Holocaust echoes into the present day, Burns, Botstein say in KSC lecture

·5 min read

Sep. 23—The tragedy of the Holocaust continues to reverberate into modern times, filmmakers Ken Burns and Sarah Botstein said during a virtual discussion Thursday night on their new documentary "The U.S. and the Holocaust."

This year's Keene State College Holocaust Memorial Lecture, the hour-long conversation moderated by Kate DeConinck, director of the college's Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, followed the film's premiere earlier this week on PBS.

Guided by crowd-sourced questions, many from Keene State students studying the Holocaust and other genocides, Burns and Botstein discussed the impetus for the documentary, the filmmaking process, and why its themes are perhaps more important now than ever.

"Mark Twain is supposed to have said that history doesn't repeat itself but rhymes, and there is not a film that we've made that doesn't rhyme in the present moment," Burns said. "As we worked on ["The U.S. and the Holocaust"] we really felt that the rhymes were becoming more and more loud — clanging, sounding alarms almost."

He said the documentary got underway in 2015, when representatives of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., approached the filmmakers to produce a film complementary but independent of the exhibit launched three years later, "Americans and the Holocaust."

"The U.S. and the Holocaust" — the first 10 minutes of which were shown Thursday night — opens with the story of Otto Frank, the father of Anne Frank, who documented her life hiding from Nazi persecution in an Amsterdam attic, and his unsuccessful efforts to find refuge for his family in the United States.

Anne Frank's diary made her one of the most well-known figures in Holocaust literature. But how her and her family's story intersects with the United States — despite them never making it here — is less known, Burns said, making it a compelling introduction for the documentary.

"The Franks aren't disconnected from an American story; they spent most of the [19]30s trying to get here," Burns said. "[Otto Frank] had everything going for them: He had enough money. He had all the contacts. He dotted the i's and crossed the t's and had contacts that had contacts in the Roosevelt Administration, and the State Department kept changing the rules."

The documentary takes a critical look at the immigration policies in the U.S. that prevented many Jewish people from entering the country. At one point in the introduction, historian Peter Hayes states: "exclusion of people, and shutting them out, has been as American as apple pie."

In 1933, nine million Jewish people lived in Europe, the film's narrator, Peter Coyote, says in the introduction. Twelve years later at the end of World War II, at least two out of every three of them — about six million — had been murdered.

Burns said that one of the things he and Botstein set out to do with the film was to destroy the myth that Americans didn't know the full extent of the tragedy playing out overseas.

"They did," he said.

The three-part documentary — which can be streamed for free online at pbs.org for the next month — is full of contemporaneous images, articles and news reels that demonstrate that the facts of the genocide were not hidden from American viewers, Burns said.

Botstein noted that she and Burns dug through hundreds of hours of footage and countless documents that never made it into the film. Interviewing historians, Holocaust survivors and experts for the documentary was one of the things the filmmakers took most seriously, she said. They talked with each interview subject for more than an hour, even if only a few minutes of that ended up in the final product.

DeConinck, the Cohen Center's director, noted that Burns, who lives in Walpole, is a New Hampshire resident. She asked the filmmakers to reflect on how educators can approach teaching difficult topics like the Holocaust in light of the passage of the state's so-called "divisive concepts" law last year.

That law — which opponents have criticized as chilling discussion of important topics and which has been challenged in court— prohibits educators from telling students that some individuals by virtue of age, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, creed, color, marital status, familial status, mental or physical disability, religion or national origin are inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, consciously or unconsciously.

"Shame is not a helpful way to think about our history, that's the opposite of what we try to do [in the documentary]," Botstein said. "We really are sympathetic to the crisis that our schools and our teachers are facing. We feel really committed to teaching real history that relies on facts."

Burns said that as he and Botstein worked on the documentary, a present-day crisis — the likes of which he said the United States has seen only with the Civil War, the Great Depression and World War II — emerged.

"I would consider where we are right now the fourth great crisis," he said.

This became inseparable from their work, Burns said, and the last part of the documentary traces a path from the Holocaust and the United States' response right through to modern day, as the country faces a new wave of hate speech, bigotry and anti-Semitism.

American democracy has been threatened in ways it has never been before, he said, with the country's institutions — like free and fair elections — being eroded by lies, deception and bigotry.

The six million Jewish lives lost during the Holocaust, Burns said, are "the amputated limb that is still felt, that still hurts, that still itches, that still aches by all the lost potentiality of all those people.

"What cures for disease were not found? What symphonies were not written? What gardens weren't tended? What children weren't brought up with love?" he asked.

Pointing to atrocities in Rwanda, Bosnia, Syria and the jailing of Uighurs in concentration camps in China, the filmmaker noted that since the Holocaust, genocide has not ended. That is why teaching about the Holocaust will remain important for all of human history, he said.

"We human beings have not figured out how to escape the specific gravity of these crimes."

Ryan Spencer can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1412, or rspencer@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter at