Director Lynn Novick on the New Holocaust Documentary
tags: documentaries,Ken Burns,Holocaust history
The opposite of love is not hate. It’s indifference.
--Elie Wiesel, Human Rights Activist, Author and Holocaust Survivor
The word holocaust derives from the ancient Greek for “burnt offering.” The term “the Holocaust” refers to Nazi Germany’s systematic, deliberate, state-sponsored campaign of dehumanization, terrorism, persecution and mass murder that resulted in the deaths of at least six million European Jews during the Nazi era (1933-1945). This horrific, genocidal Nazi initiative is also called “the Shoah,” Hebrew for “catastrophe.”
The roots of the Holocaust ran deep in the centuries-long history of antisemitism in Europe, with a ferocious escalation of persecution of Jews under Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler during Third Reich that began with harassment and deprivation of rights of Jews leading to physical attacks and destruction of Jewish property, to isolated atrocities, to segregated ghettos, and then to mass murder on an industrial scale with the “Final Solution,” the Nazi plan to exterminate all European Jewry. By 1941, death camps for mass killing sprouted in Eastern Europe. By the end of the war in May 1945, the Nazis had exterminated two thirds of the Jews in Europe.
In the United States, as one of the greatest humanitarian crises in history unfolded, Americans were confronted by the fate of the Jewish people in Europe. Jewish pleas for sanctuary in America to escape Nazi persecution and likely death tested American ideals. Debates raged throughout the prewar and war years about America’s responsibility to assist imperiled refugees as leaders balanced domestic needs during the Depression with military considerations, as well as popular sentiment influenced by pervasive antisemitism, racism, xenophobia, and racial “purification” based on the pseudoscience of eugenics.
The popular understanding of the US response to the Holocaust combines a sense that Americans were unaware of the Nazi atrocities against Jews in Europe and the idea that Americans were simply unable to help while ignoring the anti-immigrant and isolationist sentiments of the time.
The story is much more nuanced and complicated as reflected in a groundbreaking and moving new PBS six-hour documentary series The United States and the Holocaust, directed by the iconic filmmaking team of Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein. The series is set to debut on PBS on September 18.
By carefully examining the period from the early twentieth century through the Second World War in the US and Europe, this series dispels competing myths about the American response to the Holocaust and explores the reality of that period.
As always with previous Burns-Novick film collaborations, the series draws on extensive and groundbreaking research to help viewers understand how American perceptions of the persecution of European Jews were shaped by circumstances in the United States including a severe economic crisis, fear of immigrants, deep-rooted antisemitism and racism, and popular isolationist tendencies. Among other materials, the series presents the fruits of an intensive exploration of the past and includes the commentary of expert historians and Holocaust survivors, as well as rare photographs and films, home movies and family photos and personal memorabilia, official records, newspaper and magazine articles, and popular cultural materials.
Lynn Novick, co-director of the series and a distinguished filmmaker in her own right, graciously responded to a series of questions on the creation of this revelatory and engaging documentary by Zoom.
Ms. Novick is one of the most renowned documentary filmmakers and visual storytellers working in the US today. She has been honored with Emmy, Peabody, and Alfred I. DuPont Columbia Awards for her extraordinary work. She has served as co-director with Ken Burns for more than 25 years, and together they have created the most critically acclaimed documentary films that have aired on PBS including Hemingway (2021); The Vietnam War (2017); Prohibition (2011); The Tenth Inning (2010); The War (2007); Jazz (2001); Frank Lloyd Wright (1994); and Baseball (1994). Ms. Novick came to Florentine Films in 1989 to work on Burns’s landmark 1990 series, The Civil War, as associate producer for post-production. Her 2019 series College Behind Bars on a unique education program in prisons was her debut project as solo director and the series was nominated for two Emmys. She previously served as researcher and associate producer for Bill Moyers on two PBS series: Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth and A World of Ideas with Bill Moyers.
Robin Lindley: It’s a pleasure to talk with you again Lynn. Thanks for your previous thoughtful conversations with me on your Vietnam War and Hemingway documentaries. And now, congratulations to you and Ken Burns and Sarah Botstein and your crew on your new documentary masterpiece The United States and the Holocaust. For me, the series was extremely moving and illuminating, and I think it will surprise viewers as it addresses many preconceptions and flawed history about this period in the United States and in Germany. What was the inspiration for this documentary?
Lynn Novick: Ken and Sarah Botstein and Geoffrey Ward (author, historian and screenwriter) and I have all been interested in the Holocaust in different ways and for different reasons for years. We've touched on it in glancing ways in some other projects we've done, but we weren't especially focused on tackling it as its own distinct topic until 2015. That’s when we were approached by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, when they were planning an exhibition called “Americans and the Holocaust” for 2018. They asked if we thought it would be interesting to do a documentary that might come out around the same time as the exhibition. We said immediately, that is a terrific idea. But we added that we probably couldn’t get it done so quickly because of other projects we were all working on.
