Opinion: Brace for hard lessons in Ken Burns’ new documentary

Note: This column was updated and corrected on Sept. 19 to reflect that the film series is by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, equal co-creators, directors and producers of the work.

To all of you who, like me, have been long time Ken Burns fans, his documentaries have been mesmerizing: ”The Civil War,” “Jazz,” “Baseball,” “The Vietnam War” and “The Roosevelts.” And while I eagerly await the upcoming film series created by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein, “The U.S. and the Holocaust ,” I have a certain amount of dread about its release. We’re living in a time when even “The Diary of Anne Frank” is controversial. The removal of graphic novel “Maus” from school curricula demonstrated how divided we are over telling the stories of the Holocaust. And given the focus, I expect the reaction is going to be loud and vicious — somewhat like the outcry to President Biden’s “semi-fascism” descriptor for MAGA extremists.

The focus of the piece is America’s response to the evil of Nazism, specifically our response to Jews and immigrants. In this three-part, six-hour documentary that will air on Sept. 18 on PBS, the three highlight the admirable and the not-so admirable. They celebrate the good works of organizations such as the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, War Refugee Board and the individuals who saved lives.

But they also point out that America had a strong antisemitic and anti-immigration climate that limited assistance to victims and rejected refugees. The famous aviator Charles Lindbergh urged America to negotiate with Hitler and not fund the war, decrying “the British, Jewish and Roosevelt administration” as instigators of American intervention. And Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest in Detroit, defended Nazi antisemitic violence as well-deserved in his influential radio broadcast. Appealing to isolationists trying to recover from the Depression’s economic chaos, Coughlin promoted fascist dictatorship and authoritarian government as the only cure to the ills of democracy and capitalism.

This cult-like trend seems cyclical, surfacing in chaotic times, including the present. How else can we account for a Republican running for a House seat in New York (Carl Paladino) who recently praised Adolf Hitler as inspirational to his followers? He described the fascist dictator as “the kind of leader we need today” and was endorsed by Rep. Elise Stefanik, a member of GOP party leadership.

The deaths of 6 million Jews by the Nazis don’t always register with people today. Some even deny the Holocaust ever happened. But stories can be influencers and not just the stories we know come from German and Austrian Jews, more than half of whom escaped. But the 3.3 million Polish Jews and the millions of Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Latvians, Hungarians, and Romanians who were impoverished, isolated and not rescued.

I agree with co-creator Lynn Novick who said, “I think this will be, for the general public, somewhat surprising and a little hard to ingest. That we could be both the liberators of freeing the world from tyranny and fascism, and unwilling … to do much to rescue the victims of fascism.”

If this documentary is upsetting, why watch it? Burns answered that in comments to journalists.

“If you’re going to be the most exceptional country on Earth, then you have to hold yourself to the highest possible standard,” he said. “You will very quickly not be the greatest country on Earth if you do not do that. I can’t control anything a Texas or Florida school board does, but I can continue to make the films that we make, and they’re big stories, and they live in schools for decades after.” So tune in on Sept. 18.

Contact Deborah Levine, an author, trainer/coach and editor of the American Diversity Report, at deborah@diversityreport.com.

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