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‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ is still speaking to us

Members of the Sturmabteilung, the Nazi Party's paramilitary wing, as seen in "The U.S. and the Holocaust."PBS

Time flies, leaving about 500 new TV shows a week in its wake. My life is driven forward by a release schedule that could blind an eagle, and I’ve learned to let go of what I’ve just watched in order to move on. But I can’t seem to let go of “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” a 6½-hour, three-part documentary that ran on PBS in September. A thorny, haunting piece of work, it has taken deep root in my mind, which is as it should be.

The title concisely explains the docuseries, which was made by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein. It’s about what was happening in our own country while Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were trying to exterminate the Jews in Europe in the 1930s and ‘40s. Exactly what did we — politicians, activists, reporters, American citizens — know at the time? What did we do? What didn’t we do? Why was that famous ship of Jewish refugees turned away from Miami in 1939, before World War II? How can it be that 75 percent of the 6 million murdered Jews were already dead by the time our troops landed in France in 1944?


As the documentary addresses these and other questions, it toggles between developing events in Europe and in the United States. Throughout, survivors, historians, descendants, and witnesses deliver astute, and never simplistic, commentary. We weren’t just indifferent, and we weren’t just ignorant; we were both, and more, even as various organizations made efforts to assist refugees. In 1943, there was a Rabbis March in Washington, D.C., to stoke awareness of the plight of European Jews, and more than 400 rabbis were received by Senate leaders and the speaker of the House, though not by President Franklin Roosevelt.

In a culture of easy answers and 280 characters, “The U.S. and the Holocaust” refuses to pander to those who prefer to be treated like first-graders.


Of course there are many Holocaust documentaries out there, not least of all Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah,” a 1985 masterwork that is nine hours and 26 minutes of fathomless testimony from survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators. The genre includes some of the most profound visions of real-life horror and despair ever seen.

But “The U.S. and the Holocaust” is a little different. It does include footage from the ghettos and camps, some of which, we’re told, was taken by Nazis to show off to others later on. In one disturbing clip, starving Jews in a long line are shown looking ahead to see their queue moving toward a firing squad. But ultimately the footage is a secondary part of this series; it stays focused on history, the foiled efforts of endangered Jews to come here, and the many factors that led to our cool response. It’s the story of us, as much as it is the story of them.

And, alas, it’s the story of the present tense as much as it’s the story of the past.

You probably know where I’m going with this. I’ve always assumed our people, our politics, and our media were radically different a century ago, when my grandfather’s family was murdered in Lithuania, and that now we’d behave differently. But the miniseries makes it loud and clear that the United States of then and the United States of now look shockingly similar.


In an image provided by the Library of Congress, via PBS, a man reads a newspaper in Oklahoma in 1940, as seen in "The U.S. and the Holocaust."LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, VIA PBS/NYT

As much as “The U.S. and the Holocaust” transports viewers to the 1930s and ‘40s, with all the primitive footage and yellowed print newspaper headlines, it also very much resembles the 2020s, in terms of the imagery, codes, speeches, and tropes that we see daily. It’s about fear-mongering by public officials regarding immigration, it’s about the rise of fascism, it’s about the slogan “America First” and its links to antisemitism and xenophobia. It’s about the persistence of white supremacy in this country; the docuseries shows how Hitler turned to America’s treatment of Blacks and indigenous people as models for his efforts to disenfranchise Jews.

The parallels are mind-blowing, especially now that antisemitism is being spoken out loud and spray-painted on synagogues in America, given license by politicians and celebrities who are challenging Jews to appear “woke” or humorless as the hatred comes at us. The correlations across almost 100 years highlight the wide gap between the myth and the reality of the United States.

Day in and day out, people ask me what to watch, and when I suggest “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” they often tell me that they can’t handle it at this moment. I don’t like to push anything on anyone, and I hate the idea of turning a brilliant miniseries into homework, and I do understand the desire to look away; but this is the exact moment to handle it.

“The U.S. and the Holocaust” is currently streaming on PBS Passport and on the PBS Documentaries channel on Amazon Prime. Beginning on Jan. 6, it will be available to stream for free until Feb. 2 on and in the PBS App. And it will have an encore broadcast (locally on GBH 44) over three consecutive Sundays beginning on Jan. 8.


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at Follow him @MatthewGilbert.