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April 29, 2022 12:23 pm

Acclaimed Filmmaker Ken Burns Focuses New Documentary on US Role, Response to Holocaust

avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

An immigrant family looking at Statue of Liberty from Ellis Island. Photo: Courtesy of Library of Congress.

A three-part movie from award-winning American documentary filmmaker Ken Burns about the role the US played before, during and after the Holocaust is scheduled to premiere in September on PBS.

“The US and the Holocaust” is inspired partly by an exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Americans and the Holocaust.” The film examines the US government’s response to the Holocaust as it unfolded in Europe and the controversies surrounding its decisions — including the discussion about whether the Allies should have bombed the Auschwitz concentration camp, and an incident in which more than 900 Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis were denied entry to Cuba and the US in 1939, forcing them to return to Europe.

The documentary will also explore the rise of Hitler and Nazism in Germany in relation to global antisemitism and racism, and American policy on topics like race laws in the south, the anti-immigration views of former US President Calvin Coolidge, and the Lend-Lease bill, which allowed the US to supply military aid to its foreign allies during World War II.

The film, written by Geoffrey Ward, will be directed and produced by Burns alongside Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, who is making her directorial debut on the project. Narrators will include Liam Neeson, Matthew Rhys, Helena Zengel, Paul Giamatti, Meryl Streep, Werner Herzog, Joe Morton and Hope Davis.

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“History cannot be looked at in isolation,” said Burns this week. “While we rightly celebrate American ideals of democracy and our history as a nation of immigrants, we must also grapple with the fact that American institutions and policies, like segregation and the brutal treatment of indigenous populations, were influential in Hitler’s Germany. And it cannot be denied that, although we accepted more refugees than any other sovereign nation, America could have done so much more to help the millions of desperate people fleeing Nazi persecution.”

The documentary will also feature first-hand testimonies of Holocaust witnesses and survivors, as well as interviews with leading historians and writers. The film will confront “competing myths that Americans either were ignorant of the unspeakable persecution that Jews and other targeted minorities faced in Europe or that they looked on with callous indifference,” PBS said in a press release announcing the project.

Some 200,000 Jews fleeing World War II found refuge in the United States, but many were denied entry. Holocaust diarist and victim Anne Frank and her family applied for but failed to obtain visas to the US before they went into hiding.

“During the Second World War, millions of Americans fought and sacrificed to defeat fascism, but even after we began to understand the scope and scale of what was happening to the Jewish people of Europe, our response was inadequate and deeply flawed,” Novick said. “This is a story with enormous relevance today as we are still dealing with questions about immigration, refugees and who should be welcomed into the United States.”

 “The US and the Holocaust” will premiere September 18-20 on PBS and be distributed internationally by PBS International. It will be available to stream for free on all PBS platforms.

PBS Learning Media, in partnership with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and other Holocaust education experts, will also release educational materials for middle and high school classrooms that include clips from the film and other resources connected to main themes surrounding the Holocaust, such as immigration policy and discrimination. They will be available following the film’s broadcast at the Ken Burns in the Classroom website.

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