New documentary by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein, “The U.S. and the Holocaust”, starts this evening

September 18, 2022 • 12:45 pm

It’s well known that the U.S. government didn’t care all that much about the Holocaust as it was happening in Europe, even though information about it was available. Nor did they make much effort to take in Jews or, especially, to rescue beleaguered Jews in Europe.  Ken Burns and Sarah Botstein are now about to present a six-hour, three-part series called “The U.S. and the Holocaust”, part of which explains this neglect.

The show starts this evening, so do watch it. (Check your local PBS schedule.) Here’s the one-minute trailer:

Somehow i have to find a way to see it (my crummy t.v. doesn’t receive PBS).

Below is a 26-minute “Firing Line” interview featuring Burns and Botstein.  You can hear it for free by clicking the screenshots:

 

Here are Burns and his other collaborator, Lynn Novick, on the Today show.

The New Yorker has a summary and review of the series, and its assessment is somewhat tepid. Why? Because Burns et al. didn’t make the film the New Yorker thought it should. What did they want? More about contemporary issues, something that Burns addresses in his comments above.

Here’s a bit of McAuley’s critique:

But if contemporary America is of interest, there is an important institutional story to tell here as well, about the U.S. government’s ultimate embrace of Holocaust history beginning in the late nineteen-seventies, when a commission established by President Jimmy Carter proposed the creation of a national Holocaust museum. And also a strange story about a civil society in which a very particular tragedy became universalized and mass-marketed, leading people who may have little or no connection to Jewish life to feel entitled to make a Jewish catastrophe about themselves. Examining the evolution of that uniquely American obsession might have strengthened the film in its final installment. After all, America is still responding to the Holocaust, and often in troubling ways.

The persecution and mass murder of European Jews between 1933 and 1945 loom so large in our culture that even our own homegrown brownshirts now have the Holocaust on the tips of their tongues. In recent years, a sitting member of Congress, Marjorie Taylor Greene, has styled her enemies as “Nazis” and posted a video of a fake-looking President Biden with a Hitler mustache. Beyond the arena of electoral politics, a number of ordinary people wore yellow stars on their lapels to protest coronavirus-vaccine requirements. Given its interest in the contemporary, “The U.S. and the Holocaust” might have confronted, or at least acknowledged, these fixations and distortions. They, too, turn out to be as American as apple pie.

There wasn’t enough about contemporary white supremacy and the Republicans, I guess. Well, I haven’t seen the show yet, an will find a way to do so. But what does the magazine mean by this?

. . . .a civil society in which a very particular tragedy became universalized and mass-marketed, leading people who may have little or no connection to Jewish life to feel entitled to make a Jewish catastrophe about themselves.

Is the answer in something that McAuley wrote earlier in the article?

The destruction of the European Jews, in Eleanor Roosevelt’s telling, was not really about the Jews: it was a parable for right and wrong, a “teachable moment” about perseverance in the face of adversity—could there be anything more hopelessly and terminally American than that? As Roosevelt wrote, Anne’s diary was among “the wisest and most moving commentaries on war and its impact on human beings that I have ever read. . . . Despite the horror and humiliation of their daily lives, these people never gave up.” Anne, she concluded, “tells us much about ourselves and our own children.” Not once did Eleanor Roosevelt use the word “Jew”; the story of “these people” was not the point. By then, the Jewish catastrophe was everyone’s to claim, and the “lessons” of the Holocaust were already in the process of becoming a strangely American form of national self-help.

Typical New Yorker prose: a grandiose and eloquent conclusion that doesn’t seem to hold water.  An American form of self-help? How?

45 thoughts on “New documentary by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein, “The U.S. and the Holocaust”, starts this evening

    1. Sarah Botstein is Leon Botstein’s daughter. In the Firing Line segment embedded in Jerry’s post above there’s a 1995 clip of him appearing on William F. Buckley, Jr.’s earlier Firing Line incarnation in which Leon Botstein argues against the proposition that US immigration should be drastically reduced, raising the effect that the US immigration quotas in place during the 1930s had on European Jews trying to escape the rise of Nazism. (The clip occurs at about the 19 and a half minute mark of the show.)