We put the project in our pipeline and began to think about it and do the research and assemble the advisors and look for survivors to interview and all of that. But we didn't really dive into it full time for a few years. We didn't get it done in time for 2018, but the exhibition is still up. The museum did a beautiful job and we were able to benefit from their research and scholarship. We also did our own research into the topic and took it in some different directions.
Robin Lindley: How did the project evolve from your original conception to the final series? I appreciate your deep dive into American history in particular.
Lynn Novick: One of the big questions with a project like this is always where do you start? Do we begin with Hitler coming to power or do we begin with the Kristallnacht or other events once the Nazis had taken over Germany?
But, since we were focusing on the American response, it became clear pretty quickly that we would have to lay out for our audience what our policies were towards immigrants and refugees before this crisis happened. To get our arms around the context for the story, we decided we had to go back to the 19th century—to the ideals behind the Statue of Liberty and our values as a society. And then we looked at how we lived up to or did not live up to those values when push came to shove in the 1930s and 1940s.
It was really a process of rewinding or pulling back the threads to get where we wanted to start, and then lining up the history of the Second World War; the history of America's involvement in the Second World War; and the history of the Holocaust itself. When it happened? How it happened? Where it happened? Who was victimized? Who were the perpetrators? All of these questions.
I'm not sure I could have fully explained these concerns before we began to work on this project and then simultaneously lay out what information Americans had about all of this, both at the highest levels of government and just among ordinary people reading the newspaper, going to the newsreels, or people who had family members in Europe and were hearing through informal networks about what was happening.
That was the ambitious scope of what we were trying to do. To do that, we heard from scholars and historians who have studied this period and know a lot more about it than we will ever hope to know. And we also had to make it real for ourselves and for our audience so we wanted to find people who actually could still bear witness to it, who had lived through it themselves. And these were people who would now be in their eighties, nineties, and were children at the time.
All of those things were happening simultaneously for us.
Robin Lindley: You cover an amazing range of history in six hours. I appreciate, as always, your meticulous and extensive research from film and photographic resources to archival material, to actual location visits, to the presentation of experts and witnesses. And you follow many story threads. How do you see your research process?
Lynn Novick: First, I can't say enough about the beautiful script that Geoffrey Ward wrote for us. We must give him an enormous amount of credit for helping us establish the overall structure; in figuring out the chronologies and how these stories would intertwine; and writing about such difficult materials. He did so beautifully, and in an understated way. We're so grateful to Geoff for everything he has done for this film.
The research is done throughout the project by many people. Geoff does his own research in terms of often reading published material, including secondary sources. He looks online for material as well. We have a team of producers that do the archival research, which is looking for the photographs, the footage, the documentary evidence, including letters, telegrams, and many newspapers in this case, to help tell the story.
And then there's the research to find the people whose stories we're going to tell. We collect their first-person accounts and archival materials that they have so that their stories can also become real.
So there's many different dimensions to the research and it goes on throughout the project. And we had several aces in the hole for this project. Some of the scholars who we worked with most closely also had worked on the [Holocaust Museum] exhibition and some are connected to the museum. They know this story better than many, and we could call them with questions. They could make suggestions and let us know of finding materials that we didn't know about and sharing that with us. I'll just give one example. It’s a small one, but it represents what you could multiply for every story in the film.
As we put the series together, we sometimes recognize, for example, that we’re not finding ways to connect the dots between stories. Here, we had two stories with what's happening in Europe and what's happening in America. How do we bring them together besides just alternating between them? And one of the ways we wanted to do that was to find a family that came to the United States before 1924 and had made a life for themselves and had gone back to visit Poland or Ukraine or parts of the former Soviet Union with their movie cameras and had taken pictures or footage of the places where they were from the way you would when you are on vacation. And there's a small collection of this type of material and, we realized about halfway through editing, we really wanted to put in a scene about a story like that, but we didn't have one.
We reached out to the Holocaust Museum and they had been collecting all manner of oral histories and archival records from different people. They showed us the story of the Bland family, and we were able to look at their home movies that the teenaged son filmed when they went back to the villages where the parents were from in Poland. And we had the oral history of the younger child who was there with his memories of that experience. And we built a scene from that. And that's just one example out of six hours, but you could multiply that across many moments in the film and it speaks to how open our process is. Sometimes we are looking for something and sometimes material just comes up, and it's a little bit of both.
Robin Lindley: That’s fascinating background on the rigorous work that went into this series. Viewers will be amazed by much of this history.
Lynn Novick: We were amazed by it.
