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"The U.S. and the Holocaust" poster. Courtesy image

You must watch Ken Burns’ PBS series on America and the Holocaust

You must watch Ken Burns’ PBS series on America and the Holocaust

This documentary about the Holocaust was made for our times. To understand the darker elements of America, it is required viewing.

By Jeffrey Salkin | Religion News Service

Why did Ken Burns and others devote so much time and resources to the creation of this much-anticipated PBS series, “The U.S. and the Holocaust”?

Had we not already “been there, done that”?

Had not a generation of scholars already created an intellectual cottage industry around America’s apathy during the Shoah? Had they not already covered our national shallowness in great depth? If we needed to do so, could we not simply go to the library and dust off old copies of books like David Wyman’s authoritative “The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945,” among other noteworthy and devastating works?

Let me say, without reserve, that I was wrong in my cynicism and World War Two-weariness. I am only one episode into it, but I will say this: Ken Burns has created a masterpiece.

Why do I say this?

First: You will not find a better, clearer, more linear narrative about the unfolding of the ideas and events that led, ultimately, to the Holocaust.

Yes, you can hear learned professors give great lectures. But, you will not see video footage as riveting. Nor will you have the blessing of hearing, in one place and at one sitting, survivors and the finest scholars of the Holocaust and antisemitism available today.

The latter cadre includes:

Plus, the voice-over narration by Peter Coyote and vocal “appearances” that include Liam Neeson, Meryl Streep and Paul Giamatti.

This isn’t a television show; this is a master class in monstrosity.

Second: While many Americans have heard something about the Holocaust (or, not — more on that later), the overwhelming majority of Americans would be utterly clueless as to its roots and the finer details of its history.

Yes, of course, it is about Jew-hatred. Yes, of course, it is about the racial nature of that hatred.

But, what I have known for a while — and what I blatantly saw on the screen — was the hitherto unknown, unappreciated American parallels to Nazi ideology.

Granted, the Germans did not need to learn racism and xenophobia from Americans. They did quite well on their own. They had already figured out how to export those malign forces to their African colonies, with devastating results.

But, here in America? There was the genocide of the Native Americans: round them up, confine them, kill as many as you can. Genocide against Black people: forced servitude, rape, murder.

I will leave it to the historians to continue the debate regarding the influence of American ideology on what would ultimately be the Shoah.

But, at the very least, there are chilling and instructive parallels.

Immigrants seated on long benches at Ellis Island. Photo courtesy of New York Public Library

Third: There is a horrific and haunting piece that makes Ken Burns’ work so American. That is the phenomenon of eugenics — the pseudo-science that believed (believes) you can put human beings into different “breeds,” like animals, with higher and lower breeds, and you can and must use social engineering to weed out the “undesirables.”

This is where we got “quaint” notions of people who were “feeble minded” and must be kept from reproducing. This led to forced sterilizations and medical experiments, as in the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male. Among those who believed and advocated for this were such historic heroes as Helen Keller, Alexander Graham Bell — and Margaret Sanger, the “mother” of birth control.

That is the dark truth. The original impetus for the birth control movement was not the liberation of women’s bodies. It was the perceived need to control the bodies of the poor and the unwanted, lest they “breed.”

The Nazis, too, learned this. As in: forced sterilizations of Jewish women in the concentration camps, medical experiments, the whole macabre story.

Where did all of this lead — this American racism, this eugenics movement?

To American racism. To American antisemitism. To restricted suburbs and clubs. To restrictive admission policies in Ivy League universities.

To increasingly draconian immigration quotas. Such policies were designed to favor northern Europeans — Anglo-Saxons, Dutch and Germans — whose language, culture and skin tone seemed “American adjacent.” It led the United States government to slam the doors shut in the faces of the “swarthier” immigrants from Southern Europe and Eastern Europe — the latter of which were, invariably and increasingly, Jews.

As Ken Burns shows, Hitler saw this, and studied it and applauded it.

So, why did we need this PBS experience? And why precisely now?

First: Whether the producers at PBS knew it or not, this documentary series lands within days of the season of Jewish memory and repentance.

It is not only that Germany and Europe still have countless reasons for repentance. America, as well, has far too many reasons for repentance — as we have sufficient reasons for memory.

Second: Sadly, many Americans still are relatively uneducated about the real dimensions of the Holocaust.

And/or: it is not as if the education happens once and need not be repeated. Educationally speaking, every few years constitutes a new generation — a new generation that needs to learn anew.

Jews know this, perhaps more than anyone else. “When your child asks you …” is a refrain straight out of the book of Deuteronomy. Education is not a “one and done,” it is a constant need.

Because people just don’t know.

Third: When you watch this documentary, you will sense the echoes and reverberations of this American moment.

Mark Twain famously said: “History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

Yes, this rhymes. Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein have clearly done their homework, and they have discerned the contemporary “rhymes.”

To be clear, those “rhymes” are not absolute echoes. Nothing in history is ever an exact replica of something that has happened before. But, at the very least, when you hear a rhyme, you have to expose it.

  • The shrinkage, before our eyes, of our faith in democracy. In the words of Joseph Kahn in the New York Times yesterday:
    • This is an election year unlike any we’ve experienced in recent decades. Not only do candidates of both major parties in the United States have starkly different views on the pressing issues of the day, including climate change, war, taxes, abortion, education, gender and sexual identity, immigration, crime and the role of government in American life. They also disagree on democracy itself, especially one of its essential pillars — willingness to accept defeat at the polls.
  • The growing flirtation with fascism. The Conservative Political Action Conference threw open its doors and embraced the Hungarian authoritarian leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
  • The growth of bizarre, antisemitic conspiracy theories, such as QAnon. No fewer than 25 percent of Republicans believe in this theory.
  • The marchers in Charlottesville, chanting “The Jews will not replace us!” just as the anti-immigration forces in the 19th century feared that the immigrants would replace them.
  • The events of Jan. 6.
  • The growth of antisemitism, even and especially among political candidates. Doug Mastriano, the Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, called out his opponent, Josh Shapiro, for having attended “one of the most privileged schools in the nation as a young man … sending his four kids to the same privileged, exclusive, elite school, $30-40,000 per pupil.”

That school? The Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, known when Shapiro attended it as Akiba Hebrew Academy.

Would Mastriano have made a similar pronouncement had the school in question been a Christian school?

A dog whistle? Considering Mastriano’s ties to antisemites and racists, that was not a dog whistle.

It was a shofar blast.

As is Ken Burns’ documentary.

Watch it.

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