Inside Ken Burns’ New Film on America and the Holocaust
By: TJV Staff
PBS this week is airing Ken Burns’ new six-hour series, “The U.S. and the Holocaust.” The film has already sparked widespread debate because of Burns’ controversial view that the idea that President Franklin Roosevelt turned his back on Europe’s Jews is “a myth.” We discussed the film with Dr. Rafael Medoff, a leading expert on America’s response to the Holocaust. Medoff teaches Holocaust studies at Yeshiva University and is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. He is also the author of more than twenty books about Jewish history and the Holocaust; his latest is America and the Holocaust: A Documentary History, published by University of Nebraska Press and the Jewish Publication Society.
Jewish Voice: Even before the film was broadcast, Ken Burns sparked a controversy with his CNN interview last week, in which he said that when Florida governor Ron DeSantis sent migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, he was taking apage “out of the playbook of the authoritarians” of the 1930s, apparently meaning Adolf Hitler. What does that tell us about Burns’ perspective?
Medoff: It suggests that his goal is not to portray history accurately, but to promote his personal views on issues such as immigration. It’s obviously ridiculous to imply that Martha’s Vineyard is on the road to Auschwitz. Whatever you think about America’s immigration policy, it’s irresponsible to start dragging in analogies to the Nazis.
Jewish Voice: Didn’t the U.S. Holocaust Museum, just a few years ago, issue a statement denouncing all Nazi analogies?
Medoff: Yes. That was during the controversy over Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez comparing U.S. immigration facilities to Nazi concentration camps. A staff historian at the museum, Rebecca Erbelding, tweeted in favor of the Cortez statement, and the museum then issued a statement dissociating itself from Erbelding’s tweet.
Jewish Voice: Yet it’s the same U.S. Holocaust Museum which convinced Burns to make this film, and Erbelding is one of the main talking heads in it.
Medoff: Maybe this would be an appropriate time for the museum to make it clear that it rejects the Hitler analogy that Burns made in his CNN interview. Clearly what Burns said conflicts with the Museum’s 2019 statement against Nazi analogies.
PRISONER OF THE STATE DEPARTMENT?
Jewish Voice: What, in your view, is the main flaw in how Burns portrays American immigration policy in the 1930s?
Medoff: Burns claims that it was impossible for President Roosevelt to admit more Jewish refugees because the public and Congress were against immigration, and there was a lot of racism and antisemitism in the country. But public opinion was not in charge of U.S. immigration policy; the president was. It was the Roosevelt administration, not the public, that decided on a policy of suppressing immigration below what the existing law permitted. They did that by piling on extra regulations and requirements, and by searching for every possible technicality to disqualify visa applicants.
The quota of immigrants from Germany was kept unfilled in eleven of Roosevelt’s twelve years as president. In most of those years it was less than 25% filled. More than 190,000 quota places that could have been used for Jewish refugees instead sat unused.
Jewish Voice: The Burns film shows how Otto Frank, the father of Anne Frank, tried to get visas to the United States for their family but was unsuccessful.
Medoff: What Burns doesn’t explain is that the year that the Frank family tried to immigrate to America, 1941, the German quota was only 47% filled. There was plenty of room for Anne and her family within the quota, but the administration was looking for ways to keep Jews out, and they were good at it. Those who today defend Roosevelt, saying “he couldn’t change the quotas,” are sidestepping the fact that he didn’t need to change quotas—if he had just allowed the quotas to be filled, 190,000 more Jews could have been saved.
Jewish Voice: According to Burns, it was the State Department that was to blame, not the president.
Medoff: Presidents make policy; State Departments implement it. Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, who was in charge of the department’s visa division, did not make up his own policy. He did what the president wanted, and he regularly briefed FDR on the tactics that he and his colleagues were using to keep Jewish immigrants out.
FDR wasn’t some pathetic prisoner of the State Department. Roosevelt, not Breckinridge Long, was the president. He made the decisions. It’s funny how we remember Roosevelt as a strong and decisive leader—yet here Ken Burns is trying to convince us that FDR was weak and helpless. That flies in the face of everything that we know about Franklin Roosevelt.
HAVEN IN THE VIRGIN ISLANDS
Jewish Voice: It seems strange that Burns does not talk about the Virgin Islands, a U.S. territory, as a possible place to send Jewish refugees. Were the islands a realistic option at the time?
Medoff: Soon after the Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938, the governor and legislative assembly of the U.S. Virgin Islands announced that they would admit Jews who were trying to flee from Nazi Germany.
About six months later, when the refugee ship St. Louis was off the coast of Florida, looking for some place to take its 900-plus passengers, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. called Secretary of State Cordell Hull and broached the idea of letting the refugees stay temporarily in the Virgin Islands. Hull checked with President Roosevelt, then came back and told Morgenthau they couldn’t do it. He said the problem was that the Jews would need tourist visas, but to get tourist visas, they had to show there was a safe place to which they would later go back. Obviously they didn’t have a safe return address—they were fleeing Nazi Germany after the pogrom. So Roosevelt sent them back to that unsafe place from which they had come.
