U.S. Role In Holocaust Examined In New PBS Documentary

There is a great American dilemma when it comes to immigration: The country celebrates itself as a melting pot of diverse cultures and holds a proud mythos of being a nation of immigrants who came with nothing and found prosperity in the U.S.

This is the immigrant story the American Jewish community most often tells about itself. 

But in policy and action, the U.S. has often been vehemently anti-immigrant, with racism weaponized in every age against newcomers. And in the mid-20th century, that policy likely cost millions of European Jews their lives, as told by a new PBS documentary series from Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein.

The three-part, six hour series, titled “The U.S. And The Holocaust,” premiers on Sunday, Sept. 18, at 7 p.m. Central time. But on the evening of Sept. 8, some Minnesotans and Jewish community members got an early look at the documentary at an advance screening by the Fagen Fighters WWII Museum and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.

The documentary is blunt about the reckoning it hopes to spark over how the U.S. locked out European Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis and is aimed squarely at ripping open the country’s core dilemma around immigrants. As one historian onscreen remarked, “the exclusion of people and shutting them out has been as American as apple pie.” 

The series covers how a wave of racism and antisemitism after WWI resulted in the Immigration Act of 1924, which drastically cut the quota of immigrants allowed into the U.S. But even as the threat of Nazi Germany became clear over the course of the 1930s, Congress and the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt largely failed to increase the quota and let in Jewish refugees. 

Popular opinion and the growth of Nazism in America supported the politicians: Around 85% of Protestants and Catholics didn’t want the U.S. to take in European refugees, according to the documentary. Even a quarter of American Jews didn’t want to let more immigrants in. And wary of how antisemitic backlash might derail WWII preparation efforts like the Lend-Lease Act, Roosevelt purposefully avoided action on immigration, even as his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, advocated for letting in more refugees. 

“They truly feared that antisemitism could derail the [pre-war] efforts if it was seen as somehow favoring the American Jews,” said JCRC executive director Steve Hunegs in comments at the Sept. 8 screening. “That sentiment even carried over to the war. Part of the debate over whether or not to bomb the rail lines of Auschwitz was out of concern that this [not] be seen as a Jewish war.”

Among the Jews who attempted to come to the U.S., but were rebuffed, was German Jew Otto Frank and his family. With nowhere to go, they would hide from the Nazis in a secret annex of a building in the Netherlands — where Anne Frank would write much of her now-popular diary before being found by the Nazis and dying in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Cognizant of the current political discourse around immigration, the PBS series emphasizes that telling this anti-immigrant history is not about feeling superior about how far the country has come. Instead, viewers should try to understand American xenophobia and learn from past mistakes to address public policy today.

The documentary frames the U.S. as part of a global movement of xenophobia and anti-immigration sentiment. Time is spent on telling of the British Kindertransport, where the U.K. took in 10,000 Jewish children from the European mainland — but refused to admit parents and extended families, many of whom were later murdered by the Nazis.

Stories are also told of the individual American efforts to bring Jewish refugees here. The efforts are lauded in the documentary, but also serve to highlight the near-impossible challenge of escaping Europe for most Jews. Even the Jewish community was split on how to approach the refugee issue — something the series doesn’t shy away from, either.

“The German Jews, and later the Jews of Austria, went throughout the world; Shanghai, the United States, to Britain, to South America and Australia, any place where they could find refuge, but it was always a considerable struggle,” Hunegs said. Due to Nazi anti-Jewish legislation and anti-immigrant policies worldwide, European Jews became “orphans of the world.”