U.S. and the Holocaust, The: Landmark Documentary from Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, Sarah Botstein

‘U.S. and the Holocaust’: Ken Burns’ New PBS Docu, Devastating and Relevant

Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein’s six-hour PBS documentary explores what the U.S. could have done in response to Nazi atrocities of the Holocaust.


At a moment at which “America First” rhetoric and anti-immigrant, anti-refugee sentiment are fervent, as many states have outlawed the teaching of any history that deviates from the false narrative of American exceptionalism, The U.S. and the Holocaust stands as a most vital project in Burns’ long career.

The three-night series may be Burns’ most viscerally affecting film, inducing sadness, and generating anger. But it’s a relief that the filmmakers find sources of inspiration and heroic interludes.

The U.S. and the Holocaust could be a sequel to Burns and Novick’s 2007 The War, an expansion of 2016’s Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War (directed with Artemis Joukowsky), a missing chapter from 2014’s The Roosevelts: An Intimate History and complement to 1985’s The Statue of Liberty, all while standing on its own.

The first installment of The U.S. and the Holocaust lays groundwork, such as American immigration restriction– “Exclusion of people and shutting them out has been as American as apple pie,” historian Peter Hayes says.

Some of the points of negligence or complicity that drive The U.S. and the Holocaust may be familiar to some, but they are worth repeating.

Could America have let in more refugees earlier?

Could America have entered the war earlier?

Could American military strategy have more directly targeted the Nazi death camps?

Could we have saved 6 million lives?

Could we have saved hundreds of thousands?

Could we have saved 937 people, the passengers on the St. Louis, the refugee-laden vessel refused entry to American and Canadian ports and sent back to Germany?

Some parallel domestic failures, Jim Crow laws and eventual Japanese internment camps, are acknowledged.

The answers for why the St. Louis couldn’t find safe harbor, for why Auschwitz wasn’t bombed, for why the State Department visa system was inflexible.

They’re too smart to let historical figures off with the idea that this second-guessing is only hindsight.

The U.S. and the Holocaust makes it clear that the knowledge necessary to mitigate parts of the tragedy was available, andthat it was either ignored or disbelieved (in cases like the Riegner Telegram, malevolently buried).

This is not just a documentary about the human cost of American failures, nor are all of the failures American.
While The U.S. and the Holocaust has expert historians, with Deborah Lipstadt among them, the series is at its most potent when it’s letting survivors and their relatives tell their stories.
Subjects like Daniel Mendelsohn, Sol Messinger, Susan and Joseph Hilsenrath, Gunther Stern and Eva Geiringer recall the darkest parts of their youth and their family trees.
These are the voices that need to be heard and the miracles that need to be acknowledged, juxtaposed with the more widely known story of Anne Frank.
The use of the Frank story, with narrated reading from her diary, was somewhere between sentimentalizing and pandering. But it’s quickly evident that she’s there to reinforce the many commonalities between the lives that were saved and the lives that were lost.
The blend of impeccably selected archival photos and filmed footage are accompanied by reliably cogent Geoffrey Ward script and Peter Coyote narration.
The cast reciting letters, speeches and writings in voiceover includes Burns regulars like Meryl Streep, Paul Giamatti and Josh Lucas, and newcomers like Werner Herzog.
The series’ strongest element is its emotional immediacy, forcing both historical and contemporary examination of America’s long-professed aspirations and the consequences when they fall short.