Robin Lindley: I appreciate the powerful storytelling and the many threads the series follows. You frame the series with the especially poignant story of Anne Frank's family. She’s perhaps the most well-known victim of the Holocaust for American viewers.
Lynn Novick: Thank you for asking about that story. When we were developing the project and set out to try to tell this story and to find ways for our audiences to understand how interconnected the stories were, some materials came to light, including some letters that Otto Frank, Anne Frank's father, had written to a friend in the US who was a well-connected New Yorker who he had known. Otto Frank begged him for help to try to get his family out of the Netherlands. They had already fled Germany for Amsterdam, and they were trying to get out of Amsterdam. We immediately seized on that as a powerful framing device because, as you say, Anne Frank is the most well-known representative of the Holocaust for most Americans, or certainly for many.
I know for myself, when I read her diary in school and even subsequently reread it before we were working on the project, I read it as a document of something that happened far away that had nothing to do with me except that, when I read it, I was a girl and she was a girl. I was very interested and moved by it and devastated by it, but I didn't think about it as anything to do with America at all.
And so, we wanted to show from the beginning that America was part of the story, or that this story is part of us in ways that we don't fully understand, and that story showed one family of many people who tried to get here and were not able to. And why was that? If we find out that one of those people was Anne Frank and then realize she might still be here today if our policies had been different, we can then explain all the reasons why they weren't different. We’re not saying America is responsible for what happened to Anne Frank in any way, shape, or form, but we're trying to help our audience and ourselves see that these narratives are connected and that in America we have to look at ourselves in this story.
Robin Lindley: The series provides context for her story that most people probably don't know much about.
Lynn Novick: The film is six hours long and it could have been ten hours, but a lot of material that we had originally included ended up on the cutting room floor, including one of my favorite scenes.
We couldn't fit it into the film, but we found out also that Anne Frank’s Montessori school teacher arranged for her and her sister to have pen pals in America. So, she and her sister exchanged letters with sisters in Burlington, Iowa—another connection with the US. We have a beautiful letter from Anne to her pen pal saying my name is Anne and I'm in this grade and I don't really speak English that well, and tell me about yourself. And I found Burlington on the map after I read this normal pen pal letter. It's very moving and it speaks to how much of this history we really don't know and how difficult it is to excavate, especially from the Holocaust, an act of erasure or an attempted erasure. And Anne’s diary is so powerful because she refuses to be erased.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for sharing that moving moment in your research. You also worked with a panel of experts, mostly renowned American historians.
Lynn Novick: We were grateful to have such a distinguished and brilliant and well- informed and thoughtful group of advisors who know the story of the Holocaust and also American history and how they connect.
Some of our most treasured experiences on a project like this are the times when we sit down in person and share the film with our advisors before it's done. That gives us a chance to make adjustments after the screenings. We had only one meeting because of COVID. This project was unfortunately put together during the worst of the pandemic.
We had our only in-person screening in the summer of 2021 when things opened up for a little moment. We were able to bring several of our advisors to New Hampshire to screen the film with us and they gave us their full attention, their depth of knowledge, and the nuances of language and image and the other choices that make the series so powerful.
Rebecca Erbelding, for example, a young scholar at the Holocaust Museum, has an interesting story of how she got interested in this topic and involved in the scholarship. She wrote her dissertation on the War Refugee Board, which I had never heard before their exhibition went up. She worked with us, and she is a scrupulous historian who understands American history and the Holocaust with all the pitfalls and tropes and oversimplifications. And she was just unstinting in demanding that we get it right. She has been a huge help.
We also have Peter Hayes, a preeminent scholar of the Holocaust, who has a beautiful way of explaining what happened very matter-of-factly and also pushing back on the idea that it was unthinkable. It was impossible. It was unimaginable. All those words, and he holds us to account to say this did happen. It could happen. It's not unthinkable. He was reframing the way that we think about this catastrophe. He's brilliant.
We also appreciated having Nell Irvin Painter who is a retired history professor, and now an artist. She made time for us and gave us a great interview and helped us situate the entire conversation and the framing of the film within the context of the powerful undercurrent in America of white supremacy, racism, antisemitism, and xenophobia. How does this story fit into that history? And we're enormously grateful for her perspective.
Robin Lindley: I was impressed that Professor Nell Painter was part of the series. She’s a legendary professor of American history specializing race relations. I interviewed her a couple of years ago on her history teaching and her “encore career” as an artist. Her inclusion in the series is evidence of the deep dive the film takes into our ugly history in the early 20th century with the discriminatory laws, racism, xenophobia, and eugenics—with US laws and policies that served as models for Hitler’s Third Reich.
Lynn Novick: It's very ugly and deeply disturbing to work your way through that material, but it was part of our story. To tell this story without exploring all of that would be strange. And we were also fascinated and repelled by the interplay.
