Celebrities are getting in on it—basketball star Kyrie Irving and entertainer Kanye West the latest: “Antisemitism is one of the longest-standing forms of prejudice, and those who monitor it say it is now on the rise in America,” says the New York Times today.
There are “dominionists, who claim that the United States was a Christian nation from its beginnings—it was not; it was formed by Christians of many stripes, and many deists, and very soon included “naturalists,” agnostics, atheists, and people of other faiths. Old tropes of Jewish bankers and moneylenders, from Shakespeare’s Shylock to the Rothchilds, swim in some minds. A different sabbath, different holidays, yamakas, bearded Orthodox in their New York boroughs, Jews at the Wailing Wall all mark Jews as another tribe. And this, in a time when social media and the forces of modern life seem intent on tribalizing us.
In his new series on Public Television, “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” Ken Burns looks American prejudice against Jews right in the eye. The story is about the run-up to World War II and the killing of millions of Jews—and let’s not forget the gypsies, the homosexuals, and the communists who were also on the Nazi hit lists—and goes through the years of war and death camps. But Burns eye is all the time on the United States, on Henry Ford, who financed publications promoting lies about Jews, on aviator Charles Lindbergh, who led huge rallies of America Firsters asking that America not enter the war, with outright antisemitism on his lips. And on an American public that long refused to believe what was happening to German Jews—even as our own newspapers documented the outrages of Krystallnacht and the expulsion of prominent German Jews from the military, government, and the universities. And then indulged our own antisemitism.
We were recovering from the Depression, and digging deeply into parochialism: my family “came on the Mayflower,” or maybe my family made it here from Germany or Poland or France more recently, but has been steadfast and part of this growing sacred country, and we should shut the doors on immigration, especially on immigrants from Asia and the Jewish diaspora, and take care of “Americans” first.
Burns reminds us of the “eugenics” movement, borrowed from England but grown strong in our country at the turn of the 19th and 20th century. Thousands, many people of color, prison inmates, and people with mental and physical disabilities, were sterilized without consent. And then he tells us that Hitler and his Nazis delighted in praising our displacement and killings of Native Americans and the still very vital Jim Crow Laws of the American South.
Burns shows us heroes too. Eleanor Roosevelt tried from the beginning to move her President husband and public opinion towards compassion and action on behalf of the Jews. And Varian Fry, a journalist who visited Berlin in 1935 and witnessed savage actions against German Jews, and came home to lobby for immigration reform. Unsuccessful in swaying the government and the public, in 1940, before we were in the War, he went to Vichy France. From Marseille, he and a small band of activists, including US Vice-Consul Harry Bingham IV, forged documents, arranged flights to Spain, and did what they could, until Fry was expelled from the country, to rescue thousands of European Jews trapped in Nazi-occupied France.
Even after war’s end, when accounts of concentration and death camps were in the news, when pictures played on newspapers and in movie house newsreels, the American public did not want to allow more Jewish survivors into our country.
In a review of the Burns epic, Robert Lloyd of the Los Angeles Times writes that “Prefiguring more recent politicians, North Carolina Sen. Robert Reynolds declared, ‘If I had my way, I would today build a wall about the United States so high and so secure that not a single alien or foreign refugee from any country upon the face of the Earth could possibly scale or ascend it.’”
Which brings us to today, and to lessons learned and sometimes forgotten. For me, the most chilling scenes in Burns’ documentary were of the camp at Buchenwald. Eisenhower took his officers there and told them to look at what they were fighting the war for. I could not stop thinking about my old friend, Jack McClaran. Jack was just 19 when he went to war as a tanker. He had described for me a couple of times his life as a tanker, and the liberation of Buchenwald.
“No 19 year-old should have to see what I saw,” said Jack. And one night, in the Oddfellows Hall in Enterprise, Jack told us about that experience. He was prodded by his friend, Alvin Josephy, who reminded him that there were Holocaust deniers out there still, and fewer and fewer survivors and witnesses. In Burns’ brutal 5 or 10-minute segment on Buchenwald, with images of emaciated survivors and dead bodies, that evening at the Oddfellows Hall came back, and it struck me that Jack McClaran lived with the images I was watching for the last 60 years of his life.
Jack McClaran and the Burns Eye View of the Holocaust remind us that the world is full of refugees and atrocities right now, and that our better selves would reach to help those refugees—from Venezuela and Iran, Syria and Ethiopia and wherever there are refugees. And that our better selves will treat our fellow Americans—Jews, African, Asian, and Latin Americans, Native Americans, Muslims, people of many faiths and no recognized religion at all—with respect and dignity. That is how I remember and hope to honor Jack.
# # #
Photo of Buchenwald from Truman Library
for audio recording of Jack McClaran’s talk on Buchenwald, go to https://library.josephy.org/collections/audio-archives/