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Ken Burns explores the complicated story of the U.S. response to the Holocaust


Filmmaker Ken Burns has chronicled so many of America's important events and personalities, from the Civil War to Prohibition to baseball to jazz, with a signature blend of poignant images and accessible scholarship. So it isn't surprising that he opens his latest documentary with a familiar face - Anne Frank's. But he highlights a lesser-known fact about the Frank family, that they tried to escape to the U.S. but were unable to get past the red tape and active hostility of the U.S. immigration system. And they weren't alone. Thousands of Jews tried and failed to enter the U.S. in the years leading up to World War II.

And so begins "The U.S. And The Holocaust," a three-part documentary that premieres tomorrow on PBS. In it, Ken Burns tells a complicated, often painful and sometimes shocking story about the United States and its response to the genocide that killed millions of Jews and others. Ken Burns co-directed the series, along with Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, and he's with us now to tell us more about it. Ken Burns, thanks so much for joining us once again.

KEN BURNS: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So the obvious question is, why this story at this time? I mean, you're known for making documentaries, as we said, about epic signature moments in American history and personalities like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali. And there are many documentaries and films and books that center the Holocaust. Was there something that you felt had to be said that had not already been said?

BURNS: Yeah. I think we've kind of, as Americans, conveniently sort of separated ourself from the event and thought we had no connection to it. And, of course, we're not in any way complicit or responsible for it. But it was an ocean and a continent away, and that we didn't really know what was going on until it was too late. And that's just not true. And it was very important for us to go back and understand that while we are, yes, a nation of immigrants that had mostly open borders between 1870 and 1820, letting in lots of Catholics and lots of Jews and other people, it caused a backlash, and it increased the antisemitism that is often present in many societies.

And we were in the throes of a pseudoscience called eugenics which was trying to attempt just an absurd hierarchy of races and ethnicities. There's, of course, only one race. That's the human race. The whole thing was a fiction. But out of it came the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 that set now really difficult quotas, only good quotas for those Nordic, white, northern European countries, minuscule quotas for those southern and central and Eastern European countries populated by Catholics and Orthodox Christians and Slavs and, of course, Jews.

MARTIN: I want to talk more about the film and how you built it, but I still want to go back to something you just said, which is that you and your co-directors - you finished your, you know, your epic work around World War II. It was - I don't know - for people who've seen it, it was just remarkable, and frankly, had to have been a bit exhausting. I mean, the scale of it, the scope of it, just kind of taking it in. What was it that made you think, we need to take this other subject, this piece of this story on now? Was there a particular character or a particular story? And the reason I ask is because you, at this stage of your career, I'm sure there are people constantly clamoring for your attention. I'm sure that there are, you know, a million projects on the table that you could undertake at any given time. And for you to commit to something, there has to be a reason. And I just wondered, was there something in particular that made you feel, we need to do this now?

BURNS: I think it was just people coming with all of these supposed questions and ideas and theories about what happened. And we realized we needed to know more. We'd done a very moving section on the Holocaust, I thought, in both of the films, "The Roosevelts" and World War II. But we needed to answer those questions, and in so doing, if we make it the U.S. and the Holocaust, then we also then have to go and look at how the Holocaust actually unfolded. And we learned so much more about it - the intricacies, the bureaucracies, the brutality. I mean, this has been a seven-year project, so it's not like beginning now, but we began in 2015 in a different America and a different world.

And as the film caught up to us, as every film does, where you feel, oh, yes, this is resonating with today, but the discipline of our work is to not pay attention to that or to point arrows added or neon signs, isn't this so much like today - we began to realize fearfully how much almost every sentence of the script was echoing with today. And so we accelerated. The production was supposed to come out next year. And we wanted to join a conversation because many of these same things - the racism, the anti-Semitism, the nativism, the authoritarian impulses, the erosion of democratic institutions - part of what the films within the film of this film are about are happening right before us.

