Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns put his creative team’s latest project, “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” in context during a videoconference call with reporters in late July.
“As we have all said together, we will not work on a more important film,” said Burns, whose previous triumphs include “The Civil War” and “The Vietnam War.” “It doesn't mean that other films we've done or will do won't have the same importance, but we can't imagine working on a film more important than ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust.’ ”
There are multiple reasons that statement is true.
The phrase that “those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it” repeatedly comes to mind while watching the three-part series.
It recalls the days in the late 1930s and 1940s when white supremacists, anti-Semites, isolationists like aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, anti-immigrants, fear of foreign spies, skeptical elements of the media and Holocaust deniers had the power to control public opinion and keep America out of World War II for an extended period of time.
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It is difficult to watch the series without considering the applications to elements of today’s America even before the end of Part 3 when the series briefly highlights events at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., where American Nazis shouted, “Jews will not replace us”; the mass shootings at a Pittsburgh synagogue; then presidential candidate Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric; and the Jan. 6 insurrection to serve as a warning of things that have happened here and could still happen.
Students of history also may be reminded of a few things about European history that they had forgotten at their own peril.
But there’s an additional reason for Western New Yorkers to watch the series that concludes with Part 3 airing at 8 p.m. Wednesday and at midnight on WNED-TV. All three parts are also being streamed on the PBS video app.
The extra reason is there is a Western New York angle. Sol Messinger, who lives in Buffalo, is one of several Holocaust survivors telling their stories.
As he explains in the series, Messinger and his parents were on a journey in 1939. They boarded the ship MS St. Louis bound for Cuba carrying 900 Jewish refugees who were desperately fleeing Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
The ship wasn’t allowed to leave almost all its passengers in Cuba and had to return to Europe because no country, not even the United States and Canada, would allow it to enter.
A professor emeritus of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Messinger appears in all three parts. He explains how his father was in tears when he and his parents had to leave behind relatives.
They eventually made a circuitous journey to Ellis Island that started in Belgium, included a stop in France and the escape of an internment camp before they eventually landed in New York City in 1942, then settling in Buffalo. They were sponsored by the owner of a furniture store and had relatives here.
Messinger, whose Buffalo history is briefly mentioned, is one of several survivors who detail the horrors they endured and witnessed that were too hard for many Americans to believe until evidence of the genocide became undeniable.
As difficult as Messinger’s story is to imagine, some of the other survivors in Burns’ film detail even more horrific details.
The survivors include Eva Geiringer, who details the horrors her family endured and their friendship with Otto Frank, whose teenage daughter Anne wrote a diary that became a bestseller and a film after her death. After Frank learned of the death of Anne and a second daughter, he eventually married Eva’s mother.
It is one of the rare heartwarming stories in an otherwise heartbreaking series.
Burns effectively uses historians Deborah Lipstadt and Peter Hayes and others in the field to document why the politics of the time made President Franklin D. Roosevelt reluctant to get into the war until after millions of Jews had been murdered.
In one of the most powerful quotes, Hayes noted the exclusion of immigrants entering the United States “has been as American as apple pie.”
Narrated by actor Peter Coyote, the series has Burns’ standard practice of using the voices of many actors, including Meryl Streep, Josh Lucas, Liam Neeson, Matthew Rhys, Joe Morton, Hope Davis and Bradley Whitford, to read letters from historical figures.
The series begins and ends with a shot of the Statue of Liberty, which symbolizes the freedom some refugees – but not as many as there should have been – realized.
It’s a difficult series to watch at times and should remind second- and third-generation Americans what many of their ancestors had to overcome as Hitler conquered European countries.
In the videoconference call in late July, Burns noted the Statue of Liberty means “different things to different people.”
“We've always had the idea of welcoming immigrants, but we've also always had the idea that we didn't want to let anyone else in,” he said. “We're founded on the idea that all men are created equal, but through all of our period, we have discriminated against Native peoples, against Black Americans held in chattel slavery; there's been rampant anti-Semitism from the very beginning. And what we wanted to do is show a fuller picture – and in this case, to see the Holocaust – the nadir of civilization – as one of our survivors says, ‘through the lens of what the U.S. did and didn't do, and what it knew and what it didn't know.”
Burns agreed with one critic that the film has more relevance today with the anti-immigrant and anti-Semitism rhetoric spreading around the world.
“I think, quite frankly, we didn't anticipate it,” he said. “We would have no idea what the world would be like when we started … (several) years ago. But in all of our films, we've always had our minds focused on telling the story, and always confident that once it's done, and we lift our heads up, it will be resonating; it will be echoing in the present. And I think what is so perhaps disturbing but perhaps illuminating, is the fact that this is, in almost every sentence of this story, resonating in a very fraught and very complicated and very fragile present moment.”
Lynn Novick, a director-producer on the project, added, “It’s been very eerie to see the echoes of the past echoing louder and louder and louder throughout the time that we made the film. Like Ken said, every film we make reverberates in the moment that we're in, but this one, particularly so, has been operating on many levels, in terms of the fragility of our democracy … and the resurgence of anti-Semitism and white supremacy and racism and hate speech, that have been sort of on the fringe, moving toward the mainstream, while we're making the film, has made our relationship to the material, and the story we're telling, and the kinds of questions we're asking, just get sort of louder and more powerful for all of us.”
Writer Daniel Mendelsohn, who tells the story of his ancestors, agreed with one critic that the project brings up emotions of anger and sadness.
“I would say I don't feel the film is angry, but I feel the film should make you angry, and I personally admired this sort of coolness with which this unbearable material is presented,” said Mendelsohn. “I think it's about making the audience angry and, again, connecting the dots. ... If you can't get worked up about this, then there is a problem.”