We could have done more, but I think we gave our audience an understanding that eugenics was popular on both sides of the Atlantic. The Germans embraced it and we embraced it. And Nell has written about this as has Isabel Wilkerson and James Whitman. There was a cross-pollination of racist ideas between Germany and the United States and England and France and other parts of Western Europe. How mainstream those ideas became based on a pseudoscience is appalling. There was nothing scientific about eugenics whatsoever.
Robin Lindley: Yes. A professor I know asked, do you know the abbreviation for eugenics? It's BS, he said.
Lynn Novick: Exactly. That's perfect. BS is exactly right. And yet we had all these very eminent Americans on the bandwagon hyping it.
Robin Lindley: Yes. You note in the documentary that Rockefeller, Carnegie, and a lot of renowned academics embraced eugenics. The research in the United States and the United Kingdom, I believe, brought eugenics to the attention of Hitler and the Nazis, and they used it in their master race formulation.
Lynn Novick: I believe so. And then we also have to account for the fact that again, and other scholars have explained this much better than I can, that when the Germans were trying to figure out how to structure their society so that Jews would be stripped of their citizenship and their rights and do it little by little and do it legally, they looked to us for how to do that. And we had set quite an example over many years.
Robin Lindley: Exactly. And Hitler, in his hateful, 1924 screed Mein Kampf, applauded America’s restrictive and racist immigration laws as well as the Jim Crow segregation laws and other policies that made Black Americans second-class citizens including a ban of miscegenation. These American ideas were an inspiration for Nazi race laws which deprived Jewish people of all rights and embraced Aryan supremacy with a whole categorical scheme of Jewish ancestry and blood to determine who was truly German and who was not. And, according to several historians, the American laws were actually harsher in some ways than the Nazi edicts.
Lynn Novick: Exactly. I knew that from visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington. They have artifacts that speak to those laws. And it wasn't news to me that there were Nazis looking to our laws as a model, and the degree to which they emulated us in that regard handicapped our ability to criticize them. They could throw it back in our face and say, you can't criticize us for oppressing a minority. You do the same thing. I'm talking about before the mass killings and the extermination of people, but right up to that moment, there wasn't that much we could say in response to their laws.
Robin Lindley: The widespread American embrace of the racist principles of eugenics many surprise many viewers. I recall reading that families who were adjudged the most “Nordic”—the apex of the eugenics race hierarchy—would win ribbons at county fairs like animals or produce. And your series notes that 43 of 48 states had legalized the sterilization of defective or “feebleminded” people as well as some criminals.
Lynn Novick: Yes. That’s really horrifying. And some of those laws were not really rescinded until very recently.
I'm actually going to tackle that topic again because I'm working on another project on the history of crime and punishment in America. We're going to show that people who were under the control of the state in mental hospitals and prisons and other places of confinement, were subject to the idea that they should be prevented from reproducing and that idea was a very durable one. It was quite horrifying. They called these ugly ideas racial hygiene and racial purification and social engineering according to some construct of the pseudoscience of eugenics. This horrific engineering of humanity is basically racism, and it was not unique to Nazi Germany.
Robin Lindley: And speaking of racism, how do you see American immigration laws in the early 20th century? You recount a backlash against immigration and refugees after World War I and the extremely restrictive Johnson-Reed Immigration Act in 1924.
Lynn Novick: That's a critical piece of our story. To understand why it was so difficult for refugees under Hitler to enter the United States, we have to know that immigration laws changed dramatically in 1924.
Before 1924, there had been other restrictions, specifically the Chinese Exclusion Act and some specific rules targeting people from Asia. But for the most part, until the early twenties, anyone could come here from anywhere without any real process. My ancestors all just got on a boat and came here. And if they hadn't, I wouldn't be here today because they were from the places where a lot of the killing took place when the Nazis overran Soviet Union.
So why did we decide as a society to change our policy and make it very difficult for people to come here from certain parts of the world? There was a backlash that I didn't understand, and it had been building for quite a while. You had wave upon wave of millions of people coming to the United States from 1880 or so to 1920. I think 25 million people came here from Eastern Europe and Southern Europe. And the people who ran this country really felt that America was being destroyed—that something innately, inherently good about America was being eroded. And I would argue that the exact opposite was true, but that's how they saw it and they were determined to stop the wrong people from coming here. And it does tie into eugenics and a sense of racial hierarchy that they wanted to preserve. And they used this umbrella of science, of eugenics, but it wasn't scientific at all. It was just pure bigotry.
And sadly, the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act passed handily without a lot of resistance to it. The law set quotas for every country that were carefully apportioned according to the ideals that the people who wrote the law wanted America to represent. The Act permitted immigration of a lot of people from Northern Europe: Germany, England, and Scandinavia. That's the people that they thought should come here. Everybody else was restricted to little quotas. If you were from Poland, or if you were from Italy, or if you were from Eastern Europe, your chances of immigrating were very small.
