Ken Burns tackles U.S. role in Holocaust: 'I won’t work on a more important film than this'

History books laud the United States' key role in smashing Nazi Germany, thereby ending the most barbaric mass killing in recorded time: the Holocaust.

But as many of the documentaries made by Ken Burns and his team at Florentine Films make clear, the devil lurks in the details.

In “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” a six-hour, three-part series airing Sunday. Tuesday and Wednesday on PBS (check local listings), Burns and collaborators Sarah Botstein and Lynn Novick draw parallels between the 1930s rise of Adolf Hitler and contemporaneous antisemitic sentiments and racist laws in the U.S. that stifled this nation’s response.

The filmmakers go beyond a retelling of the horrors that saw 6 million Jews and countless others die at the hands of the Third Reich, and they focus on what U.S. officials and American citizens knew and did – and notably did not do – as the killings intensified. Despite much sympathy, bombings of concentration camp rail lines were deferred, and quotas on European immigrants tightened.

The team behind Florentine Films: Sarah Botstein (left), Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

“I won’t work on a more important film than this,” says the prolific Burns, who along with Botstein spoke with USA TODAY in separate interviews about the new film. Their comments are edited and condensed for clarity. 

Question: When did the idea for this series surface?

Sarah Botstein: We decided to make the film back in 2015, and the world both domestically and abroad looked very different back then. For us, the central tension was always, are we a nation of immigrants, a country of varied voices, or nativists with a white supremacist tendency, which we are seeing now? I’m hoping we’re the former. But we’re standing on the precipice.

Were you trying to spotlight the nativist overtones in our current political climate?

A Nazi officer checks the papers of Jewish residents in Poland in 1941.

Ken Burns: You don’t say “wink, wink, look, isn’t it like today,” but there are echoes. Mark Twain said history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. History, however, is always our best teacher, and in part our documentary asks why we are susceptible to such evils. By investigating we perhaps have a bulwark against their recurrence. And as one of our interview subjects says in the film, “The best time to stop a Holocaust is before it starts.”

Your documentary explains ways in which America and Americans helped, but also examines the people and forces that were opposed to intervention. Is that tension always there in our society?

Burns: The film certainly celebrates the many Americans who did the right thing: The people who welcomed refugees into their homes, the people who went to France and helped Jews escape. The forgers and bribers who worked tirelessly against the Nazi regime.

An immigrant family looks at Statue of Liberty from Ellis Island around 1930. The U.S. started to severely restrict immigration as the 1930s and 1940s progressed, making it difficult for those fleeing Nazi atrocities in Germany to find refuge.

Botstein: Did Americans end the war? Yes. Could we all have done better before and after it ended to help the millions who died or became refugees? Absolutely. We have always struggled to define who we want to be, and who is a real American.

Burns: One of the core principles of being American is that all men are created equal and have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If you reject that, you’re not an American. This is so simple, really. Take the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Do you want to live in Bedford Falls or in Pottersville? If you want to live in Pottersville, I cannot help you. I want an interconnection with people, regardless of faith or how recently we came here.

Famed aviator Charles Lindbergh initially had great support as the head of an isolationist group called America First, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had his hands full trying to convince many lawmakers that the U.S. should help. This may be news to younger generations.

Burns: We do hope this film brings an awareness to young people about what happened both here and in Europe, particularly given the amount of Holocaust disinformation out there. It takes hold like mold, and we have a chance to counteract it.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to navigate a political environment that was filled with U.S. politicians who were adamant about the country avoiding the conflict in Europe, but also disinclined to take in refugees.

Botstein: Making Roosevelt a more complicated character was a challenge, but it needed to be made clear he could not operate in isolation. He understood both the humanitarian and military crisis.

Burns: The U.S. may have indeed done more than any sovereign nation to help out during World War II, but we didn’t do enough. But the documentary isn’t so much about that as it is about the Holocaust and the millions who vanished. It’s about what we have lost in each of these lives. What cure for cancer wasn’t discovered, what symphony wasn’t written or what child didn’t get to be raised with love, all due to a machine of hatred. 

What lessons did each of you learn making this documentary? 

Botstein: My big takeaway is this experience made me way more involved in my local school board, in local and congressional politics. It all matters. I’m constantly depressed by how many people do not vote. That’s the call to action. It’s a privilege to live in a democracy and in a free country, and you must vote, and not just every four years.

Burns: I’d say it’s that we can’t forget it’s about the individuals. Six million dead isn’t a number we can comprehend, which is why in the film we share letters from three people destined to die. Letters in which they’re just saying, “I’m writing to you because I want you to know that a person with this name existed.” There’s a story behind everyone, stories that should never be forgotten.