By Susan Kandell Wilkofsky
“The U.S. and the Holocaust” is a three-part documentary, directed and produced by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, which explores how Americans (and America) responded to the rise of Nazism and the mass murder of Jews across Europe.
The series begins with some sobering statistics. In 1933, there were 9 million Jews in Europe and by 1945, two of three were gone — murdered. There is a woman looking out a window with perhaps her father and mother by her side. And then the realization strikes you — two of those three will be gone forever.
Partly inspired by the United States Holocaust Museum’s exhibition, “Americans and the Holocaust,” the six-hour in-depth documentary attempts to enlighten us about what our government (and the American people) knew and what they did (and didn’t do) as the tragedy became more and more apparent.
If you say, “I’m pretty knowledgeable and I think I know pretty much everything there is to know about this subject,” you’d be wrong!
As a film programmer, I’m often asked by folks if what they are about to see on the screen will upset them. It’s difficult to explore this issue without showing some horrible truths. So, yes, there will be some uncomfortable moments. But you must watch. Even Ken Burns, during a Public Broadcasting Service press talk, revealed that in his estimation, “This may be the most important doc[umentary] I ever make.” See if you agree with him.
One of the most poignant moments in the series was voiced by writer Daniel Mendelsohn while interviewing a survivor. “I couldn’t believe it myself and it was happening to me! How could I expect anyone else to believe?”
I was fortunate to speak with Sarah Botstein, who has for more than two decades produced some of the most popular and acclaimed documentaries on PBS. She co-directed and produced (with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick) “The U.S. and the Holocaust.”
Below are excerpts from our conversation.
Susan Kandell Wilkofsky: I am so honored to speak with you today, Sarah. There’s so much to unpack and discuss — let’s jump right in! First, BRAVO! This was your directorial debut. You’ve all done an amazing job! How long have you been working with Ken Burns?
Sarah Botstein: I’ve been working with Ken and with Lynn since 1997. The first film I worked on was in the history of jazz. And then we did a big series on the Second World War, a smaller film on the history of Prohibition. And then I did the Vietnam series with them and a smaller film on the life and work of Ernest Hemingway most recently.
SKW: I’ve been programming Jewish content for my film series for over 21 years and I’m always amazed to hear new Holocaust stories. But I really should not be surprised because there are probably 6 million stories out there waiting to be told. But, this particular story obviously has relevance to today; why this story and why now?
SB: Well, that was a great question. Thank you for asking it. In 2015, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington came to us to tell us about the exhibition that they were curating and planning on Americans in the Holocaust, where they were doing a multiyear, very deeply researched look at Americans’ response to the Holocaust. And did we think it would be an interesting film? All of us jumped at it immediately and said, “Yes!” It’s an incredibly interesting way to get at a topic that we all think we’ve learned or [we] know a lot about. And so they went off and did their exhibition and we went off and started to make our film. We began filming interviews and really working specifically on this film after the Vietnam series aired. So in 2018, we did the first round of interviews, and Geoffrey Ward began to really write the script. We worked very closely with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. They assisted us in accessing archives and helped us meet some of the people that you meet in the film. They also told us about some of the scholars that we ended up interviewing. And so I think for us, as American filmmakers, looking at American history, the challenge of taking a subject that a lot of people think they know a lot about and thinking about the Holocaust through the American response to that event, felt like a really new and different way to not just show the history of the humanitarian crisis of the Second World War. I think the film is asking is what kind of a country are we — are we Emma Lazarus and a land of immigrants and open borders and many varied voices in many varied people? Or do we want to lean into this more nativist, white supremacist, complicated, racist, antisemitic history? And we’ve been grappling with that for a very long time.
SKW: And you brought up the point about a subject that people think they know a lot about. I certainly thought I did. But that’s why I will urge everyone to watch.
SB: This is so interesting… taking a topic that people think they know a lot about. Right? So you’re at a dinner party and you ask somebody about the Holocaust or the American response to it. You know, you will probably get a response about, 6 million Jews died. But how did they die? And where did they die? Sometimes you hear, “The St. Louis was coming to America and everybody on the ship died.” Neither of those things is true. FDR was X or Y — well, nothing is that simple. I think it’s such an exciting and important challenge to try to get at something people think they know about, and think about it in a different way and think it relevant to today, as you were just saying. In 2015, we didn’t know how relevant the film was going to be in 2022.
SKW: Yeah. Well, unfortunately. “Sigh.” It is interesting because when people ask me what I’m working on and I tell them about this program, the answer that invariably comes back is, “Well, Roosevelt was obviously antisemitic.What else is there to know?” And when I tell them they just have to watch to understand the politics and nuances — it’s not that cut and dried.
SB: Well, thank you for saying that. You know, I think we spent a lot of time in the editing room wrestling with how much to show, when to show it, because if you’re doing a film about the American response to this event, you have to make sure that you’re signaling to the audience that Americans didn’t see a lot until the end. We were very, very careful in making the film about what we’re seeing and when we’re seeing it and why we’re seeing it. So, I do think it is important to look at some of this tough, tough stuff for different reasons. We would never do anything gratuitous. I think we spent a lot of time talking with our editors about respecting the people who died, their families, their memories.
