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Ken Burns connects the past and the present in 'The U.S. and the Holocaust'

Ken Burns' new three-part documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust, explores what everyday Americans knew — or didn't know — about what the Nazis were doing in Europe.


Other segments from the episode on September 15, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 15, 2022: Interview with Buzz Bissinger; Review of the U.S. and the Holocaust



This is FRESH AIR. The latest documentary from Ken Burns and company premieres Sunday on PBS. It's called "The U.S. And The Holocaust." And it's a six-hour program with two-hour segments running on public television Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Ken Burns is executive producer and also one of the directors, along with Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: In his newest documentary series, "The U.S. And The Holocaust," Ken Burns and his collaborators are revisiting some very familiar ground. Geoffrey C. Ward, who wrote the script for this new series, also wrote the Ken Burns epic documentaries "The War," about World War II, and "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History," in which Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt figured prominently, as they do here. And Ward wrote "The Civil War," which put Ken Burns on the map in the first place. More than 30 years later, the structure and methods of a Ken Burns production are so familiar as to be almost comforting. And "The U.S. And The Holocaust" employs them all. There are celebrity voices reading the words of historical figures. This time, the voices include Meryl Streep, Paul Giamatti, Liam Neeson and Werner Herzog. Photographs are used patiently and poetically, revealing new elements as they pan and zoom in and out. Music and sound effects make every moment both more real and more emotional. And a Ken Burns documentary series always starts with a clear-cut summary of things to come, provided this time by frequent Burns narrator Peter Coyote.


PETER COYOTE: As the catastrophe of what would come to be called the Holocaust unfolded, Americans heard about Nazi persecution of Jews and others on the radio, read about it in their newspapers and magazines and glimpsed it in newsreels. Some Americans responded by denouncing the Nazis, marching in protest and boycotting German goods. Individual Americans performed heroic acts to save individual Jews. Some government officials battled red tape and bigotry to bring Jewish refugees to America. In the end, the United States admitted some 225,000 refugees from Nazi terror, more than any other sovereign nation took in. And by defeating Nazi Germany on the battlefield, the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and their allies stopped the killing of the surviving Jewish people in Europe. But during the years when the escape was still possible, the American people and their government proved unwilling to welcome more than a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of desperate people seeking refuge.

BIANCULLI: "The U.S. And The Holocaust," like many Ken Burns history projects, examines his subject from the bottom up. Instead of interviewing military experts, he talks to survivors or their relatives. When historians and other experts are heard from, they discuss events from that same perspective. In this case, they try to understand and explain what it was like to endure Nazi atrocities or even believe they were happening. Here's writer Daniel Mendelsohn in Part II.


DANIEL MENDELSOHN: Two million Eastern European Jews were killed just in what they now call the Shoah by bullets. I'll never forget a survivor that I interviewed. He said, you know, as it was happening to us, we couldn't believe it. So how is anybody else going to believe it? If they to whom it was happening could scarcely believe the savagery and the sadism and the depravity of what was happening, how are the relatives in America even possibly going to imagine?

BIANCULLI: The documentary spends a great deal of time delving into the intricacies of national politics not only in Germany, where Adolf Hitler rose from prison to dictatorial power, but in America, where waves of isolationism kept the U.S. out of the war for years. It shows that most everyday Americans were not unaware of what the Nazis were doing in Europe. Throughout the documentary, we see newspaper headlines proving that the facts indeed were out there. Yet they were questioned by many until after the war, when concentration camps were liberated and their atrocities documented. This newsreel excerpt is from Part III.


ED HERLIHY: These newsreel and Signal Corps pictures were officially recorded for posterity. Six furnaces, each holding three bodies, were used in cremating the dead. Don't turn away. Look - horror unbelievable yet true.

BIANCULLI: Sunday's opening installment stops in the year 1938, and Tuesday's Part II goes up to 1942. Wednesday's concluding two hours cover the end of World War II and its aftermath - the formation of Israel, the Nuremberg war trials, even the invention and introduction of the word genocide. It's not until the final five minutes that the story is brought fully up to date. But those final sounds and images that conclude "The U.S. And The Holocaust" - scenes with which we're all too familiar of hate crimes and hate-filled marches - connect the past to the present without Peter Coyote or anyone else having to say a word. Once again, Ken Burns and company have made history come to life and reminded us that our life right now is indeed history in the making.

GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. He reviewed Ken Burns' new PBS series "The U.S. And The Holocaust." It begins Sunday. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interview with Sheryl Lee Ralph, who won an Emmy Monday for her performance in the comedy series "Abbott Elementary," or David Enrich, author of the new book "Servants Of The Damned: Giant Law Firms, Donald Trump, And The Corruption Of Justice," or Nina Totenberg, NPR's legal affairs correspondent, whose new memoir "Dinners With Ruth" is in part about Totenberg's friendship with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. And I'd recommend subscribing to our newsletter, which has behind-the-scenes stories about our show. You can subscribe via our website I'm Terry Gross.


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