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Producers’ Pick | Ken Burns: The U.S. and the Holocaust

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September 25, 2022 12:00 am

Producers’ Pick | Ken Burns: The U.S. and the Holocaust

Brian Kilmeade Show / Brian Kilmeade

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September 25, 2022 12:00 am

Ken Burns and co-director Lynn Novick on their new three-part, six hour series on America’s response to one of the greatest humanitarian crises of the 20th century.

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This episode is brought to you by Samsung. Unfold the all-new Galaxy Z Fold 4 and expand your world. With Flex Mode, it stands on its own so you're hands-free to get more done during calls. And with multi-window view, you can use up to three apps at the same time. Plus, the edge-to-edge screen allows you to fully immerse yourself in your favorite games and shows.

Visit to learn more about Galaxy Z Fold 4. But the golden door was not wide open. We are challenged as Americans to think about what we would have done, what we could have done, what we should have done. In our better moments, we are very good people, but that's not all there is to the story. And it is a valuable story. It's always worth looking back. There's so much footage available that no one would ever see, but Ken Burns and Lynn Novick dig it up.

They're co-directors and producer of the U.S. and the Holocaust, a new three-part, six-hour series that explores America's response to one of the greatest humanitarian crises of the 20th century. Welcome to both of you. Thanks to Ken. Hello, Lynn.

Thank you so much. Hey, Brian. It's great to be with you. Always. Ken, so first off, to both of you, if you take this question, how did you get onto this topic?

Where do you think this is unexplored? I've got to expose it. Yeah, well, you know, remember when we made our film? Lynn and I made our film on World War II that came out in 2007. You and I talked about it. We've done a pretty significant scene on the Holocaust, but people came out of the woodworks with a lot of sort of misinformation and disinformation, kind of conspiracy theories and questions like, why didn't you do this?

And, you know, statements that this person was anti-Semitic. And we realized this is the story to tell. And then later I worked on a film about the Roosevelts with our writer, Jeff Ward, who had written both those pieces and now this one. And finally, we were approached in 2015 by the Holocaust Museum in Washington that was going to do an exhibition along the same lines and thought, wouldn't it be nice if we could work in cooperation?

And their exhibition opened in 2018. We spent seven years working on this. And it was really trying to sort of dig deeper into the U.S. and the Holocaust, not just what happened in the Holocaust, but we who are not responsible for it or complicit in any way. What we did, as you heard in that teaser, what we did and what we didn't do, perhaps what we should have done. And, you know, though the United States let in 225,000 refugees more than any other sovereign nation, we could have let in five times as many at least, even within the pernicious quota systems that existed with the Johnson-Reed immigration law.

And we didn't. And so I think in some ways we have to reckon with a complicated history. It also permitted us to receive the Holocaust not as some separate event within or attached to or adjacent to World War Two, but something that's very much part of the tick tock of it.

What happened? And you can see it in relationship to German expansion. So we just wanted to revisit it and tell a complicated story. It's also filled with lots of American heroes.

And Lynn is so typical because the water isn't blazing hot. It gradually gets hot. Hey, what's going on with Hitler? Oh, he says it's not going to be a problem. Oh, they want to just expand a little bit. Oh, they just want to restore their economy.

Oh, wait a second. They're belligerent against the Jews, but maybe they won't expand. And the Russians are the issue. And then little by little, it's easy to say, why didn't we act sooner? But when you realize the headlines were covering it, they were doing it. They did fear it, but they worried about another world war. Lynn, first off, I want you to hear one of the cuts from your documentary. This is the State Department and why they didn't do more to help Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.

Cut 38. The Nazis persecuted the Jews was undeniable. But the notion that the Nazis were now preparing to kill them all was simply impossible for many in the State Department to believe.

State Department officials decide that this is not good information and this is crucial. They say even if this were true, there's nothing that we could do about it. They believe that they are doing all they can to assist the Jews and that any sort of rally or petition or protest asking them to do more would be diverting resources from the war effort. Many of these people were also racist and anti-Semitic and nativist. And so you have to wonder whether some of their concerns, some of their annoyances have to do with the fact that they're being asked to help Jews. Your thoughts on that, Lynn?

Yes. So that was the voice of Rebecca Erbell doing a wonderful historian at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, who really helps us understand some of the complexities of the situation that our leaders and the people in the State Department and the people in the media and just the American people found themselves in. Because as you said, Brian, this was a gradual escalation of a problem.