My takeaway from making the film is that it’s really important, if you’re privileged to live in a free and democratic society, that you vote. And I’m always shocked at how few people in our country actually exercise their right to vote. It’s surprising! Forget in a big federal presidential election; just at your local school board election, your vote really makes a difference. It’s a privilege to live in a democracy and I would never not vote. And I take my kids, and I have since they were six months old, to the voting booth, because I think that’s your responsibility to live in a democracy.
SKW: I couldn’t agree more. And PBS is always very good about linking educational materials with everything they do. I imagine there are corresponding educational lessons to be learned for every appropriate level in school.
SB: And that’s one of the reasons why we work in public television. We spent the last year and a half working with different educational organizations, the Holocaust museum, Holocaust scholars and teachers. We gave a lot of thought on how to create six new lesson plans where they can use the content from the film for students in middle and high school to really engage with the material. And that was one of the most important parts of our job in the last year.
SKW: Yes, absolutely! To present it without an educational component would have been a lost opportunity. Besides the opening of the Holocaust museum exhibit, the film release date coincides with the Jewish High Holy Days — a time of introspection and repentance. I’m assuming that wasn’t an accident.
SB: We almost always broadcast our films in the middle or end of September and we’re always conscious of when the Jewish holidays are (the playoffs too!). We honestly didn’t choose the date because of the Jewish holidays. but since the Jewish people are celebrating the new year and the time of reflection before Yom Kippur, that’s a wonderful opportunity to have conversations around the film. But we do tend to broadcast in September, so I wouldn’t want to be misleading about that.
SKW: Since I am also a filmmaker, I’m always interested in the process and there was just an enormous amount of research, astonishing film clips! I have never seen the clip of Anne Frank looking out the window. It’s only five seconds long, but it is so powerful. Heartbreaking. There was so much material to sift through — how did you divide up the work?
SB: We all love to talk about this! I’ll say two things. One is our process of how we make our films and how we research, how we edit, when we shoot — all of that is the same regardless of the subject. So we approached the research for this film the way we did the Vietnam series, the life of Hemingway and the history of Prohibition. We have an extraordinary group of unbelievably talented producers and researchers, and we divide up. We have those who are totally expert in moving images, those who are total experts in the still photography, those who really understand the music of the time and the news reporting of the coverage. And we work together in a small office. And really for a couple of years, we are like a library, where we’re just gathering material. We’re looking at it, we’re thinking about what it is and we’re logging it into databases.
The editors go away and they take all the material and they put it together. And then we spend two years working with them. So even when we’re locked and we’re in post-production and we’re finishing, if some new image comes to us, we rearrange it or we learn something in the clearance process. We’ll switch it. We all love this part of our job! We really are kind of librarians and researchers, and we work with our scholars as much behind the camera [as possible] to help us understand. And we worked really closely with the Anne Frank museum and the Anne Frank estate. We really do a big, big, big, wide research. It’s a big deal, and we all love doing it!
SKW: And it shows! It’s interesting that you included Anne Frank and her family.
SB: Many have asked us why we decided to include Anne Frank and just by happenstance, when we started to make the film, it came to light that there were these letters and that there were visa applications. Otto Frank had tried to get here and he knew Charlie Strauss. There was a whole story, like many other Jews, trying to get to America. And the fact that Anne Frank is one of them I think will surprise audiences.
SKW: I also think it puts a very relatable face on it, especially for the children who have read the diary.
SB: She’s arguably the entry for many, many children, not just here, but around the world to this time period and to this subject.
SKW: So what can we learn from our behavior from 75, 80 years ago? Do you think we’ve learned anything? We are seeing some of the same issues: the rise in antisemitism, the racial divide, the white supremacist violence, prejudice against immigrants.
SB: When we decided to make the films, it was before Charlottesville and Pittsburgh. I think every generation is wrestling with this question of what kind of a country we are and what kind of a country we want to be. And, hopefully the more we learn from our history, the more we can push against those strands of our history.
SKW: So, what is the hope that you have for this film?
SB: I think Ken and Lynn and I always (Ken in particular) really want our films to spark conversation and debate and to engage audiences in these fundamental questions about what kind of a country we are and want to be. We want to have constructive and hard conversations about our history to have a better future.
SKW: So tell me what’s next for you? I’m assuming you’re working on something epic!
SB: I’m working with Ken on a big, big series we’re doing for 2025 on the history of the American Revolution, so, going back to our founding origin story. While we’re finishing that, Ken and I are also have a plan that’s very far in the future — a history of LBJ’s presidency, his time in office and the Great Society, which is a really interesting and fun project to be working on.
SKW: So you’ll be coming to Texas! Well, we invite you to come to Dallas and we’ll get you fitted for a cowboy hat.
(Laughter all around.)
SKW: Well, thank you so much for your time today, Sarah. I look forward to all your future works — I’ll be watching!
“The U.S. and the Holocaust,” a documentary series by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, airs on Public Broadcasting Service–KERA from 7 to 9 p.m. Sept. 18, 19 and 20.