Q&A With Ken Burns on His Film ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’

THere is the neon sign that Ken Burns uses to spend so much of his time in Walpole, New Hampshire’s editing room. The sign is in cursive, all lower-case, and it simply says: “it’s complicated.”

Those words capture the sentiment of so many of Burns’s films—the Civil War, the Vietnam War, the American Dust Bowl; The Central Park Five; Thomas Jefferson. Even the happy history of baseball and jazz—the topics of two other Burns films—were made more complex by racial bigotry and Black exclusion.

“Complication and undertow are the elements of human existence and the human story,” Burns says.

Burns now takes on the most difficult tale in his life. This new, three-part series will debut on September 18th at PBS stations as well as PBS Documentaries Prime Video Channel. The Holocaust and the United States, examining what America did and didn’t do—and could have or should have done—to save at least some of the victims of the Holocaust before the slaughter began or even as it was underway. History shows that America was not able to provide sanctuary for most European Jews fleeing Nazism. This is true of all countries. As now, the nation was dominated by nativist feelings. The America First movement ignited parts of the political system. And then as now restrictive immigration laws restrained the potential flow of new immigrants.

TIME spoke with Burns about the lessons learned—and unlearned—by that dark passage in America’s past, the process of making this latest film, and how the story it tells fits into his larger oeuvre exploring the American experience. For clarity and ease of reading, the text has been slightly edited.

TIME: How did you get involved in this story, and how do we help?

Burns: In 2015, we sat down and offered to make this movie in our home. The Holocaust Museum was born. [in Washington, DC] approached us and said, “We’re mounting this exhibition called ‘Americans and the Holocaust’ and we think it would make a great film.” We said, “Great. Could we collaborate with you? Do you know of any scholars who might be able to help? Are you able to help us find the correct archives? Can you help us identify some survivors that we would have the possibility of interviewing?” We’d been thinking about this film for years and years. After the World War II documentary we made in 2007, people bombarded me on the road, saying, “Why didn’t we bomb the rail lines at Auschwitz? FDR was an antisemite,” and many other things that betrayed a kind of naive conventional wisdom or some sort of conspiracy ideas. So we were saying. [to ourselves], “You know, we need to do something on the U.S. and the Holocaust.”

Do you think the U.S. should or could have responded to the Holocaust as a result of watching the movie? From 1933-1945, approximately 125,000 Germans, mainly Jewish, immigrated from Germany to the United States. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum—a fraction of the 300,000 left idling on waiting lists in 1940 alone and the nearly 500,000 in 1938 and 1939.)

We let in more human beings than any other sovereign nation and if we had let in 10 times that number, I still would have given us an F—a failing grade. [Congressional quotas]Franklin Roosevelt was not allowed to allow in more persons. It was the Great Depression. It was the worst economic cataclysm in human history and jobs were scarce and politicians were terrified of their base, as we say today, and they didn’t want to let anyone in who was going to take one of their constituent’s jobs. There was always an excuse—about money, or about otherness. There were people trying to draw racial lines. [about European Jews], but there’s only one race—the human race.

How global was blindness in the Holocaust? The Évian conferenceAfter all, they were in 1938 [during which representatives of 32 nations, including the U.S., met in France to discuss how to accommodate Jewish refugees and all of them either kept their quotas tight or closed their doors entirely].

This was a serious problem for every country. The Australians, for example, said, “We don’t have an internal refugee problem and we don’t want to create one.” But again, it became all about the question of otherness. You create a Holocaust when you draw distinctions among groups of people. [Historian] Deborah Lipstadt says in the film, “The time to stop a Holocaust is before it happens.”

Was this the most difficult film you made?

The Holocaust had to be given a human face. It is difficult to see the 6 million. It’s just a statistic, like saying Ted Williams batted .406 in 1941. We tried to use first-person voices. There’s a poignant letter that we added at the last minute in which a man says, “I just want the world to know that someone named David Berger once lived.” He knows he’s going to die, and he just needs to do that. It is important to understand that Schmuel Yeager, his wife, and four children were there with him. Schmuel was killed in the gas chamber while the other three died horribly.

This film fits into the larger scope of your work exploring American experiences.

I don’t know. That will be up to someone else. I do know I won’t work on a more important film than this one. When we’re making a movie I’m what’s known as the scratch narrator. I do the voicing throughout because we’re constantly changing the script for years and then at the very end, when we’re 98% of the way through, we bring in the actual narrator—in this case Peter Coyote—because why waste his time if we’re going to change an “an” to a “the” in the middle of a sentence? I can tell you this is the first time in a script in which I’ve ever just broken down and cried after reading draft one.

America’s relative inaction during the Holocaust seems of a piece with our refusal to act during the Rwandan genocide in 1994 or our recent shambolic exit from Afghanistan, which has left millions of women and girls in danger. Do we have a culture that doesn’t learn?

It’s not just Rwanda. Bosnia, Syria and other countries were also included. But it’s not about a learning curve. Samantha Power [author of A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide]She is extremely thoughtful and knows how to arrange things early. It’s about figuring out ways to arrest the momentum [of a Holocaust or genocide]. You can miss hundreds of miles if you make the Titanic move just one degree off its course. You need to have tough conversations with your domestic politicians, and you must also accept the fact that bureaucratic decisions are the only way to make it happen. So it’s too facile to say human beings don’t learn.

Did you make the film because of Holocaust deniers? Or do they just seem like a fringe group, such as truthers and birthers?

They aren’t a fringe group anymore. They’ve been given space and room to grow by a person who used to occupy the highest office in the land, right? But that doesn’t motivate why we made the film. You will find moments of truth in the film. [a soldier] writing back to his dad about what he’s seen at one of the liberated concentration camps says it’s not just that the people who did this should be brought to justice. It’s that their philosophy can’t be allowed to continue. He’s a GI and he understands how easy it is to export hate.

Is there a resemblance to the 1930s or 1940s in the America First Movement’s recent return?

Yes, it does. Hitler would travel around Germany promising to restore Germany’s greatness. It wasn’t just big cities. He’d fly into middle sized cities and always want to be back and sleep at one of his properties at night. The America First thing was a kind of anti-war sentiment that you had wrapped up in a nativist cloak. It had a lot people in it. [Charles]Lindbergh and other virulent antisemites were included. Since almost fifty years, I’ve been making movies about America and the United States. Use this site. When anyone tells you there’s a “them,” that’s authoritarianism. They are all political, scientific, and biological fictions. These distinctions are intended to cause grievances.

So what’s next for you? Are you already working?

Next is the film called American Buffalo. This article focuses on how the destruction of the buffalo led to the end of the American Indian way life. In a strange twist, the Native Americans and buffalo were romanticized in 1913. The nickel featured an Indian brave and a Buffalo on one side. Later, the buffalo used to model the coin was taken to New York’s meatpacking area and slaughtered. We’re also working on a film on Leonardo da Vinci, a six-part series on the American Revolution, another on Reconstruction, and one on Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society. These are all in progress.

Here are more must-read stories from TIME

To Jeffrey Kluger at

Here are more must-read stories from TIME

To Jeffrey Kluger at


Related Articles

Back to top button