Ken Burns’ Message of Warning to America

His new documentary The U.S. and the Holocaust isn’t just about the past.

Micah Sifry


The final minutes of the last episode of the new three-part documentary “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” produced by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein, are not about the Holocaust.

Instead the filmmakers show us the following montage: the signing of the 1965 Immigration Act, which abolished the national quotas on immigrants that had kept so many Jews out during World War II (but still imposed restrictions on people from the Americas, the narrator notes), followed by images of diverse groups of newly naturalized citizens smiling at their good fortune, and then old black and white photos of Ku Klux Klan marchers filling the streets of Washington DC in the 1920s, an American Nazi Party rally, white southerners jeering black children entering newly desegregated public schools, the beating of protestors at the Selma march, and then — the present.

While historian Nell Irvin Painter talks about the recurring waves of white supremacy and anti-Semitism in America, the images turn to color. We see anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim graffiti followed by the hate-filled face of Dylann Roof (the Charleston mass murderer who, the narrator reminds us, wanted to set off a race war) and then the voice of Donald Trump promising to build the wall and the angry young men of the 2017 white power march in Charlottesville marching and chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” Then it’s the Pittsburgh synagogue mass shooting of 2018, and we are at yesterday’s door, the January 6th assault on the US Capitol. Burns and his colleagues end this stream with a close-up of a bearded white man, the insurrectionist who went to the Capitol wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt. The warning could not be clearer.

It’s getting harder every day to live in America and not connect the dots. As the child of a Holocaust survivor — my mother and her family made it through World War II by going into hiding from 1940–44 while Belgium, their home, was occupied by Nazi Germany — I am perhaps hyper-sensitive to the warning signs here. Indeed, there are lots of spots on this idea-map from that reflect my own experience, including “projecting historical traumas onto current…