MARTIN: I think there are aspects of this film that will be shocking to some people. For example, you show how conspiracy theories about Jewish people were common in the U.S. Notable figures like Henry Ford, the carmaker, would put out pamphlets spreading anti-Semitic propaganda. In other words, it was just - I don't know how to say it - ubiquitous during this time. It shaped attitudes about immigrants. Even some Jewish people in the United States had these negative views of immigrants. Do you want to just talk a little bit about that? I don't know whether that is - I found that...

BURNS: It's shocking.

MARTIN: I feel like - I felt it shocking. I'm just going to say it.

BURNS: It's shocking in every degree - the anti-Semitism that creeps up within the State Department and in the Congress and the American people. And Henry Ford is a good example. Here is, you know, the most-celebrated industrialist. And he thinks Jews are responsible for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He doesn't put out a pamphlet. He's buys a newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, which ends up having the second-highest circulation in the United States. And he prints and reprints a Russian forgery, a Russian hoax called "The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion," which is the worst anti-Semitic track ever written. And it is still - you go online, and that's the Bible of the anti-Semites to this day. And he promotes it.

And so the American people are steeped in this. The German jurists come to the United States to study our Jim Crow laws to fashion the first - or early anti-discriminatory laws against the Jews. And so, you know, we're not responsible for this. It's very important to say. We didn't do this. We're not complicit. But these ideas of racism, of nativism, of anti-Semitism are in the air, in the currency of human life everywhere. And that's what manifests. And that's what makes it, I think, as you say, shocking.

MARTIN: You also make the point throughout the film that these ideas bounce back-and-forth across the Atlantic...

BURNS: That's right.

MARTIN: ...You know, that these racist ideas can start one place and they migrate.

BURNS: You know, the Germans are studying our ideas. We've got a massive pro-Nazi party, the German American Bund in the United States. They filled Madison Square Garden on George Washington's birthday. And they're spewing just vile, anti-Semitic bile. The America First Committee, led by their chief spokesman, Charles Lindbergh, the aviator hero, is out and out anti-Semitic in what he's talking about. And so you've got this horrific situation. And it is shocking in the extreme, but something we have to look at and face and understand. And I - it's very important to say that there are lots of heroic stories. There are people and organizations throughout this story who sacrificed their lives and their fortunes to get other human beings out.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, you know, I've seen - I don't know how many of your documentaries - I would imagine, I think, all of them, I think. You do something with this one that I just don't think I've seen before. You end with footage from more recent events...

BURNS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...That include anti-Semitic attacks. We know that reports of these incidents have increased in recent years, but I was interested in this as a device. It's something that, again, I don't think I've seen you do that. I think you, again, have been very careful not to draw this, you know, magic marker line from this happened then, so this is happening now. I think you kind of leave it to people to think these things through for themselves. Why did you think that was important to do?

BURNS: Well, I think it was because as we were working on this film over the seven years from 2015 to now, we saw this profound change. Then, because we had sort of set our table in the first episode with all of the things we've been discussing, because the Protestant majority was fearful of being, you know, out-bred by these newcomers, they were fearful of being replaced, which in the early days of working on the film in 2017 is the cry from Charlottesville, we realized we couldn't just tie this up with a nice bow, that it was resonating so much. We just felt that we had to have at least an impressionistic dismount that reminded us that the language of hatred, the language of othering, the language of exclusion has to be at least put on the table if we're going to mount the film as we begin it, then our dismount has to remind us. Deborah Lipstadt, the great Holocaust scholar, says in the film at one point, the time to stop a genocide is before it happens. I would like to humbly submit that the time to save a democracy is before it's lost.

MARTIN: That's documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. He co-directed the three-part documentary "The U.S. And The Holocaust" with Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein. It premieres tomorrow on PBS. You'll want to check your local listings for the exact times. Ken Burns, thanks so much for joining us.

BURNS: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.