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Local Retired Fordham History Professor Weighs in on Ken Burns’ Holocaust Documentary Series

Last week on most PBS stations, the Ken Burns documentary series, “The US and the Holocaust,” was presented. This series was widely hailed as one that has helped to put more light on a very dark subject and to help understand the US’s role in responding to the evils of the Holocaust.

Dr. Jack Houston is a retired history professor who taught such courses as European History, the Cold War, and World War II. He now lives locally with his wife, Anne Hetzel. I thought getting his learned perspective on the Ken Burns series might be worthwhile. What follows are his views of it.

“The Ken Burns’ PBS, three-night series is essential for understanding the total impact of the Holocaust on Jewish people and families during World War II, and the continued impact on our world community in the 21st Century.

“As I watched the Ken Burns documentary during the three evenings, my thoughts and feelings moved from sadness to frustration, then to anger. The United States was not willing to open its doors to Jewish families and Jewish refugees trying to escape Hitler’s Germany and Nazi domination of Europe.

“The central idea in ‘The US and the Holocaust’ is clearly in the title itself: all the actions and atrocities of Nazi Germany were paralleled by how the White House, the US Government, and American People reacted during the Nazi time period.

“‘The US and the Holocaust’ documentary presents this compelling question: ‘Why did the United States fail to rescue a people at the time of their greatest need?’

“Sadly, most Americans chose to do nothing. Public opinion revealed a sad truth: helping the Jewish families of Nazi Germany and Nazi Europe was not a priority and, in fact, unpopular. American Immigration restrictions and exclusions continued during the Nazi period from 1933 to 1945. Most Americans were indifferent to the suffering and deaths of European Jews.

“The greatest humanitarian crisis of the 20th Century was the murder of over 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany.
“Eleanor Roosevelt expressed powerful and challenging words that still reaches our lives in today’s world; ‘I have the feeling that we let our consciences realize too late the need of standing up against something that we knew was wrong. We have therefore had to avenge it, but we did nothing to prevent it. I hope that in the future, we are going to remember that there can be no compromise at any point with the things that we know are wrong.’”

Now I will weigh in some of my perspectives on the series.

I found it presented to me an unsettling series of historical truths. One is that despite rhetoric to the contrary on the Statue of Liberty, this country, through most of its history, has never really been comfortable in letting people who are not of the north European Protestant stock in. This was amply demonstrated by the immigration quotas developed for various nationalities to restrict the number of people who were not of a certain background out of the country. This attitude came back to bite suffering people such as the Holocaust-era Jews. Many European Jews perished as the result of a stubborn unwillingness to loosen quotas to allow them into the country. Some of this was intensified by several important State Department officials, such as Breckenridge Long, Cordell Hull, and Sumner Welles, who were known Anti-Semites.

The flip side of this was the efforts of the War Refugee Board, which was established to aid in the rescue of Jews in 1944. They were able to rescue perhaps thousands in occupied countries such as France, Hungary, and Holland, just to name a few.

And, of course, our own American troops helped to liberate most of the concentration camps in western Germany. Those soldiers were sickened by what they saw, and it altered the opinions of many of them concerning Jews and other minorities and made them more tolerant of those they deemed different than them. Some of these veterans would become active in the Civil Rights Movement.

I think Ken Burns brilliantly showed the awful dilemmas that families caught up in the Holocaust faced and many well-meaning US government officials.

History is not generally a black-and-white thing, and the United States’ actions regarding the Holocaust are certainly that way. Burns brilliantly demonstrates the high cost to humanity of intolerance of others and the hatred produced by that. It was a series well worth watching.