I imagined that decades of Holocaust documentaries, dramas, books and my own visits to Dachau and Yad Vashem had me innoculated against strong emotional reactions to presentations about the Shoah. I was wrong.
Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein present a jarring look at the Holocaust in a global and in particular American context. Uplifting episodes of compassion and resistance come into view, but are outweighed by layers and layers of hate, enabling, scapegoating, compromise, and ultimately violence on a scale that tends to numb us because the numbers of dead and volume of destruction are so massive as to become vague statistics as the decades pass.
Until a tacked on “Trump is Hitler” meme at the end, the historical work is rigourous. The main context for American unresponsiveness is amply demonstrated as anti-immigrant sentiments based in cultural and racial stereotypes, buttressed by junk science and passed into policies and laws.
Famous figures are shown in their best and worst lights. Franklin Roosevelt comes off well over all, but not without hard looks at his failures. In a pleasant surprise for PBS fare, Republicans like Wendell Wilkie are given their due for speaking against American nativism and intolerance. But Teddy Roosevelt is quoted in his support for the ghastly eugenic thought that permeated the United States (including academia, mainline churches and government) and went on to encourage and enable Hitler. Some of the worst eugenic junk science was popularized by a prominent conservationist (today’s environmentalist). Icons like Charles Lindbergh and Margaret Sanger get unvarnished exposure for their participation in the nuttery.
If we are honest, none of us can look back and say, Well, MY people wouldn’t have been part of the problem.
The idea that Americans didn’t know about the Holocaust while it was going on is debunked with mountains of primary source evidence. But the struggles about how to respond are treated as complex realities. The proposal to bomb the railways leading to the extermination camp at Auschwitz is discussed in detail, and I was left as troubled and perplexed as the policy makers of the time. The arguments for (obviously moral) and against (the very real probability of many prisoner and aircrew deaths with no substantial interruption of the trains) left me with little in the way of a confident “right answer.”
What brought back so much of my emotion was the extended commentary by survivors. The horror of what went on was humanized and personalized. Commenting on the post-war popular embrace of The Diary of Anne Frank, one of the survivors notes Frank’s famous entry, In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart, and opines that the young woman would have revised or withdrawn the comment had she survived.
I was in a funk for days after watching the series. The evil was so overwhelming; the tendency of human beings to embrace mass insanity and inflict horror can lead to despair.
I found some companionship in the lessons read in church last Sunday, which included the Prophet Habakkuk’s lament,
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see iniquity,
and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law is paralyzed,
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
so justice goes forth perverted. (1:2-4)
God’s answer – Behold, his (the wicked’s) soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith. (2:4) – does not solve the problem. It leaves us in the midst of it.
But God’s answer calls us to endure and bear witness to the values of the kingdom of heaven. In the midst of evil that we can perceive all around, all the time, we are called upon to be people of faith, the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1).
In last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus challenges us to believe that a little of this faith can do more than we can ask or imagine: If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it would obey you (Luke 17:6).
The United States and the Holocaust is in three parts that total out at about 7 hours. My hope is that it moves people to scrutinize misplaced faith in race, nation, political ideology, heroes or any other idols and consider the faith proclaimed by the Prophets and the Savior.