Robin Lindley: That’s another sad aspect of this story. And after the First World War, as your film shows, the white supremacist and anti-immigrant Ku Klux Klan held surprising political sway in many states in both the South and the North.
Lynn Novick: Indeed. They had reinvented themselves as an anti-immigrant, anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic organization and were much more “mainstream” than they had been as a violent terrorist organization after the Civil War. In the 1920s, they called themselves “The Invisible Empire,” but there was nothing invisible about them. They marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC. And they strongly favored immigration restrictions, and they were hugely popular. Politicians had to reckon with that.
Robin Lindley: And, by the 1930s, the US Department of State rigidly enforced the immigration quotas and restricted visas and thus severely limited immigration, especially from unfavored nations. And some upper-level officials in the State Department were openly antisemitic. What did you learn about the State Department?
Lynn Novick: I knew a little bit about this particular character named Breckenridge Long [Assistant Secretary of State—responsible for refugee visas] who is certainly one of the villains of the story. He seemed to have no compassion for Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism, and he saw them all as a threat to the United States. To some degree, we could say that perhaps there was a fear that refugees coming here would become spies or other security risks. That was the argument, but Long seems to have been just unapologetically antisemitic, and he felt he was doing his patriotic duty to keep the wrong people out of his country and to use the power of his position to do so. And the people under him mostly went along with that.
On the other hand, there was no great pressure being put upon Long from the White House or from Cordell Hull who was the Secretary of State. The Department went out of its way to enforce the immigration rules to the letter of the law and to delay and to not make things easy for refugees.
And also, some of the worst offenses beyond those—which were pretty bad—was when the State Department basically suppressed reports of Hitler’s mass extermination of people in 1941 after the invasion of the Soviet Union. These credible reports never made their way beyond the Department. State Department officials in Washington wrote back to their offices in Switzerland, where someone in the Department had sent a sent a detailed report [on mass murder of Jews], and ordered, “please don't send us any more of these reports.” They had no interest. They didn't want this explosive information that could have been used perhaps to raise awareness of the crisis. And instead, they just concealed it. There's no good way to see that story.
Robin Lindley: And the president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, knew of atrocities against Jews in Germany and beyond, but was reluctant to speak out on behalf of Jewish refugees, even though Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady, and Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor, were arguing essentially that providing a haven for refugees was the purpose of America.
Lynn Novick: FDR didn't leave behind a diary or audio tapes or much of a record of exactly how he felt about what he was doing or why he made the decisions he did or why he embraced or not the policies he embraced. We have to go with what he did and didn't do and try to infer what we can, and that's a risky business.
We know that FDR was aware of the crisis. We know that people in the Jewish community in particular and Eleanor and others were pleading with him to do something. And we also know that he was a very astute politician who understood the American political scene better than most, and he was the leader of a deeply antisemitic country that was also xenophobic, as we have said.
In the 1930s, we were coming out of the Depression and he was not a king. He didn't get to make all the rules. And, to get reelected, he had to bring the public along with him. He was trying to do a lot of different things to get the country out of the Depression, for one, and then move us toward a war footing, and to try to help England and France in particular defend themselves as he began to see the Nazi threat emerging, and then ultimately prepare the nation to fight a war.
And I think it reflects not on him, but on our whole nation. If FDR had said in a Fireside Chat, “I have it on good authority that the Jews of Europe are facing the threat of annihilation, and we know this is happening and Americans have to rally to do everything we can to save them,” I think that would have gone over like a lead balloon. He knew the country very well. He was walking a tightrope trying to move the country forward, but he also knew that if he got too far ahead of public opinion, he’d get nowhere. I'd like to think he could have done more or I wish he had done more, but I also think it's not fair to pin this failure on FDR alone by any means.
Robin Lindley: There were also some heroes in American officialdom. The series mentions John Pehle who stood up to the State Department and became director of the War Refugee Board late in the war. Who was he?
Lynn Novick: Yes. John Pehle is one American who was not indifferent to the plight of Jews and refugees. He grew up in Omaha and his father was a German immigrant and his mother was the child of Swedish immigrants. He worked for the U.S. Treasury Department as the director of the Foreign Funds Control and, when Gerhart Riegner’s report about the mass murder of Jews came across his desk, he was prepared to do anything in his power to help.
However, as I previously mentioned, the State Department and Assistant Secretary Breckenridge Long, in particular, were deliberately obstructionist and not willing to send any aid abroad. Rather than stand by idly, Pehle worked with Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and others, to draft an executive order for President Roosevelt. The result of their efforts was the establishment of the War Refugee Board, which was signed into effect in January of 1944. Pehle acted as the first director of the board and it was estimated that the WRB saved tens of thousands of lives by providing materials and sending money. Pehle is an American hero who used his position of power to save individual lives and make a difference.
