I first heard about what we now call the Holocaust from a regular news broadcast on the car radio. We were riding in the family car. So I had to be at least 10 years old, since my father bought his first car in the summer of 1958. The radio news included a mention of the dedication of a new synagogue somewhere in Germany. Of course, I already knew a lot about World War II, which my father and my uncles had fought in and which had been the formative event for my parents’ generation – the famous « greatest generation. » The war was the subject of numerous war-related movies and was the constant background presence underlying contemporary news events in that « Cold War » decade. Yet I do remember that particular news broadcast on the car radio as precisely the first time that I became aware of the German effort to exterminate Europe’s Jews, which that war had made possible.
The U.S. and the Holocaust is the latest Ken Burns’ PBS series, a three-part, six-hour program which premiered this past Sunday, continues tonight, and concludes tomorrow. It explores the American response to the Holocaust and the events which led up to it, highlighting what Americans knew and did during that time and relating the crisis created by Nazism to the contemporary American context and considerations about antisemitism, race, eugenics, and immigration. In standard Ken Burns fashion, the program features first-person recollections from the period and interviews with historians and others. Focusing on the controversial American policies on immigration in the pre-war period, the program, in a very balanced and sensible way, recalls such familiar episodes of would-be refugees unable to get into the U.S. and, in particular, the likely less familiar story of Anne Frank’s family’s failed attempt to secure a visa to the U.S. As the dangers to European Jews escalated, some politicians sounded a very contemporary note. Thus, one ad for the show quotes North Carolina Senator Robert Reynolds: “I would today build a wall about the United States so high and so secure that not a single alien or foreign refugee from any country upon the face of this earth could possibly scale or ascend it.”
In the end, of course, it was military power and the military alliance of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union that ended the Holocaust in the only way that it could have ended – with total Allied military victory and total German military defeat. That said, it is always legitimate to reexamine the historical record and recognize the mistakes and missteps along the way when helpful actions might have been taken but were not, in part perhaps because of ignorance but also, it cannot be denied, because of deeply held racial and ethnic prejudices and anti-immigrant politics, all of which sound so unconscionably familiar. For this reason, it is always helpful to reexamine our history and to reconsider received narratives.
That said, the point of such reexamination and reconsideration ought not be primarily to sit in virtue-signaling judgment on our predecessors, but rather, having been informed by the sad lessons of our recent past, to judge ourselves and our society in our own time and place. The reprise of late 19th and early 20th-century American nativist hostility to immigrants sounds very familiar, as the same sort of hatred of others and theories of racial « replacement » are so very much a part of our contemporary political situation today.