  1. I’m worried about how woke this program will be. The Jews had/have white privilege, dontcha know. I’m surprised that the New Yorker didn’t mention this in their review, woke or not.

    1. Don’t you think you should give Burns, Botstein, and Novick the benefit of the doubt — and at least the first episode of the series a chance to air — before jumping to that presumption?

            1. Can you point to any of the dozens of earlier documentaries done by Ken Burns, most of which were aired on PBS, that you consider woke?

              1. No, I respect Ken Burns and enjoy his work. That’s why I restricted my comments to PBS. I can understand someone, unfamiliar with Burns, who only saw the PBS accolades for the 1619 project or coverage of Israel being worried the holocaust would get a woke treatment.

              2. @CarlW:

                Someone who’s never seen a Ken Burns documentary expressing unfounded worries regarding an as-yet unaired Ken Burns documentary seems an ill-considered knee-jerk reaction.

              3. Amen, Ken. I am 1/2 through the second episode and it is far from woke. All the episodes are available on PBS Passport for streaming. Not sure I can make it through the whole thing tonight as it is emotionally draining.

            1. Yeah, but unlike the courtroom, Ken can have a reasonable expectation here that a large proportion of the readers would actually understand the Latin.

      1. Don’t feed the troll. I assume ginger katz knows perfectly well that the documentary is not made by the Nation of Islam.

    2. I believe that your determination of whether or not the series is “woke” will largely depend your definition of “woke”. Does the series calmly and accurately present historical events, and document the sentiments of various groups of Americans who influenced those events? Having watched the first two episodes, I’d say yes, indeed. But in true Burns fashion, the series never preaches or editorializes. It presents a timeline of events and statements, based on what was documented by the stakeholders of the day and their contemporaries. That method of storytelling allows the viewer to consider his or her own beliefs, based on the accurate historical record. You must decide (for yourself) whether or not telling the truth about a complex, and admittedly difficult subject, constitutes “wokeness”.

  2. People clucking their tongues over official American inaction in helping European Jews at this time should examine how they feel about our more recent, shameful abandonment of Afghanistan. At minimal cost in lives and treasure, we could have stayed and bettered the lives of millions. OK, from now on: “Never Again” and this time we mean it!

    1. “At minimal cost in [others] lives . . . .” Whatever that is.

      Do I erroneously recall that the Afghan army stood its ground, did its part?

      1. Minimal: In the final year, 13, all during our botched withdrawal. The previous full year 11. Forgive me if I skip repeating some stupid homily about every life being precious. It matters what those lives bought.

        The deaths were a price worth paying to allow girls to attend school, prevent gays from being thrown from roof tops, and women from being beaten to death for wearing a hijab wrong. Instead 30 million now must live under a brutal theocracy.

        Yes, the Afghan army fell apart when we left. That’s the point. They weren’t capable of standing without American help – that’s on us, not them.

        1. Forgive me if I skip repeating some stupid homily about every life being precious.

          “Every life is priceless” is the mantra. The reality is that companies are willing to spend up to several million dollars to change procedures and equipment to avoid repeating a fatal incident (let’s leave the concept of “accident” out in the hallway for a time). Above that, they start to argue “too expensive” – and the courts accept that by not jailing company owners who have taken “reasonable” steps, but not the more expensive steps, between the first and second fatal incident in their responsibility.
          The absolute numbers change over time, but the argument stays the same. I well remember the grin on a HSE(*) Inspector’s face when asked at a conference about that morning’s news of two company owners being jailed over a third death on one of their construction sites from a repeat of essentially the same incident. I think they got 3 and 5 years, something like that. (* HSE : Health and Safety Executive : the UK Govt’s body with responsibility for enforcement of HSAWA 1974 and subsequent legislation.)

    2. Criticism of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan involves a lot of past-posting. I’m inclined to accept it as valid only when offered by those who’d gone on record with warnings against it before it happened.

      1. Are you accusing me of being either ambivalent or supporting the Afghan withdrawal then criticizing it only afterward? That is not the case, and has no bearing on the truth or sincerity of what I wrote anyway. Why would my criticism be less valid if my current opinion has changed? As a “statement against interest” it would seem to be even more honest.