Robin Lindley: You mention the deep antisemitism in the United States at this time. What explains this attitude? Why did many Americans find Jewish people a threat?
Lynn Novick: I'm not an expert on that topic. I think we have to see it in the context of a white supremacy and ideology. There was lots of prejudice and bigotry to go around. It was not only targeted towards Jews. There was racial hatred towards African Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, Italian Americans. There was dehumanizing language and othering of many groups.
I don't know that Jews were singled out as being more benighted, as more of a target of this hatred, than other groups, except to say that there was long history of antisemitism from the Catholic Church and, as we see today, from a part of Christian heritage. That's part of the story we have to deal with. And that was true here.
But what was interesting to me was that antisemitism in America became a much more powerful force only after Jewish immigration increased. When you see large numbers of Eastern European Jews coming here in the 1890s and up to 1920, that antisemitism becomes much more powerful. And that's when you start to see quotas and restrictions, and the overt, explicit antisemitism became much more pervasive when there were more Jews here.
And Henry Ford, an American icon with an enormous amount of social capital not to mention actual capital, was a big part of this. We cannot let him off the hook. I had heard of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and I knew it was as horrendous antisemitic hoax. I didn't appreciate the degree to which Henry Ford was involved in spreading this hoax. He printed this antisemitic filth in his newspapers and published it as a book and promoted it for years. And he had a lot of credibility. And we're seeing that today. You repeat a lie enough times and people start to believe it.
So, what you have in our story on American antisemitism, on the one hand, was more of Jewish presence, and then you also had a credible, powerful person spreading hateful ideas. Maybe that shouldn't be surprising.
Robin Lindley: And we are still faced with Big Lies, as effectively used by Goebbels and Hitler in Nazi Germany, and now employed here. I was surprised by the story from the series about Catholic gangs in the US who assaulted Jewish people and destroyed their property even as the persecution of Jews was happening in Germany.
Lynn Novick: Yes. Father Charles Coughlin is another powerful antisemitic person to pull into this because he incited Nazi-aligned and proto-fascist organizations of both Catholics and Protestants. And we have a tradition of vigilantism here that's often been directed at other people, specifically African Americans, but other groups as well. So, there's a context for that, that we can't ignore. It’s not happening in a vacuum, but it's certainly true that there were self-appointed vigilantes that went out to try to exact violence on Jewish people in America. It’s devastating.
Robin Lindley: How aware were most Americans of the oppression of Jews in Germany in the 1930s before the war such as atrocities like the destruction of Jewish property and murders during Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” in 1938?
Lynn Novick: One of the many misunderstandings I had of this history before we worked on this film was that Americans didn't know much about what was happening in Europe. The Holocaust was carried out theoretically in secret.
I incorrectly thought that the world discovered the atrocities only after the war, after the spring of 1945. But the Holocaust Museum exhibition belied that notion. And then we were able to benefit from that as well as from a book by historian Deborah Lipstadt—one of our advisors—who wrote Beyond Belief that showed that the coverage of Nazi oppression of Jews and persecution of Jews and other groups was quite significant. There was a lot of coverage in US newspapers, magazines, and on the radio. Reporters were there and they were telling the story of what they saw. It got harder and harder, but Kristallnacht made front-page headlines all around the country and the world.
The presence of killing centers like Auschwitz was a different story. That news didn't come out simultaneous with the process of new killing happening, but it did eventually come out before the war ended.
So, the American public was well aware of what Hitler was saying and of everything the Nazis were carrying out in public, which was horrendous. Before the mass killings, there was a lot of coverage of the condition of Jews, and Americans were understandably very upset about it, but it didn't change American attitudes toward immigration.
Robin Lindley: I think the fateful 1939 voyage of the Jewish refugees aboard the ship St. Louis encapsulates American attitudes then, just a few months before the war started. What did you learn about this tragic voyage?
Lynn Novick: The story of the St. Louis was very well known at the time, and maybe less well known now, but certain generations of Americans who were alive during the war or soon after have heard of it. And there was a Hollywood movie called The Ship of the Damned. So, it got some attention.
There are a lot of misconceptions about the voyage. It didn't come down to us exactly accurately so we really were grateful to be able to tell the story with the benefit of all of the historical records that we could put together.
There was a steady stream of ships across the Atlantic bringing mostly German Jewish and other Jewish refugees to the Americas. You had to get a visa for US entry, and there was a whole legal process to get permission to come here or to Cuba or to some other place. But there were ships going across until the war began, and the St. Louis was one of them. There were 900 something people aboard and they had not been able to get visas to America because that was so difficult, but they had been able to buy visas to go to Cuba, which was a very close ally of the United States at that time—long before Fidel Castro took over.
