Could it happen here?
October 28, 2022
I have been a Ken Burns fan for years. His technique and artistry have taken everything from Country music to the Civil War, from disjointed history to present day entertainment and handled it superbly.
His loving treatment of Country music was praiseworthy. From the Civil War to Jazz, he has documented American history in an entertaining, frank and historically accurate manner.
In undertaking “The Holocaust” he has tackled a major challenge. This sensitive subject, written about, discussed, argued over and never forgotten is at the same time easy and yet almost impossible to discuss. It is easy because of the information available, the films, and the detailed history kept by the Germans themselves make what happened in the 1930s and 1940s accessible, accurate and terrifying.
This is a story that cannot fade into the background of times gone by. It cannot be shoved in a corner of the past. It is as relevant today as when word first trickled out of Nazi Germany that was so horrific it was indeed just about unbelievable.
That one man, obsessed with himself, taking advantage of an unsure public looking for leadership could destroy a system and a way of life. For Adolph Hitler, his target was the Jews. An easy target since antisemitism was rife in Europe as it always had been. It was the reason that so many Jews sought refuge and safety in the far off “paradise” called America.
Hitler ran for office in Berlin. He took just 32 percent of the vote for Chancellor — the top job in the new German government. It was enough with all those running that he became the winner.
Here in the U.S. we were consumed by a brutal depression that affected almost everybody. Who had time to be concerned about some “Madman” that far away. And Hitler was able somehow to have his major outrages almost secret.
Hitler sent his new army into the streets to assail anyone who looked Jewish. One day he ordered them to attack any business with a name that could be assumed as Jewish to break all the windows, damage the interior and write on the sidewalk or the broken window “Juden” — Jewish.
It has become known as “Krystalnacht.” It was the beginning of the horror. But, it drew little interest here in the U.S. It was shown in some newsreels and forgotten.
Adolph Hitler’s next move was to take away German citizenship from all Jews. Immediately the millions of Jews living in Germany became “Stateless Persons.” Many Jews knew it was only the beginning and began to flee the country.
Burns deftly shows how they escaped to France, England, Holland and anywhere else they thought they could be accepted. He has his narrator, Peter Coyote, describe the attitude in the United States in 1933 through 1938. Many citizens of the U.S. learning of the situation or seeing it in a newsreel wanted to accept at least some of these people.
At the time, the State Department was heavily Republican and extremely Conservative (frankly, it has not changed much). They refused to change the quotas on Europeans seeking Visas to come to the U.S. and specifically would not allow the Jews freshly frozen out of Germany to come here in any large number.
With a waning majority in Congress, Roosevelt did not have the power that he had in his first two terms. AND — the Roosevelts were a prominent family in the cities, towns and villages of the Upper Hudson Valley where Jews could not join Country Clubs and were not allowed to purchase a home in many of the Communities of the area.
In 1939 on September the first, Germany invaded Poland. The second World War was about to begin. In each Country the Germans conquered, the Jews — including those who had fled Germany were about to face a fate that one would have thought inconceivable.
Burns tells the story of the “concentration camps” opening in Germany and Jews being rounded up and shipped to these “camps.” Once there, the Jews found out that these Camps were built for one reason and one reason only. It was to kill every Jew in every country Germany conquered. The camps as we now know contained gas chambers and “crematoriums” to assure this “mission” would succeed.
In the U.S. we knew little of this. We saw on screen how their “Brown Shirts” — hooligans dressed in uniforms roamed the streets of towns in Germany and assaulted anyone who “looked Jewish.”
But outside of Germany it was hard to learn anything of the actual slaughter that was beginning in the “camps.”
I think the lesson to take away from the Series is that when a disgruntled group of people decide that it is “The fault of ____” and a self-important man takes power by belittling anybody he believes is inferior to him — the “camps” could be in the future.
“No, not here” you say. So did the Jews of Germany who scoffed at Hitler.