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New Ken Burns documentary 'The U.S. and the Holocaust' examines America's response


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: A new documentary from Ken Burns and his colleagues begins on PBS on Sunday. It is a different window into the Holocaust, with a focus on this country. Burns is calling it the most important film we will ever make — he will ever make.

Jeffrey Brown has a look for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Narrator: Knowing the Nazis had already begun the mass murder of Jews, that they were actually determined to eliminate all the Jews of Europe.

Jeffrey Brown: The Holocaust, the murder of some six million Jews and millions of others, an ideology that drove Nazi Germany and aimed at wiping out the entire Jewish population of Europe.

Person: One of the stories we tell ourselves is that we're a land of immigrants. But in moments of crisis, it becomes very hard for us to live up to those stories.

Jeffrey Brown: "The U.S. and the Holocaust," a six-hour documentary presented over three nights, shifts the focus to make this an American story as well, one that raises troubling questions of this country's history and actions.

Ken Burns, Documentary Filmmaker: We didn't make the Holocaust happen. But the antisemitism in the United States, racism in the United States, the xenophobia, what we did with our Native population all contribute and are part of a story.

And interesting, perhaps paradoxically, by telling the story of the U.S. and the Holocaust, not just the government, but the people, it actually forced us to see and look at and think about how we restructure the story of the Holocaust itself.

Jeffrey Brown: Ken Burns has lived and worked on rural farmland in Walpole, New Hampshire, for more than four decades.

Person: Jews, Hitler charged, were parasites, not Germans.

Jeffrey Brown: On a visit last year, we saw him poring over footage and crafting language for this film.

We spoke again recently in New York with Burns, along with co-producer Sarah Botstein.

Ken Burns: I think, when we began, there was a sense that this was filling in a kind of gap in the quilt of all the different subjects that we have done.

But, as this project accrued, it just — it had a kind of urgency and a kind of heartbreakingness to it that has changed who I am as a human beings.

Jeffrey Brown: The idea was partly inspired by an exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

And, recently, Burns, Botstein and co-producer Lynn Novick were back to talk about their new film.

Gretchen Skidmore is the director of educational initiatives after museums.

Gretchen Skidmore, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: That students come into the classroom oftentimes thinking that the Holocaust didn't happen. So we know there's interest, but there's also a lot of questions that students are bringing.

Deborah Lipstadt, Historian: It's not been released by a Jewish organization.

Jeffrey Brown: The film features historian such as Deborah Lipstadt.

Deborah Lipstadt: It's coming from a governmental source. It's much harder to dismiss it.

Jeffrey Brown: And now older survivors who escaped to the U.S. as children.

Person: If we can make it clear, and graphic, and understandable, not as something to imitate but as a warning of what can happen to human beings.

Jeffrey Brown: It explores American attitudes in the 1920s and '30s, the growing antipathy and often outright xenophobia and hatred toward immigrants.

Person: The man of the old stock is being crowded out of many country districts by these foreigners.

Jeffrey Brown: To the passage of laws that restricted Asians and set strict quotas on people from Eastern Europe, especially impacting Jews, even as news stories made clear what was happening in Germany.

One way to bring this home, shedding new light on the familiar story of Anne Frank and her father, Otto.

Narrator: Otto Frank stepped up his efforts to try to get to the United States.

Sarah Botstein, Co-Director, "The U.S. and the Holocaust": Anne Frank is arguably most young people's introduction to this subject, this history. And when we started making the film, it came to light that Otto Frank had desperately tried to get to the United States.

And he had a lot of connections here. He knew the right kinds of people who had the right kinds of money, who had the right kinds of influence. And so…

Jeffrey Brown: This was history you didn't know?

Sarah Botstein: I didn't know that.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Sarah Botstein: So it seemed, initially, on the surface, how, if you're making a film about the U.S. and the Holocaust, why are you going to include Anne Frank? And then, actually, the fact that we were including Anne Frank and telling her story in, I think, a different way became very important.

This is my great grandfather, Max, my great-grandmother, Bella (ph).

Jeffrey Brown: Botstein, it turned out, was learning more about her own Jewish family history as well. She showed us photos that tell a stark story of who survived and who did not.

Sarah Botstein: This side of the family were able to get out. This side of the family was wiped out.

Ken Burns: The quotas are so pernicious with regard to European refugees, particularly Jewish refugees trying to get out, that it creates a bottleneck that results in the deaths, the unnecessary deaths, I would say, of tens of thousands of more people. That's on Roosevelt. It's on the State Department. It's on the Congress, but it's also on the American people.

Jeffrey Brown: The U.S. did take in more than 225,000 refugees, more than any other nation. But how much more could have been done to save people? Could the military have slowed or even stopped the killing at Nazi concentration camps? And what of the political and other calculations of President Roosevelt himself?

Here, we see a complicated and contentious history. But there's also an urgent contemporary takeaway.

Reporter: Hundreds of white nationalists storming the University of Virginia.

Jeffrey Brown: A sequence near the end of the film includes some very recent events, Charlottesville chants of "Jews will not replace us," a "Camp Auschwitz" sweatshirt at the Capitol on January 6.

Burns and Botstein were very aware of the echoes of history.

Sarah Botstein: The fragility of democracy, the warning signs that we're seeing around the world and here, and how we have to understand and confront our past to move forward.

Ken Burns: You know, Deborah Lipstadt in the film says, the time to stop a genocide is before it happens. The time to save a democracy is before it gets away. But those institutions are now under assault in essentially fundamental ways that threaten the existence of the United States of America as a democratic, small D democratic country.

And that's clear from watching this. The time to save a democracy is before it's lost.

Jeffrey Brown: The documentary series "The U.S. and the Holocaust" begins Sunday night.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Judy Woodruff: We're talking about appointment viewing.

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