For those of us who maybe aren't so clear in Cuban history, Cuba then was almost a satellite country of the United States in some ways, and a lot of refugees thought that if they got to Cuba, they could wait there, and then eventually their visas would come through for the United States and then they could come to America. I know several people whose families did do that. In fact, the COO of PBS, Jonathan Barzilay, said that's what his mother did. So this is a common thread. I know some other families that went the Cuba route, and there were already thousands of Jewish refugees in Cuba at this time.
But unfortunately for the people aboard the St. Louis, from the time they bought their visas to the time they got to Havana, Cuban policy changed and the government decided they didn't want to let them in. There were many complicated reasons for that, which I will not get into, but it was corruption and internal rivalry between different factions there and the Cuban leader Batista, who literally became dictator, was part of this. Regardless, the refugees were now stranded and the Cubans would not let them off the boat. So, you had this ship full of 900 people who didn’t want to go back to Germany and they had nowhere to go.
The media was in Havana harbor for several days trying to figure out the situation. They were telegraphing to people in the US and around the world, and it was quite an international crisis. And a lot of people who witnessed it then and who think about it now hold the United States to account. Why couldn't we just let them in? And of course, potentially we could have, but there was a process and there were other people who were waiting on lists, and these refugees would have jumped the line, and that would have created some problems in the process for admitting immigrants. I'm not saying it couldn't have been done, but they unsuccessfully appealed to President Roosevelt and the State Department.
For the people on the ship, the situation was just excruciating. In the end, with a Jewish aid organization and some political connections, they were able to get other countries to agree to take them. They raised some money, about half a million dollars. But they had to go back across the Atlantic. They didn't go back to Germany, but ended up in Belgium, England, France, and other countries, and a good portion of them survived the war, but a third of them were killed by the Nazis, and that's a tragic story.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for that account, Lynn. That’s another grim chapter in this horrific history. I haven't got to the mass murder of Jews and others in the Holocaust yet. I learned from my reading, if I may add, and from your series, that Hitler openly called for extermination of all Jews in Europe by 1941. The mass murder of Jews and others grew out of the Nazi T4 program in 1939 to euthanize “defective people,” the disabled and the criminal, or “life unworthy of life,” as the Nazis put it. That program was the precursor of the mass extermination at death camps during the Holocaust.
Lynn Novick: Right.
Robin Lindley: The mass exterminations of the Holocaust began in earnest after the German invasion of the USSR in 1941. SS Einsatzgruppen troops killed thousands of Jews people in mass shootings or in mobile gas chambers in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. And the death camps were operating by 1942 after the Wannsee Conference where Nazi leaders planned the “Final Solution.” And you recount that Rabbi Wise reported to FDR that the Nazis began using lethal Zyklon-B gas at places like Auschwitz to kill thousands of Jews and other prisoners.
And it may surprise many viewers that 4.5 million of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust were already dead by the autumn of 1943.
Lynn Novick: I agree with everything you said. That was a very good summary.
What I would say when we think about America's response is that we didn't have boots on the ground in Europe then. Once the mass killing started, it happened very quickly. And that industrial scale was quite chaotic, but it turned out horribly because it was not that difficult to kill a lot of people quickly if that's what you wanted to do and you were determined to do it.
As this was happening, there wasn't much we could have done to prevent it or to stop it given our military situation on the ground. This killing was happening in parts of Europe that were quite far from anywhere American soldiers would ever get to. We never got deep into Germany really.
The Germans did some killing in Germany and the horrible camps that were liberated there at the end of the war were really the remnants of the process. The massive killing happened in what we would call now killing centers and they were deep in Poland, in places that Americans never got to. For us, it was important to line up the timelines of what happened and when and where when in thinking about the American response.
The challenge here is that nobody knew what was going to happen. The war started in 1939 and America didn't get involved until 1941. Before 1939 would have been the time to encourage people to get out of the parts of Europe where Hitler was going to go. But that's all that can be said with the benefit of hindsight.
Robin Lindley: Your series does not shrink from portraying the ghastly and horrific reality of the Holocaust. You present images of the mass killing centers and heartbreaking films of dead and sick and dying prisoners during the liberation of the death camps.
Lynn Novick: That was important to us in terms of the visual representation of the story, and we could not show our viewers very much of what Americans had not yet seen. So, most Americans didn't see any images of what we think of as the Holocaust, until the spring of 1945. Auschwitz was liberated in the winter of 1945, and there were some brief mentions of that, but Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet troops.
The true horror was not clear to Americans until Buchenwald and Mauthausen and Bergen-Belsen and other camps were liberated and Western cameras were there. We held off on showing that material until the end of the film. When we're talking about the killing earlier in the film, we show some of the sites where it happened and the memorials there, which we filmed ourselves.