        My main point is not how inept the actual departure was. I’d feel the same if it had gone smoothly. It’s the abandonment of the Afghans to a terrible future we could have prevented at so little cost. And for those like Filippo who mock the Afghan army – they collapsed without our help, but died in the tens of thousands fighting beside us before that.

        1. I wasn’t accusing you of anything, Carl; I haven’t the foggiest what position you advocated in advance of the Afghanistan withdrawal. I was merely pointing out the dangers of hindsight bias.

  3. It’s well known that the U.S. government didn’t care all that much about the Holocaust as it was happening in Europe, even though information about it was available. Nor did they make much effort to take in Jews or, especially, to rescue beleaguered Jews in Europe.

    Not excusing the US, but couldn’t that be said about most countries?

    1. It could be said about most countries throughout history with regard to Jews (well, at least since Jews existed). Either indifference to or active engagement in atrocities against them. Of course, you had consistent flip-flopping, but never full embrace. A good example is when Portugal expelled all of its Jews, and most of them moved to Amsterdam and its surrounding areas. The Jews were “welcome” in Amsterdam, insofar as they weren’t actively turned away and there weren’t many pogroms to speak of. But Jews still weren’t allowed to be buried inside the city limits, could only hold certain jobs (this is where the “why are there so many Jewish bankers” question comes from!), etc.

      1. Unfortunately, during wwii the Germans deported and murdered about the entire Jewish population of Amsterdam. The Dutch record the religious affiliation of the people, and the consequence was that almost the entire Jewish population was deported and killed during WW II. In Belgium recording religious affiliations is not allowed, and about half of the Jewish population of Antwerp escaped the Holocaust.

      2. It could be said about most countries throughout history with regard to

        events outside their borders.
        We see this very starkly on a weekly basis with the efforts to make sure that illegal immigrants at least die at sea in the Channel, rather than troubling the UK with their officially undesired presence. I guess America’s equivalent is the wailing and gnashing of teeth (both well-known situation non-changing actions) every time the Border Patrol finds a dozen mummified “wetbacks” in the border deserts with Mexico, or a lorry load of undercooked immigrants.

      3. Yes, episode 1 made that clear. We (the U.S.) accepted ~ 225,000 refugees fleeing the Nazis, more than any other Western nation. But we could have—and probably should have—accepted ten times that number. To save their lives. Just saying.

    2. Perhaps. I know Canada turned away a boat load of Jews too that were then killed in death camps. It will be interesting to see if this documentary touches on US businesses working with companies in Europe who were involved directly in atrocities and if this actually was the case or not. The US entered the war late and were trading with what the allies saw as the enemy as allies were fighting and dying. I don’t know how the documentary will treat this. Perhaps it’s simply an American view of the war and Holocaust and how they were mixed up in it.

  4. I would be ashamed to say, “I write for the New Yorker.” Yes, some people will think I’m very special, but I almost certainly don’t want to hear from them. Plus, I’d like to keep my anus the way it is, thank you, rather than have a stick up it all the time, propping me up while I whirl around shouting in turgid prose about how smart I am. “Can you hear my trenchant critique of the latest right-of-extremely-far-left folly? HOW ABOUT NOW?!?”

      1. Contrary to the way so many journalists act these days upon receiving criticism (or, as that particular pool of them is wont to call it, “harassment”), they’re not supposed to be faint of heart 🙂

        1. I’ve said The New Yorker has been going downhill since Harold Ross croaked — and that happened before I was born.

          1. Which raises that old chestnut of when a hill becomes a mountain. It must be going down one of those “hills” in the Himalayas.

  5. The criticism is as much as to say that any artistic production must be aligned with today’s political concerns, and, of course, with Progressive values.

  6. I downloaded the PBS app on my tablet and watched it. I probably could have downloaded an app on my MacBook Air as well. I don’t have a TV.

  7. The New Yorker seems to be riffing on “cultural appropriation” by saying the Jews own this experience and only they are entitled to define it’s meaning. But don’t all humans have the right to find meaning in human history? The New Yorker assertion that the holocaust was not about the Jews in Eleanor Roosevelt’s telling is an example of the either/or fallacy. There are many lessons that can be drawn from history. The holocaust is about the Jews AND perseverance.

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