And as it was happening, even while it was happening, sometimes the people to whom it was happening couldn't believe what they were experiencing and the scale of what was being visited upon the Jews of Europe. So there's multiple different problems here. One is understanding what's going on as it's changing.

Two is what do we do about it? And that these are difficult problems. And I think in the film, we just tried to show as much as possible not to judge the 2020 hindsight, but to represent the complexities of the situations that the American people and our government found themselves in and also the way in which our response could have been better. And the State Department is the place where people applied for visas to come here because of the quota system Ken was describing.

And they sort of went out of their way to make it harder as opposed to making it easier. And there are many reasons for that, some of which Rebecca evolving just explained in her in her beautiful. In looking some I haven't listened.

I haven't watched all of it. But in looking at it, I think Eleanor's instincts were better than FDR. So it was just the nature of his position.

I think it's just a great question, Brian. It's the nature of his position. Remember, he's not a king. He's not a Fuhrer. He can't wave a wand and say, oh, let these people in. This has been voted by Congress. It's an act.

The American people overwhelmingly support it. There's a kind of toxic environment of othering people and blaming, particularly the Jews. There's lots of anti-Semitism sort of in the air. And so he's moving as a strategic politician who sees better than anyone the coming war and realizes he has to sort of revoke the Neutrality Act quietly. And while in retrospect, the humanitarian stuff seems, you know, foremost, but that's just in retrospect, if he hadn't revoked the Neutrality Act, we might be speaking German today.

No kidding. But you're right about Eleanor. You know, with the exception of Prohibition and her father was a hopeless alcoholic and she watched him die in the just the most horrible throes of the mental illness of alcoholism. She's basically right on everything. So he has constantly got, you know, the somebody at his shoulder in his ear telling him what's right. And he, I think for the most part, believes it. But sometimes his actions seem to us sort of frustratingly cold because you want him to do something more. And I think perhaps he could have done more, shouted loudly, more loudly. But for the most part, he has got, I won't say bigger fish to fry. There's nothing more important than the Holocaust in this regard.

But he does have the greatest cataclysm in human history, the Second World War to manage, which will kill in its totality, you know, more than 50 million human beings. So, you know, I think it's a great idea. I think it's a great idea.

I think it's a great idea. So, Lynn, to just to set the stage and you do it great. And by the way, you get this set on the app. I get it on the app. PBS dot org, PBS video app, which is PBS.

You get an iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, everything. And it is called the U.S. and the Holocaust. And it's a great idea. It's a great idea.

It's a great idea. But we have to have a lot of infrastructure. So with the Neutrality Act allows us to build planes and tanks for Europe to fight for the UK, the United Kingdom and for France to fight. Little did we know they wouldn't.

But at least we were able to ramp up a little before we directly got involved. News reports explaining to the American people what Auschwitz was and what happened there are followed up by op-eds, by columns about Auschwitz and what America has to do in the wake of all of this information. And the fact that it's released by the War Refugee Board. It's not being released by a Jewish organization. It's not being released. Rabbi Stephen Wise says it's coming from a governmental source. It's much harder to dismiss it. Did we?

No, no. By that point, the Auschwitz report was a very important document that included eyewitness testimony of two people who escaped from Auschwitz and written a report that really verified what was going on there. There had been other reports before this, but this was in April of 1944. The government released this definitive report describing the gas chambers, the executions, the deportations, the whole scope and scale that was happening in Auschwitz in the larger context of the destruction of Europeans, you read by the Nazis. And it was front page news all over the country, all over the world. We didn't dismiss it.

The question then is what to do about it. This is April of 1944. This is before D-Day.

You know, we do have soldiers fighting on the European continent, but we're nowhere near anywhere of the places where this killing is happening. And is this the highest priority? The highest priority is to win the war. As Ken was saying, Roosevelt has by now obviously mobilized. We've built the government.

We've got this. You know, we've gone overseas to fight the Nazis and to fight in the Pacific as well. But this is coming out in the context of really the middle of World War Two. And it wasn't dismissed. But we didn't act the way we should in retrospect.

