An immigrant family looking at Statue of Liberty from Ellis Island.
(Photo/Library of Congress)
An immigrant family looking at Statue of Liberty from Ellis Island. (Photo/Library of Congress)

Q&A: Ken Burns on his new series, ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’

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The poster for “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” a six-hour docuseries airing on PBS Sept. 18-20, shows arms reaching toward the stars on a distorted American flag.

It is a haunting representation of the series, which is directed by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein and considers why the United States did not do more to help European Jews escape the Nazis.

In total, the U.S. admitted 225,00 Jewish refugees, more than any other nation, according to the series. Yet widespread anti-immigrant sentiment — stoked by antisemitic figures such as Henry Ford and Father Coughlin, and codified in laws such as the Immigration Act of 1924 — hampered President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ability to liberalize the country’s immigration policy. As Gunther (Guy) Stern, a German survivor, says in an interview in the film, “The golden door was not wide open.”

Burns, 69, recently spoke with J. about his new series by phone while walking near his home in Walpole, New Hampshire. Though he is not Jewish, he said, Novick, Botstein and producer Mike Welt are — as are Burns’ wife, daughters and several close friends.

The interview has been lightly edited.

J.: There is obviously no shortage of Holocaust books and films out there. In terms of documentaries, Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” (1985) stands as one of the greatest — and, at over nine hours, longest — documentaries ever made. Why did you feel the world needed another Holocaust film?

Ken Burns: This is one of the central topics of humanity. And [today] there’s new scholarship, there’s new ways of understanding, there’s new images, there’s new survivors [to interview].

Sarah, Lynn and I make films in a certain way. In this case, we wish to tell the story about the U.S. and the Holocaust, and paradoxically, by narrowing that focus, I think it gave a clearer picture of the Holocaust in its historical totality. Also, it forces us Americans into a kind of profound reckoning, particularly as the echoes of this are so prevalent in our daily lives.

Speaking of echoes, the series draws a line from the xenophobia of 1930s America to the resurgence of white nationalism and antisemitism in recent years. Why did you include footage of the Charlottesville rally and news coverage of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting at the end?

We started the project in 2015. Our job is just to tell a good story. But you can’t help but notice that the ADL reports an unusual spike in the number of antisemitic incidents over the years we worked on the series.

We are in no way equating today’s events with the Holocaust, but there are signs that seem eerily familiar — “rhymes,” Mark Twain might say — that permit us to say, “Hey, there’s smoke, if not fire.” The assault on [government] institutions, which was a familiar tactic of the Nazis, and the undermining of fact-based reporting and just sort of subscribing to big lies — all of these become central to how you turn an entire country into killers.

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What would you say is the film’s “call to action” that you want to resonate with viewers?

We have to weed our own garden right now. It has become overgrown. And we’re obligated to weed it. And we have to say, even though it’s been said and become cliché, we have to say, “Never again. Never again. Never again.”

“Shoah” famously did not use any historical footage in recounting the events of the Holocaust, instead relying almost entirely on interviews with survivors. This series includes lots of old film reels and photos, along with commentary from several Jewish and non-Jewish scholars and writers. Why did you choose that format?

The scholars are a kind of intermediary or bridge to the complexity of some of these stories, and an amplification of the importance of one aspect. For a film like ours that would require a lot of scholars, they’re only in it a modest amount.

Rebecca Erbelding [an educator and archivist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum] is a major presence in the film, and a really wise and thoughtful one. Nell Painter [a retired Princeton professor] makes an extraordinary contribution by helping us think about our own sense of ourselves.

Another person who makes an important contribution to the film is Daniel Mendelsohn. [In his book “The Lost”], he took six of those 6 million victims — his great-uncle and his great-aunt and their four daughters — and found out what he calls the “particularities” of what happened so you can put stories to each one of those six people. And you begin to realize about the human potentiality that was snuffed out, the lives not lived, the children unborn, the cures to diseases undiscovered, the symphonies not written, the gardens not tended — all of these things that infuriate me to this day.

Can you share some insight into what it was like on a personal level to make such a heavy series?

I’m the scratch narrator. Do you know what that means? I read for years the narration for the film until the very, very end. I do this with all my films that have narration, and nearly all of them have narration, so we listen to my voice ad nauseam. But if we change two words in a paragraph, I have to reread it. So I have read every sentence 25 times over. It’s the only script in which in the reading of the first draft, I broke down and cried about five times.

When we’re 99% done, we call on [the narrator], Peter Coyote in this case, and have him read it. And he was incredibly moved, as well, by what he was reading.

Listen, if we’re going to tell complicated stories in American history, we’re going to have to experience it, at least, at a remove. And it’s painful. It’s not like doing “Country Music” [a 2019 PBS series Burns directed]. But I have to say that [the process of] making the film is the same.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.