Is Ken Burns right that the U.S. was silent during the Holocaust?

Americans during the Holocaust knew what was going on, and the government's response was still simply inadequate.
An immigrant family looking at the Statue of Liberty from Ellis Island, circa 1930. (Photo by FPG/Getty Images)

We’re curious…

“During the years when escape was still possible, the American people and their government proved unwilling to welcome more than a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of desperate people seeking refuge.”

That is what CNN anchor Jake Tapper identifies as the thesis of “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” a new documentary that premiered on PBS on Sunday. 

Directed and produced by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, the film examines America’s response to the Holocaust — including what Americans knew, what they did, and what they could have done.

It challenges how many of us think of this history. We think of America, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and their allies as the countries that defeated the Nazis and liberated the concentration camp. They stopped the killing of the surviving Jewish people in Europe.

But, according to Ken Burns, America’s response was a lot more complicated than that. 

“Let’s say the important thing: we’re not responsible for the Holocaust. We let in more people than any other sovereign nation,” Burns said on CBS Mornings last week.

“But we didn’t do anywhere near enough what we could…Even if we fulfilled the pernicious and tiny quotas, we could have had five times as many people rescued from the Holocaust. We could have shouted louder.”

Of course, Burns’ argument isn’t completely new. We’ve all heard the question, “Why didn’t America bomb Auschwitz or the tracks leading to the concentration camps?” We might be familiar with the idea that President Franklin Roosevelt could have allowed more Jewish refugees to come to America.

But we have ways to cope with this dissonance. We tell ourselves that most Americans didn’t really know what was happening in Europe, certainly not the full extent of the Nazis’ extermination campaign.

This documentary dispels that idea as a self-protective myth in American consciousness. Americans during the Holocaust did know what was going on, and the government’s response was still simply inadequate.

So, how did the American people and government respond to the Holocaust? And if they knew about it and didn’t do nearly enough, then how do we deal with that history today?

What did Americans know about the Holocaust and how did they respond?

According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, throughout the 1930s, “American newspapers reported frequently on Hitler and Nazi Germany.”

“Americans read headlines about book burning and about Jews being attacked on the street. They read about the Nuremberg Race laws in 1935, when German Jews were stripped of their German citizenship. The Kristallnacht attacks in November 1938 were front-page news in the U.S. for weeks.”

For example, in June 1942, the Seattle Daily Times ran a front-page headline in all caps that read, “JEWS SLAIN TOTAL 200,000.”

That same month, the Boston Daily Globe ran a story with the headline, “Mass Murders of Jews in Poland Pass 700,000 Mark; Many Made to Dig Own Grave.”

In November 1942, the New York Herald Tribune, reported: “Wise says Hitler has ordered 4 million Jews slain.”

Yet, despite the information about the persecution and murder of Jews, most Americans did not support allowing more Jewish immigrants to move to the U.S.

The political mood in the U.S. was already solidly anti-immigration. In 1924, the U.S. passed the Johnson-Reed Act, which set limits on the number of immigrants who were allowed from each country. 

The quotas were designed to limit the ability of immigrants considered less “racially desirable,” including Jews, to move to the U.S.

In November 1938, two weeks after Kristallnacht, a Gallup poll asked Americans: “Should we allow a larger number of Jewish exiles from Germany to come to the United States to live?” 72% responded “no.”

Despite the public’s opinion and the tiny quotas, the U.S. still admitted more refugees fleeing Nazi terror than any other country. From 1933 to 1945, an estimated 220,000 European refugees immigrated to the U.S., most of whom were Jewish.

But that was just a fraction of the people who were desperately seeking refuge, and it’s undeniable that the U.S. could have saved many more.

The historian Rafael Medoff, who wrote a book on this topic, notes that in eleven of the 12 years that FDR was president, “immigration from Nazi Germany and other countries was kept far below” what the quotas permitted.

Of course, the U.S. and the Allied countries made enormous sacrifices to defend democracy during World War II. More than 400,000 Americans died in the war.

But “the U.S. could have done more to publicize information about Nazi atrocities, to pressure the other Allies and neutral nations to help endangered Jews, and to support resistance groups against the Nazis,” according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

“Prior to the war, the US government could have enlarged or filled its immigration quotas to allow more Jewish refugees to enter the country.” These acts would not have prevented the Holocaust, but they would have reduced the death toll.

