A black-and-white photo showing a city street filled with rubble. In the foreground, three Jewish men in dark coats and hats stand facing a fourth man, a German police officer in a military-type uniform, on the right. He is looking at identification papers.
A German policeman checks the identification of Jewish people in the Krakow ghetto. Credit: National Archives in Krakow

Starting Sunday, for three consecutive nights, WTTW will air a new six-hour Ken Burns documentary series, The U.S. and the Holocaust.

Burns and his filmmaking partners, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, based the series on a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum exhibit curated by Chicago-area native and current Newberry Library president, Daniel Greene.

From 2014 to 2019, Greene, an American history and immigration historian (and University of Chicago PhD), commuted to D.C. to work on the exhibit, titled “Americans and the Holocaust.”  It opened on the museum’s 25th anniversary in 2018 and will run there through 2024. Last fall, Rutgers University Press published a companion book of the same title, coedited by Greene.

The exhibition, book, and film are the result of research that sought the answers to two major questions: What did Americans know about Nazi Germany? When did they know it? And the followup questions: What did (or didn’t) America do about it, and why? Is it true, as is often (and comfortingly) claimed, that people in the U.S. didn’t know what was happening to Jews and others in Europe early enough to be able to do anything about it?  

Not exactly. One of the core revelations is that Americans had access to information about Nazi Germany and even about the persecution and murder of Europe’s Jews as it was happening, Greene told me last week. “In the media landscape of the time, which was newspapers and magazines, radio and newsreels, there was more coverage of Nazi Germany than people had assumed.”

Here, in one of many examples in the book, is what the Chicago Daily Tribune published on March 8, 1923, about Adolph Hitler’s admiration for American industrialist Henry Ford, then considered by some a possible presidential candidate:

“I wish that I could send some of my shock troops to Chicago and other big American cities to help in the elections,” the young leader of the Bavarian Fascisti party said grimly. “We look on Heinrich Ford as the leader of the growing Fascisti movement in America. We admire particularly his anti-Jewish policy which is the Bavarian Fascisti platform. We have just had his anti-Jewish articles translated and published. The book is being circulated to millions throughout Germany.”

Wait, Chicago? Henry Ford? Ten years before Hitler became chancellor?

That was part of the challenge of putting the exhibit together, Greene said. “We were trying to tell a story about Americans’ response to Nazism, but we had to continually remind visitors about the context in America at the time. That it’s America going through a Great Depression.  That it’s an isolationist America. That it’s an America dealing with its own racism and segregation and Jim Crow laws. That it’s a xenophobic America. Those conditions shaped our response to Nazism in large part. We needed to tell the specific stories we wanted to tell while also reminding people of that context.”    

Among the stories they wanted to tell were those about ordinary Americans who did help. “While you see, in the exhibition, that the United States government and, for the most part, Americans, did not prioritize or do enough to aid the Jews and other targeted groups in Europe, there are some who did take extraordinary risks to do so,” Greene said. “We tried to tell those stories so people don’t exit the encounter with this history feeling hopeless but can see that individual actions do make a difference.”

They’re also hoping something can be learned from it. “One of the difficult questions is why didn’t the United States do more? And, especially, why didn’t they let more refugees from Nazi Germany and other Nazi-occupied areas into the country? As an immigration historian I’ve always been interested in this fundamental tension: we are a nation of immigrants, and we often close our doors to immigrants.”

“This tension between the humanitarian ideal and political realities on the ground is one of the most fascinating stories in American history,” Greene said. “We debate it, generation after generation. Who’s included? Who’s excluded? Who gets to decide? The geography and the groups might change, but those questions get asked over and over again.”

Greene and Northwestern University professor emeritus (and eminent Holocaust historian) Peter Hayes, both of whom were advisers on the documentary, will preview and discuss it at an in-person event on Monday September 19, 6 PM, at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, 9603 Woods Drive, Skokie. It’s free, but reservations are required at ilholocaustmuseum.org.