Sunday, September 25, 2022

the U.S. and the Holocaust

History is full of events and opinions that do not reflect our better nature.  Canadians cannot be exempted from these black spots including ones brought to light by Ken Burns. 

 Hypocrisy has always been in good supply.  We look with horror at the Holocaust and have great difficulty imagining how it was even possible.  Americans can take solace in that they accepted more Jewish refugees than any other nation and were instrumental in militarily stopping Adolf Hitler, but there is another side to the story with parallels in the present.

 "Americans" have been welcoming European workers while pushing out the indigenous and bringing in Africans to be slaves.  Before the Civil War most immigrants came from northern Europe.  Afterwards those from the south and east of Europe came in greater numbers and at first met with resentment.  Chinese were brought in to build railroads, but also inspired an exclusion act.

Jews at one time made up almost a quarter of the population of New York City becoming the largest concentration of Jews in the world.   Problems were attributed to Jews such as crime.  Eugenics, financed by wealthy and powerful reared its ugly head.  Sterilization became legal in most American states.  

Henry Ford was a prominent anti-Semite publishing in different languages including German.  Jews were restricted in university admissions, jobs  Politicians could get elected with anti immigrant policies.  Immigration laws were enacted that favored northern Europeans.  Asian immigrants were illegal.  South Americans allowed in for labor only.

Hitler (while in prison) was pleased to learn that many Americans were advocating for a Nordic population.  Hitler felt a duty to rid the Jewish Bolshevik leaders that corrupted different parts of the world.   Mexicans were repatriated during the Depression.  In 1932 more Americans left than came in.  

By 1933 American journalists made the public well aware of Nazi anti Jewish acts.  American Jews found themselves in a dilemma--keep quiet or protest.  Regardless German Jews would suffer while Hitler thought Jewish actions only proved his anti-Jewish rhetoric.  During the Depression , the state department under Cordell Hull wanted to increase trade.  Immigration became more difficult.  Popular right wing religious leaders were blatantly anti-Semitic.  Germans modeled anti-Semitic laws on Jim Crow laws.

By 1937 fascist countries had become aggressive--Spain, Italy and Germany.  United States did not wish to intervene.  Hitler was a very stirring speaker.  By 1938 Hitler was welcomed in Austria and amalgamated.  Americans fired Jewish employees in Germany.

The world knew of the situation, but did not want to help out.  Hitler took over Sudentenland despite defense agreements involving other countries, notably Great Britain.

Kristallnacht, the night of the  broken glass November 9 and 10th, 1938- not only in Germany, but also Sudetendland-supposedly in retaliation for assassination of a German diplomat.  Businesses were destroyed, houses burnt and for the first time the Nazis rounded up Jewish males for no other reason than being Jewish and sent them to concentration camps.  This was covered on front page of many U.S. newspapers.  FDR was the only world leader to withdraw ambassador from Berlin and allowed visiting Jews on tourism visa to stay.  BUT quotas were maintained and strictly enforced.

Britain allowed 10,000 Jewsih teenagers to immigrate, but not parents.  Eleanor Roosevelt tried to support legislation to help Jewish refugees, but was strongly opposed by prominent racist individuals and organizations, backed by public sentiment.

Events accelerated with an attack on Poland resulting in World War II on Sept 1, 1939.  Germany rapidly conquered most of Europe.  They had made a pact with Soviet Union to split Poland, but in reality Hitler disliked the Jewish influence in Russia.

FDR claimed neutrality while deploring Nazi action  Isolationalists stopped or restricted action that would have relieved Jewish anxiety.

The St. Louis ship was organized to take Jews to Cuba, but rejected by the Cubans and in turn by Canada and others.   U.S. Germans pointed out the hypocrisy while touting their own opennesss.  Finances were organized for some of the refugees to European countries.

After the war began suspicion of German spies among the Jewish refugees became overwhelming, despite total lack of evidence.   The Lend-Lease bill opposed by anti Semitic groups and Charles Lindbergh who had helped form American First that also included Henry Ford, and Avery Brundage.  Getting visas to America became much more difficult.  

British espionage efforts uncovered German atrocities, but Churchill was reluctant to publicize as would let the Germans know they knew lots of details of German war effort.  Roosevelt tried to support the British efforts, but had a lot of political opposition.  Lindbergh even identified Jews as those wanting war and even though he was castigated by many newspapers his sentiments were shared by much of the public.

American Jewish groups helped finance efforts in Europe, allowing a few to escape and others to be hidden.

After Pearl Harbor drew America into the war, Japanese internment camps even for citizens were set up.

Germans developed concentration camps, partly for labour as soldiers reduced the labour force  -Those not productive enough were sent for elimination.  Some Nazis took pride in becoming more efficient at killing Jews and others such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Romany, gays and even some P.O.W..

Awareness of atrocities from newspapers and radio broadcasters such as Edward R. Murrow--state dept was skeptical of reports and felt efforts to rescue would be diversions  Despite the support of the Roosevelts, the state dept was obstructionist.  Henry Morgenthau, Jr., the Secretary of Treasury had protested the Armenian killings and referred to them to Roosevelt.

Eisenhower commanded soldiers to witness some of the camps as he felt it needed to be believed.

After the war for awhile immigration quotas remained in effect and Britain had restricted migrants to Palestine.  Eventually restrictions were removed.  The Nuremberg Trials were the first to try genocidal legal cases.

White supremacy is still a part of America as demonstrated on January 6th.   In truth  Civilization is fragile.  Donald Trump used racist rhetoric to get elected.  Many of his followers weren't overtly racist, but tolerated it as a means to get lesser taxes, or regulations or banning abortions.

Reaction to the film included an anti-Semitic view.  One felt the Jews were too demanding and now were adding to American guilt.  We see Muslims vilified in a similar manner.  A big ruckus has been made C.R T. where politicians feel Americans should not be made to feel guilt. over racism.

Ken Burns is a key person behind this series.  He has a long history of dealing with important people and events in depth  and comprehensively such as "The Civil War (1990), "Jazz" (2001), "Baseball" (1994 and 2010), "The Central Park Five" (2012), ""The Roosevelts:  An Intimate History" (2014) "The Vietnam War" (2017). "Hemingway" (2021), "Muhammed Ali" (2021) and "Benjamin Franklin" (2022).   Check and

Peter Coyote, the regular narrator for Burns' documentaries. has a lot of experience narrating, but is perhaps better known as an actor.  He adopted the last name Coyote after meeting a Paiute-Shoshone shaman in 1967.  The only American to be directed by Spanish director Pedro Almodovar where he performed in Spanish, "Kika" (1993).  As an actor he has over 150 credits including ""E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" (1982), "Erin Brokovich" (2000) and "Le Grand Role" (2004 in French).

Some of the commentators were historians.  Others were participants as children or young adults.  One is struck that first hand information is being steadily lost

Racism is one of the major scourges of the modern world.  But we are all in this together.  More thoughts on racism:

As usual I have bolded the first mention of films I have seen. 

Available through PBS and likely soon to your local library.

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