I recently watched the Ken Burns documentary on “The US and the Holocaust,” some of it for the second time. I have visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. multiple times. I had a good friend, now deceased, whose US Army Tank unit liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1945. The images of the Nazi genocide from these three sources haunt me. I remember the piles of glasses and shoes at the museum, collected as prisoners were loaded onto trains and into gas chambers. I remember the spiraling towers of photos of communities lost, and the videos of Josef Mengele’s experiments on prisoners—experiments with diseases, amputations, and freezing temperatures. And I can’t get the image of friend Jack recounting a scene at Buchenwald: hand scratches on a wall that prisoners, supposedly dead and hung like animals on a rail, put there on the way from gas chamber to crematorium. Jack scratched an imaginary wall with his own hand as he told the story.
There are so many things to say about the documentary series, “The US and the Holocaust.” Photos of concentration camps revive old memories of photos in movie theater newsreels I saw when I was five and six years old. The film footage of Eisenhower visiting camps and bringing in troops from far and wide to see “what you are fighting against,” and of bringing members of Congress and the press in to make the American public finally realize the extent of Nazi atrocities.
But the most chilling themes of the documentaries are America’s pre-war antisemitism and the general racism that began before the War and continued after it. Antisemitism was rife in our country, made explicit by quotas on immigration, and was telling in the difficulty and ofttimes denial of European Jewish refugee requests. Between 1933 and 1945, 125,000 Germans, most of them German Jews, were allowed to immigrate. Over 300,000 were on waiting lists. And much smaller numbers of Jews from Eastern European countries were allowed into the US because of small country quotas. During that same period, six million of the nine million European Jews were killed by the Nazis. Even after the War, and after the revelations of the camps and the killings, Americans by a wide margin did not want Jewish refugees coming into the country.
The documentary highlights some of the heroes who fought against these policies and tried to wake the public to the scope of Nazi terror, shows how President Roosevelt, who had more Jews in his cabinet than any previous president, had to grapple with the issues of refugees, a generally antisemitic State Department, and public opinion. It also shows the extent of pre-war sympathy to Germany, including Lindbergh led rallies and special German youth camps modeled on Hitler’s youth programs.
The most damning thing about the US in Burns’ documentary is showing how Hitler held our national treatment of American Indians up as a model for a new, German dominated Europe. In a kind of settler colonialism reminiscent of US Westward expansion, Germans would replace Jews and Eastern Europeans as they settled the country. The current inhabitants would die off, move to the East, or, like our Indians, be confined to reservations as Germans sought lebensraum—“living space”—in the East. By Hitler’s time, a robust Native population of millions in North America had been reduced to fewer than a half-million, 236,000 in the 1890-1900 nadir. There was talk of Jewish refugee camps in Siberia—and the actual “final solution”
From the very beginning of the current conflagration in Israel and Gaza, from the moment Prime Minister Netanyahu reached back to the Holocaust and vowed to defeat Hamas utterly and finally, and the moment President Biden embraced him and vowed that the US was at Israel’s side to the end of things, I have been distressed that Netanyahu is not embracing the right lessons of the Holocaust and Biden is tripping over himself with American guilt at what happened in Europe over 80 years ago.
We—the US—did not recognize the extent of the Nazi programs early, we did not accept and save the refugees we might have, and, even after the War, when we rebuilt Germany and Japan, we were not hospitable to Jewish refugees. And when, in 1948, the muddy leavings of World War I in the Holy Land converted an English Palestinian Mandate into a Jewish Nation, we were the first to offer international recognition. The European Jews had a home!
The displacement of Muslim and Christian Arabs from their traditional homelands was minor on our minds then, and has festered through a series of wars and violent outbreaks since that time. But, given a choice, we have chosen Israel and its Jewish citizens. Meanwhile, some compare the plights of the Arabs in Palestine to those of Indians in America—displaced by settler colonialism.
I know it is more complicated than that, that there was a remnant Jewish population, and that there were Jewish—and Christian, Muslim, Druze, and Yezidi populations throughout the broader Middle East. There have even been long historic periods when these many groups lived beside each other peacefully.
The idea that one side in this war will be utterly defeated turns the Holocaust on its head. Somehow, all sides have to learn to live side by side, and we in this country must not fragment our support for all of the people of the Holy Land by pledging support for an all-out victory that can only result in defeat.
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