One little fine point, Brian, I would just add to that. What Ben said is absolutely true, is that by the time we get a boot on the ground in Europe, in Sicily, three quarters of the people who are going to perish in the Holocaust have already been murdered, right? And they're in Poland. Like, we think concentration camps, the gas chambers are in the killing centers in Poland, in Nazi-occupied Poland.

And they are, you know, hidden out of sight. And there are Auschwitz, there's Chelmno, there's Belzec, there's Sobibor, there's Majdanek. I mean, these are the horrible places. People are dying in concentration camps. They're being worked to death and they're being burned in crematoriums. These places are designed purely to kill human beings and work them to death, those that aren't immediately killed.

And that, you know, we're not even yet at a place where we've got an air base to go and conceivably disrupt, if we could, the killing. Okay, I think Ken's still there. By the way, the voiceover is the best in the business. Peter Coyote, I guess he works for you guys. He's unbelievable.

Every time he talks, you just want to pay attention. Ken Burns, Lenovec, our guest. What I think is so important about what you do, you put it in perspective, you bring us back to the time rather than judge us from the eyes of 2022. I never thought when we first started doing interviews about your project from the Civil War on down, Ken, and I love doing it. We'd have to remind people that history is history for a reason. You can't judge them against today's mores and to what we believe today. And believe it or not, I think Bill Maher nailed it when he talked about this current war on history.

Cut 41. How we teach our kids history has become a big controversy these days with liberals accusing conservatives of wanting to whitewash the past. And sometimes that's true.

Sometimes they do. But plenty of liberals also want to abuse history to control the present. And last month, a scholar named James Sweet caught hell for calling them out for doing just that. He criticized a phenomenon known as present ism, which means judging everyone in the past by the standards of the present. It's the belief that people who lived 100 or 500 or a thousand years ago really should have known better. Which is so stupid. It's like getting mad at yourself for not knowing what you know now when you were 10.

In a funny, comedic way, he's always smart, even though you don't agree with him. Isn't that what people that care about history are battling today, that people want to take down statues and ruin and wreck museums? Is that what you're battling today? No, I think it's a more complicated and nuanced thing, Brian. I don't think we need to hold all of ourselves to a higher standard. The assault we're being, it's a pincer movement from both sides. And what we have to do is liberate ourselves and tell a very complete and honest history that's unafraid of controversy or tragedy. But equally drawn to those stories and moments that suggest an abiding faith in the human spirit and particularly the unique role that's remarkable. But also, as our film shows, dysfunctional republic plays in the positive progress of mankind. People want to sanitize and make a Madison Avenue view and not upset people with anything that's disturbing. And people on the other side want to use history as a kind of weapon to sort of do this.

Both are not right. We're interested in telling stories and stories about human beings are always complex and not easily fit in. There is venality and virtue. There is greed and generosity.

There is puritanism and period. And it's not just necessarily between people, but within people. And if you can adopt a thing where you're telling a story and not making an argument because arguments don't change people's minds.

Stories do. Then you have the possibility of finding a common space where you and I and your listeners and the PBS listeners, which overlap tremendously, can have a civil discourse, which is the whole purpose of history. To give us the perspective to look on this moment with a little bit of grace and understanding and civility. But I always think that you and Lynn are fearless in that way.

And Lynn, I just want to we only have a minute, 90 seconds left. But when they tell Teddy Roosevelt, get that statue away from the Museum of Natural History, when they say take Lincoln's name off that grammar school. That that would take a rip the Andrew Jackson statue down from front of the White House. That angers me and worries me.

What about you? You know, I guess I'm I'm I'm agreeing with Ken in the sense that we need to be able to look at ourselves critically and to understand where we have gone wrong and where we can do better. And we do have some very controversial aspects of our own history that we're still reckoning with to this day and probably our children and grandchildren will also be having difficult conversations about uncomfortable truths in our past. And we should welcome that.

You know, and I think the statues is a question, but there's bigger questions at stake here than that for us. Ken Burns and Novick, their new documentary, The US and the Holocaust. Thanks so much, guys. Appreciate it. Great to be with you, Brian. All right.

I'll talk to you soon. You got it so much from the Fox News podcast network. Subscribe and listen to the Trey Gowdy podcast. Former federal prosecutor and four term U.S. congressman from South Carolina brings you a one of a kind podcast. Subscribe and listen now by going to Fox News podcast dot com.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-01-08 23:02:58 / 2023-01-08 23:10:21 / 7

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