I think seeing is believing and we are trying to get the point across that not just for Americans but probably for people around the world the mass killing was covered in the media in print and, little by little, the realities began to accrue on the scale of killing and the scale of persecution, but it wasn't until the images came out that people could understand it.
Robin Lindley: And it’s stunning that, even after the war, there were still severe restrictions on refugees to the United States when there were millions of Jews and others who were displaced in the ruins of Europe.
Lynn Novick: For us, that's one of the saddest parts of the story in a way, because then the US couldn’t say that we didn't know. We couldn’t say that, if we had known, we would have been more welcoming, more generous, because at that point we did know what the people who had survived had been through, what they had lost, why they couldn't go home. They had lost their families. They had lost their possessions. They had lost their livelihoods. All they had left was just the fact that they were alive in many cases. And they had nowhere to go.
And there weren't that many people left, frankly, who had survived and still Americans were not disposed to make any exceptions to the policy to let them in. Little by little we did let some in, but it was a battle that shouldn't have been, in my opinion.
Robin Lindley: You share a much more nuanced story about the United States and the Holocaust than most of us have learned. I think viewers will be struck by the extensive research and the riveting story the series presents about how the United States responded to an international crisis brought on by a brutal dictatorship in Europe, and how the response was influenced by our own history. How do you see the resonance for the story today as we continue to struggle with racism and white supremacy, restrictive immigration laws, domestic terrorism, foreign policy challenges, and serious threats to democracy?
Lynn Novick: When we started working on the film or thinking about it, it was 2015, and Barack Obama was still president. Now, that feels like a lifetime ago, frankly, with everything that has happened since.
I wish the film were not so relevant to today. I really am deeply disturbed, and I know that Ken and Sarah are and everybody who we worked on the series is disturbed by what we see happening all around us, not just in the United States, but around the world.
But if we speak about America, there will be surges of white supremacy, racism, antisemitism, hate speech, and bigotry. It has become mainstreamed and moved from some fringe corner of the far right to “mainstream media” and to the White House under the previous occupant. He and his allies continue to use the rhetoric of hate and dehumanization of immigrants with racist tropes and fear to attain the goals they have for the society. The breakdown of social norms, the breakdown of democratic norms, the breakdown of civil society, and the rise of propaganda and lies to serve them is truly frightening.
This film is relevant in so many ways and we wish it weren't, but we're eager to share it with the public for all those reasons. We stopped editing the film last winter when we had to finish it to get it ready for broadcast, but more events have happened that could still be relevant, and there will be more things that happen next week. In other words, it's hard to put a pin in when we will have an ending to our film and we stand by that. But since we made the film, I feel there's still more.
The story continues in ways that are very worrisome. We're grateful to share it and hope that it can contribute in some ways to at a deeper understanding of the fragility of our democracy and the vulnerability of the institutions that many of us take for granted and the hard work it takes for every generation to preserve them and not to take them for granted.
Robin Lindley: I appreciate those heartfelt comments, and the timeliness of the film when our democracy is imperiled. And your expert, Professor Timothy Snyder, has written brilliantly about the fate of democracies and reality of fascism in history.
Lynn Novick: Indeed. I was listening to another historian earlier who studies the rise of fascism and he pointed out that, in many cases, or maybe all cases, fascism has emerged in democracies. Countries that have fair elections and an open society and a free press also have stresses, dislocations, insecurities and tensions in the society. That's fertile ground for fascism to rise and to once it rises, then all bets are off.
Robin Lindley: Your documentary represents an opportunity for viewers to reflect on the fate of our democracy and our checkered history as these threats again emerge.
Lynn Novick: It's been quite a journey for everyone to work on while this has been happening. It’s been very, very sobering.
Robin Lindley: I really appreciate you bearing with me and sharing the remarkable back story of your powerful new series, Lynn. Congratulations.
Lynn Novick: I was just going to say I always enjoy our conversations. I think you are so thoughtful and it's really great to be able to go in depth and explore some of the things that we have tried to explain in the film. Thank you for taking the time to watch it and to have this conversation.
Robin Lindley: That’s very kind Lynn. It’s a gift for me to talk with you and other bright people who add so much to our understanding of the past and where we are now. Thank you for your brilliant contributions, Lynn, and especially for this revealing and powerful new documentary. I wish every American could view this illuminating and timely film on our history.
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based attorney, writer, and features editor for the History News Network (historynewsnetwork.org). His work also has appeared in Writer's Chronicle, Bill Moyers.com, Re-Markings, Salon.com, Crosscut, Documentary, ABA Journal, Huffington Post, and more. Most of his legal work has been in public service including as a staff attorney in federal agencies and with the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations. His writing often focuses on the history of human rights, conflict, medicine, art, social justice, and culture. His email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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