 years starting in 1923. If Lindbergh is consistently shown speaking out on the wrong side of history, Celler is consistently shown doing the opposite.

He made a speech against The Immigration Act and lobbied the Roosevelt administration to let in Jewish refugees from Europe during the Nazi years. He was often a man fighting alone in the halls of power and in the national conversation.

“He’s truly one of the unsung heroes of a very dark story,” Sussman said. “So I’m glad that he got a lot of attention.”

Zev Eleff

Eleff, as his website profile describes him, “is the twelfth president of Gratz College” in Cheltenham Township. He’s also a historian of Jewish history in America with nine books and more than 50 scholarly articles to his name.

The scholar did not pull his punches when asked about Burns’ latest project.

“The most egregious thing is letting FDR off the hook,” Eleff said. “That has set back the discourse over the relationship between the Roosevelt administration and the Holocaust.”

What more could America have done to help the Jews during the Holocaust? Ken Burns’ new docuseries explores this question. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

The president added that recent books and articles in the scholarly community have moved toward the “consensus that FDR should have done more.” By not focusing on how much FDR knew and on how much he considered actions like bombing the rail lines to the Auschwitz concentration camp, the documentary ends up missing an opportunity, according to Eleff.

“Many viewers came away looking at FDR with an unimpeachable record in the war effort,” he said. “And the scholarly record isn’t as impeccable.”

Eleff acknowledged that it’s complicated. On the one hand, he mentioned, FDR’s rise to power represented the “near-complete movement of American Jews to the Democratic Party.” But on the other, in the wake of the Holocaust and the realization that FDR wanted to do more but didn’t, “there was a disillusionment and a disenchantment” among American Jews.

Eleff believes that the 32nd president was “inhibited in what he could do,” but also that he could have still tried to do more. The doc also could have explored that more deeply.

“Overall an incredibly powerful and important PBS documentary,” the Gratz leader said. “But what it does do is roll back the very complicated discussions that were activated by FDR.”

Jonathan Sarna

Sarna is the chief historian at the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. He’s also a longtime American Jewish history professor at Brandeis University in Massachusetts and is considered perhaps the foremost Jewish historian in the U.S.

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that Sarna knows the details about what a lot of American Jews were doing to try and help their European brothers and sisters during this time. And he would have liked to have seen Burns, Botstein and Novick focus more on those activities.

Jewish prisoners in the Buchenwald concentration camp during the Holocaust (Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

Jews, according to Sarna, had an intelligence network that infiltrated the Nazi-supporting German American Bund in New York City, Los Angeles and other cities.

“Why not talk about that?” he asked.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency also set up a secret news-gathering operation called the Overseas News Agency, without the word Jewish in it.

“I wish he would have paid more attention to what was done,” Sarna said of Burns. “In that era, there were a lot of secret, clandestine Jewish activities that have never really been properly brought together, celebrated, understood.”

There is a sense in Israel, Sarna explained, that American Jews sat back and did nothing during the Holocaust. A whole generation has been raised on this belief, “perhaps to suggest a difference between America and Israel,” he said.

“And it’s just not true,” he added.

There is also a higher-level part of the story that Sarna wishes the doc would have focused on more: first lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s desire to take in more refugees. Eleanor Roosevelt, famously, was the idealist who balanced her husband’s political calculations, and she was horrified by the events in Europe. Sarna believes that “playing them off against one another would have been helpful.”

The professor, though, understands that, as he put it, films “are not encyclopedias.” Filmmakers, much like newspaper editors, have to make choices about what to include and what not to include, all to appeal to a general audience.

And as a history lesson that can offer a baseline knowledge of that time, and of America’s role in shaping it, “The U.S. and The Holocaust” succeeds, according to Sarna.

“This is a way of learning about something that they otherwise wouldn’t know about,” Sarna said. “So I’m very glad it’s there. But it’s not above criticism.” JE

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  1. why no mention of IBM’s assistance with the Nazis ability with the IBM computing equipment? This enabled the Nazis Blitzkrieg war effort. identifying Jewish populations in communities, running the trains on schedule to the concentration camps & more. IBM trained the Nazis on their equipment at the IBM facility in Endicott NY before the war. Watson received a medal from Nazi Germany in Berlin attended by Hitler. IBM benefitted before the war & during the war from the Nazis money. The best seller from the NY Times titled IBM AND THE HOLOCAUST told of the despicable behavior of IBM for profits before & during
    the Nazis reign of terror.

  2. Oh, please. Doing more before the genocide started would have required American policy makers to have ESP, and rescuing Jews during the Holocaust was impossible without liberating Europe on the ground. Yes, we brought Jewish refugees here in 1944, but those Jews were taken from liberated and neutral territory and weren’t about to be murdered by the Nazis anyway.


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