There’s a neon sign in the Walpole, New Hampshire editing room where director Ken Burns spends so many of his days. The sign is italicized, all lowercase, and simply says, “it’s complicated.”
These words capture the feel of so many of Burns’ films – Civil War; the Vietnam War; American Dust Bowl; Central Park Five; Thomas Jefferson. Even the happy history of baseball and jazz—the subjects of two other Burns films—became complicated by racial bigotry and black exclusion.
“Complication and excitement are the building blocks of human existence and human history,” says Burns.
Now Burns takes on perhaps his most complex story of all. On September 18, PBS stations and PBS Documentaries Prime Video Channel will premiere the new three-part series, The USA and the Holocaust, looking at what America did and did not do—and could or should have done—to save at least some of the victims of the Holocaust before the slaughter began, or even while it was underway. It is a matter of history that America, like most other countries in the world, refused asylum to most European Jews who wanted to flee the continent when Nazism rose. Then, as now, nativist sentiment prevailed in the country; then, as now, an America First movement ignited parts of the body politic; and then, as now, restrictive immigration laws limited the flow of potential newcomers to a mere trickle.
TIME spoke with Burns about the lessons learned—and unlearned—from this dark passage in America’s past, the process of making this latest film, and how the story it tells fits into his larger body of work exploring the American experience. The text has been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
TIME: Why did you decide to take on this story and why now?
Burns: We got down on our knees and pitched this movie in 2015. It was the Holocaust Museum back then. [in Washington, DC] approached us and said, “We’re putting on this exhibit called The Americans and the Holocaust, and we think it would make a great movie.” We said, “Great. Can we work together with you? Can you direct us to the right scientists? Can we find the relevant archives together? Can you help us identify some survivors that we might be able to interview?” We’ve been thinking about this film for years and years. After the World War II documentary we did in 2007, people bombarded me on the road saying, “Why didn’t we bomb the railways at Auschwitz? FDR was anti-Semitic” and many other things that betrayed some naive conventional wisdom or some kind of conspiracy ideas. And so we used to say [to ourselves]”You know, we have to do something about the US and the Holocaust.”
Did you come away from the movie thinking about what the US could or should have done in the face of the Holocaust? (About 125,000 Germans, most of them Jewish, immigrated to the United States from 1933 to 1945. according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum— a fraction of the 300,000 left idle on waiting lists in 1940 alone and nearly 500,000 in 1938 and 1939)
We have admitted more human beings than any other sovereign nation, and if we had admitted 10 times that number, I would still give us an F — a failing grade. [Congressional quotas] did not allow Franklin Roosevelt to release more people. We were in the middle of the Great Depression. It was the worst economic disaster in human history, and jobs were scarce, and politicians were terrified of their base, as we say today, and didn’t want to let anyone in who was going to take the jobs of any of their constituents. There was always an excuse – for money or for otherness. People tried to make racial distinctions [about European Jews]but there is only one race – the human race.
To what extent is Holocaust blindness a global problem as opposed to an American one? There was Evian Conferencestill in 1938 [during which representatives of 32 nations, including the U.S., met in France to discuss how to accommodate Jewish refugees and all of them either kept their quotas tight or closed their doors entirely].
This was a big problem in every country. Australians, for example, said: “We don’t have a domestic refugee problem and we don’t want to create one.” But again everything came down to the question of otherness. When you differentiate between groups of people, when you say there is one group and there is another group, you are creating a holocaust. [Historian] Deborah Lipstad says in the film, “The time to stop the Holocaust is before it happens.”
What was the biggest challenge you faced in making this film?
We had to put a human face on the Holocaust. There is simply a lack of transparency about the number 6 million people. It’s just a statistic, like saying Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941. So we tried to use first-person voices. There’s a touching letter we added at the last minute where a guy says, “I just want the world to know that someone named David Berger once lived.” He knows he’s going to die, and he just has to. If you understand that Shmuel Jaeger and his wife and four daughters were in Belzec and Shmuel died in the gas chamber and the rest died in horrible ways, that makes them unique.
How does this film fit into your larger body of work exploring the American experience?
I do not know. Someone else will have to decide that. I know I won’t work on a more important film than this one. When we’re making a film, I’m what’s known as the scratch narrator. I voice over all the time because we keep changing the script for years and then at the very end, when we’re 98% of the way through, we bring in the actual narrator – in this case Peter Coyote— because why waste his time if we’re going to change “an” to “the” mid-sentence? I can tell you that this is the first time in a script that I just broke down and cried after reading a draft.
America’s relative inaction during the Holocaust seems incongruous with our refusal to act during the 1994 Rwandan genocide or our recent chaotic exit from Afghanistan, which left millions of women and girls at risk. Are we a nation without a learning curve?
It’s not just Rwanda. There was also Bosnia and Syria. But it’s not about the learning curve. Samantha Power [author of A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide] is incredibly thoughtful about how to rearrange events early on. It’s about finding ways to stop the momentum [of a Holocaust or genocide]. If you get the Titanic off course by one degree, you’ll miss the iceberg by hundreds of miles. Tough domestic political talks are needed, only reality based on bureaucratic decisions. So it is too easy to say that human beings do not learn.
Is any of the decision to make this film now motivated by the existence of Holocaust deniers, or do you see them simply as a fringe group as birthers or truthers?
They are no longer a fringe group. They were given space and room to grow by a man who held the highest office in the land, right? But that didn’t motivate why we made the film. There are moments in the film when [a soldier] writing back to his father about what he saw in one of the liberated concentration camps, he says that it’s not just the people who did this that should be brought to justice. It is that their philosophy cannot be allowed to continue. He is a military man and understands how easy it is to spew hate.
Does the recent return of the America First movement have echoes of the 1930s and 1940s for you?
That does it. Hitler would travel around Germany promising to restore Germany to greatness. It wasn’t just the big cities. He would fly to medium-sized cities and always wanted to come back and sleep at one of his properties at night. You had “America First,” which was a sort of nativist sentiment wrapped in an anti-war cloak. There were many people in charge, [Charles] Lindbergh included many others who were simply rabid anti-Semites. I have been making films for almost 50 years for the US and also for us. When someone tells you there is a “they”, that is authoritarianism. All such distinctions are biological, scientific and political fictions. They are meant to create grievances.
So what’s next for you? What are you working on now?
The next movie is called The American buffalo. It deals with how the destruction of the buffalo destroyed the American Indian way of life. Perversely, while we destroyed the buffalo and Indians, we romanticized them in 1913. We issued a nickel with a brave Indian on one side and a buffalo on the other. The buffalo that was used as the model for the coin later went to New York’s meatpacking district and was slaughtered. We’re also working on a movie about Leonardo da Vinci, a six-part series about the American Revolution, another about Reconstruction, and one about Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society. They are all in progress.
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