How did American Jews respond to the Holocaust?

Okay, so that was the policy of the American government, but what about American Jewish leaders? How did they respond?

On October 6, 1943, more than 400 Orthodox rabbis gathered at the White House to plead with President Roosevelt to rescue European Jews from the Nazis. It was the only such protest at the White House during the Holocaust, according to Wikipedia.

When the protesters arrived at the White House, President Roosevelt refused to meet them. According to the historian Rafael Medoff:

“President Roosevelt…opposed using even minimal resources to aid Europe’s Jews, and he did not want to elevate the rabbis’ pleas for US intervention.” FDR’s Jewish advisers also denounced the protesting rabbis, saying they would stir up antisemitism.

Ironically, Roosevelt’s snub of the rabbis ended up giving them the front-page news coverage they had hoped for. “As a result, the march helped galvanize public and congressional sympathy for rescue,” Medoff wrote.

But according to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, a preeminent leader of Orthodox Jewry in the 20th century, the rabbis’ march in 1943 was not characteristic of American Jews’ response as a whole. In 1973, Soloveitchik (who had immigrated to the U.S. from Germany in 1932) gave a powerful speech about this. Here’s what he had to say:

“When the Holocaust took place, American Jews did not react properly. You could have saved many, many, many. Of course, you know, Roosevelt was no good, and the State Department was antisemitic, and Secretary [of State] Cordell Hall, I mean… But we did not exert any pressure. Not exert any pressure. Not at all!

I mean, when I say “Chatasi” (“I sinned”), not only with regard to American Jewry, but regarding myself. Somebody suggested to me, and he’s right, that in the “Al Cheit” [“For Our Sins” confessional prayer] on Yom Kippur, a new “Al Cheit” should be included.

“For the sin that we sinned against our brethren in Europe, when they cried out to us and we did not listen.” This is true! But American Jews act differently now. There’s more courage. He’s not the frightened immigrant anymore. He’s an American. More courage, more chutzpah.”

It’s a super powerful clip, and we just want to add a footnote here. It’s one thing for Rabbi Soloveitchik to judge himself and fellow American Jews at the time, but we don’t think that you or I could make that same judgment.

The Jews in America in that generation were not in the place that they are today. Many of them were new immigrants, and they didn’t have the confidence that Jewish Americans have today as settled citizens. In the decades that followed, as the Jews became stronger and better integrated, they became better able to advocate for themselves.

Four takeaways on the U.S. and the Holocaust

So, that’s some of the history of America’s response and American Jewry’s response. What does all of this mean and what should we make of this history? Here are four ideas to think about:

  1. Recognize that this is part of America’s complex and imperfect legacy. This raises an important question: How do we deal with an imperfect legacy, with an imperfect history? What are the implications of that?

    One option is that we could say, “America is a broken project. I have serious issues with America now. This country is completely flawed.”

    But there’s another, more nuanced way to look at it, which is, “This is part of the history and legacy of America too.” Along with the bright moments, there are also dark moments. It is all part of the story, and we need to be honest about both, and we need to own both.
  2. The avoidance of making a decision is also a decision. Whether it’s in the context of a relationship, job or career, a friendship, or something else, we could all relate to this.

    Although some of us might be more comfortable making decisions and dealing with tense moments, many of us think, “I’m not going to confront that person. I’m not going to deal with this issue.” Not dealing with the issue is also a decision. The consequences are just as real for others and yourself.
  3. A challenge this poses for Americans and American Jews is, “Can you love your country warts and all? Can you love your people warts and all?” Regardless of where we live, these are questions we could all ask ourselves when confronting our own country’s difficult past.

    If we always expect that our history is going to look the way we want it to, then we’re bound to be disappointed. Every country needs to reckon with difficult moments, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still love our country. How could we learn from those moments and how will our future decisions be different?
  4. Let’s learn from this and act differently…in the present. In the decades after the Holocaust, younger generations of American Jews organized the protest movement to free Soviet Jewry. They took to the streets to demand the freedom of their Soviet Jewish brothers and sisters, and demand that the U.S. government take action.

    Many of these activists said that American Jewry’s “lethargic” response to the Holocaust was what motivated their own protests on behalf of Soviet Jews. They took this lesson to heart, and so can we. Although we can’t change the past, we can be guided by it in the present. If more of us do that, then we’ll have a chance to create the change we want.