One of Ken Burns’ first films celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty.
Immigrants described their joy at seeing the statue and feeling the impact of its words: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free,”
Now, 37 years later, the statue sometimes appears in Burns latest film – the richly emotional, six-hour-plus “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” at 8 p.m. Sept. 18-20 on PBS. We’re soon reminded that most of those masses were blocked from the U.S. and other countries; for many, that was a death sentence.
“We’ve always had the idea of welcoming immigrants,” Burns told the Television Critics Association. “But we’ve also always had the idea that we didn’t want to let anyone else in.”
There were a few hints of that in his 1985 film, he recalled. “James Baldwin said that the Statue of Liberty is a joke, meaning nothing to Black people.”
Now, we see a time when that was vital. Jews, desperate to flee Nazi rule, kept being turned away.
Why? Sarah Botstein – who produced and directed the films with Burns and Lynn Novick – said she had assumed “we didn’t know. And that’s why we didn’t take action.”
Not so. “Kristallnacht” – a German rampage that destroyed 267 synagogues and 7,000 Jewish-owned businesses, while arresting 30,000 Jewish men – was back in 1938. It made the front pages of newspapers throughout the U.S. — including papers that remained staunchly isolationist.
On one hand, the film says, some Americans flatly spoke against Jews. Henry Ford had his own anti-Jewish newspaper … Father Charles Coughlin raged on radio broadcasts that reached millions … Charles Lindbergh gave speeches before massive crowds.
On the other was something more subtle … a sort of anti-newcomer sentiment. “You can always find someone on the step below you,” said Daniel Mendelsohn, a historian and author who wrote about an uncle who spent years trying, futilely, to reach America. “That’s the person who becomes anathema.”
At one point, annual immigration topped one million. In 1924, a law attempted to cap that at 150,000, with a quota per country. It banned most Asian immigrants and leaned toward countries that were mainly white and Protestant.
That law remained until 1965, squelching refugees’ efforts. Other nations did the same. In 1939 the M.S. St. Louis took its 937 passengers, most of them Jewish, to Cuba, Canada and the U.S.; all rejected the refugees. They eventually went to then-neutral European nations; by the end of the Holocaust, about a third had been killed.
There are, certainly, stories of individual heroics. The film points to Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish architect who led an effort that may have saved 120,000 lives. It traces other stories, including Anne Frank, who was 13 when she started her historic diary; we get the vivid memories of a former classmate whose mother later married Anne’s widowed father.
But alongside the idealism, we see hints of hatred and exclusion. Similar stories filled the news, in the time (five to seven years) it took to make the film.
“It’s been eerie,” Novick said, “to see the echoes of the past louder and louder … The resurgence of anti-Semitism and white supremacy and racism and hate speech (had) been sort of on the fringe, (but started) moving toward the mainstream while we were making the film.”