Did Ken Burns Explain America and the Holocaust?

By Eliyho Matz

Finally we got the whole story: Americans hate Jews and others.  The nation’s mood has not changed, the past is the present, the present is the past. This according to filmmakers Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein. [Editors Note: “The US and the Holocaust” is a film by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein.]

The Mongols being Mongols, and not really knowing how to write or read, found qualified people to write “The Secret History of the Mongols.”  The people who wrote the history were of Chinese and Iranian descent and, not to be surprised, they glorified Genghis Khan.  So in America we got Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein.  The job they were given was, simply, tell a story and make sure that FD Roosevelt looks, appears, and is presented in such a way, that all who see the doc will be happy that we had such a President.  Sympathy should be aroused for the President — even though from a historian’s point of view, it is not needed or necessary.  Roosevelt was a great President.  How great? Well, he pulled the nation together when the nation was in dire trouble.  

But then, the title of the documentary is called “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” and what does that mean?  Well, what it does not mean is what the filmmakers did with it, interviewing individuals who tell us personal memories about themselves or their families!  The Holocaust is a much larger issue: how did it come to be that there was the massacre of almost the entire body of Jewry in Europe? — that is the meaning of the Holocaust.  And why did the Germans decide to kill the Jews?  Does anybody have an answer?  I do have one, but I am not going into it here.  In his doc the filmmakers present footage that we have seen before and probably will see again. 

So if she or he asks, “What did the world do to stop the killing?” Well, that should be what we really should ask.  Is the question a real question?  Or is it a non-question?  To me personally, that was always the question.  The filmmakers, not being historians, but rather bad collectors of film footage, and worst of all, associating or engaging themselves with some bad dudes whose historical perspectives are twisted, presented us with a fairytale of the first class quality of fairytales.   OK, finally Roosevelt under pressure is announcing the creation of a War Refugee Board.  Pay attention to the word “Refugee” — Hitler was not killing “Refugees,” Hitler was killing Jews, so how come the American response was using the wrong words to describe the massacre?  Using Mongol tricks.  As recorded in a Congressional hearing at the end of 1943, Peter Bergson protested that use of the word “Refugee,” and suggested unless someone does something to save European Jews, we might as well call them “potential corpses!”  The filmmakers, I guess, didn’t have time to look at the Congressional hearing. 

In any case, what is more historically important is to explain Roosevelt’s actions and behavior from the moment he tells the Jewish leadership the fact that he has the knowledge about the European situation.  By the way, the filmmakers tell us about the meeting but fail to tell that it was the only time in the war that the President met with such a delegation!!! 

Now, America’s response to the Holocaust is rather an important historical issue that the filmmakers have preferred not exactly to tell us.  Their story about Bergson is categorically wrong!  Their story about the formation of the War Refugee Board is wrong!  Morgenthau, the distinguished American Jew, was not behind it, and it was not even Pehle, who eventually ran this Board.  The creation of the War Refugee Board was the work of Bergson, Will Rogers, Jr., and Josiah E. Dubois, a lawyer at the Treasury.  It was Bergson who worked very closely with them.  Elbert Thomas and Guy Gillette, Bergson’s friends in the Senate, did their job, too; without their help too, Roosevelt would not have reacted! 

Is an American college student better off in his or her understanding of the Holocaust after seeing the filmmakers’ Holocaust fiasco?  I doubt it.  The filmmakers can twist and manipulate images, they can record individuals telling stories, but that will not hold for a long time.  History always plays tricks; someday someone will have to explain why for the entire year 1943 the American nation failed to stand up to one of the most horrific massacres in history.

For further reference, please see my short book “Auschwitz on the Potomac” for a start.

Also, freely available till Oct. 7, 2022, is a film by Pierre Sauvage, “Not Idly By—Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust.”  In addition, there is the film by Laurence Jarvik, “Who Shall Live and Who Die.

Eliyho Matz worked as Peter Bergson’s assistant for ten years. He is the author of “Auschwitz on the Potomac 1943: Hillel Kook, the Attempt to Save European Jewry and The Birth of the Israeli Nation” (2022) and “Who is an Israeli?” (2012)

Image: Left: Peter Bergson. Right: President Franklin D. Roosevelt

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They call me "NewsHound IV," because I'm a clever Finnegan, sniffing out stories all over the Boulder area. I love Jewish holidays because the food is GREAT, especially the brisket. Well all the food. I was a rescue pup and glad to be on the scent!

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One comment

  1. Pierre Sauvage’s “Not Idly By—Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust” was shown at last year’s virtual Boulder Jewish Film Festival. I