When Roosevelt turned away the St. Louis, he had every reason to expect that it would be forced to turn to Nazi Germany. Yet he didn’t lift a finger to grant them haven. Eventually, the governments of England, Holland, France and Belgium each accepted some of the passengers—but then three of those countries were occupied by the Germans the following year, and many of those refugees were murdered in the Holocaust.
For Ken Burns to have left the Virgin Islands story out of his film is a significant distortion of the historical record.
Jewish Voice: One of the most controversial aspects of the Burns film is that he makes it seem as if bombing Auschwitz was not feasible, because it would have been a diversion from the war effort.
Medoff: That’s what Roosevelt administration officials claimed at the time, but it was false. American planes did not have to be diverted from the battle zones, because they were already flying over Auschwitz throughout 1944, bombing the oil factories in the industrial zones of Auschwitz. It’s incredible that Burns would give the impression that the planes couldn’t reach Auschwitz, when they were bombing targets less than five miles from the gas chambers.
Jewish Voice: Rebecca Erbelding of the Holocaust Museum appears on screen and suggests that it would have been a bad idea, because Jewish prisoners could have been hurt in such bombings.
Medoff: If the Allies were actually concerned about accidentally hitting the prisoners, they could have bombed the railways and bridges leading to the camp, which involved no risk to prisoners.
Jewish Voice: Erbelding claims railways could be repaired quickly.
Medoff: The Allies constantly bombed railways throughout Europe during the war. They never refrained from doing it because of the rate of German repairs. And when 12,000 Jews were being gassed in Auschwitz every day, even a brief delay due to damaged tracks could have saved lives. But beyond that, there were also bridges along those rail routes, and bridges took a long time to repair. Some of the Jewish groups’ requests for bombing specifically named bridges that should be hit.
Jewish Voice: Was the Roosevelt administration actually concerned about the issue of possible civilian casualties from the bombings?
Medoff: When U.S. officials rejected the bombing requests, they never claimed it was because civilians might be harmed. Not only that, but when they bombed the oil factories at Auschwitz, they did it in broad daylight, knowing the Jewish workers would be there. As a result, some Jewish workers were killed or injured. The U.S. also bombed a rocket factory at Buchenwald in the summer of 1944—again in broad daylight, killing several hundred Jewish slave laborers. So obviously they weren’t worried about hitting Jewish prisoners inside the camps.
Jewish Voice: Does it seem strange that Burns did not mention the most famous American connected to the issue of bombing Auschwitz, George McGovern, the U.S. senator and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee?
Medoff: If Burns was trying to make a film that was historically accurate, leaving out McGovern is inexplicable. But if his goal was to create a film that gets Roosevelt off the hook, then it makes sense that he didn’t want the public to know about McGovern.
Jewish Voice: What exactly was McGovern’s link to the issue?
Medoff: He was one of the U.S. pilots who bombed German oil factories in the Auschwitz industrial zone in 1944. Some years ago, the David Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies arranged for the filmmakers Chaim Hecht and Stuart Erdheim to go to South Dakota and interview McGovern. He told them that he and his fellow-pilots could have, and should have, bombed the railways, the bridges, and the gas chambers. He called it FDR’s greatest moral failing, alongside the decision to put 120,000 Japanese Americans in detention camps.
Jewish Voice: Why is that Burns, Erbelding, and other defenders of Roosevelt never talk about McGovern?
Medoff: The views of the actual pilots who bombed that area clash with the Burns narrative that Roosevelt did his best to help the Jews.
Jewish Voice: The Holocaust Museum’s exhibit about America’s response to the Holocaust makes it seem as if Jewish leaders were divided about whether or not it was a good idea to bomb Auschwitz.
Medoff: They were “divided” thirty to one. There were thirty Jewish officials who urged the U.S. to bomb Auschwitz or the railways. There was one official of one Jewish organization who recommended using ground troops instead of air strikes. That’s not what I would call a division of opinion. But the Roosevelt administration was not interested in what Jewish leaders thought, anyway. They decided on a policy of not using military resources to help the Jews, months before the first bombing requests were made.
Jewish Voice: You’ve written that even though the U.S. had such a policy, sometimes exceptions were made.
Medoff: Yes. On a number of occasions, they did use military resources of non-military purposes. For example, they sent American troops into a battle zone along the German-Czech border in 1945 to rescue the famous Lipizzaner dancing horses. They also sent military personnel into harm’s way to rescue medieval paintings and other cultural artifacts in Europe. Horses and paintings were a higher priority than Jews.