In school, many of us learned a heroic story of America’s involvement with the Holocaust. Germany built the death camps—the USA and its allies liberated them. But it was never that simple. For one thing, our country offered a blueprint for oppression, from Jim Crow to the atrocities committed against Native Americans, that the Nazis openly admired. (One 1934 German sterilization law was inspired by a similar eugenics program in California.) And once the Holocaust was underway, the US was slow to respond and turned away thousands of Jewish refugees. Even the father of Anne Frank was thwarted in his attempts to save his family by moving to America.
"The judgement of history will be harsh," wrote Holocaust survivor and future Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel in 1979. "How many victims, Jews and non-Jews, could have been saved had we changed our immigration laws, opened our gates more widely, protested more forcefully. We did not. Why not?"
It’s a question that will likely be explored in an upcoming Ken Burns documentary. In a new interview with Esquire, the filmmaker discussed the project, which has the working title The Holocaust and the United States.
"The National Socialist Party came to the United States to study Jim Crow exclusionary laws, and then they stuck around for eugenics," said Burns, "and then perfected it in the worst possible sense of that word."
"And it’s all about immigration and who's an American and who's not an American," he continued. "Who should be let here, and how do we keep people away? Or do we let them in? And it’s also, What do you do when you find out one of the worst atrocities—if not the worst atrocity in human history—is taking place?" The documentary is due to be released in 2021.
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