Over the last several weeks, I have felt the heft of history everywhere—in the news, in plays, and in television series.

The first outpouring of shock at a 96-year-old monarch’s death and the heartfelt appreciation for a life of service resonated with me. I was surprised at my own positive reaction to King Charles’ memorializing of his mother and queen—he seemed genuinely grieved and admiring of a model of leadership that had morphed over her 70-year reign.  Then, like much of the rest of the world, I was reminded of the history on which this service and admiration were based and many of us had to take a more sanguine view, remembering the facts of the Empire and the impact of colonialism.  No one does ceremony better than the Brits, but behind all that precision is the grim shadow of oppression and racism.

Leopoldstadt is a fictionalized version of the fate of Tom Stoppard’s ancestral family.  Eugen Straussler (Stoppard’s father) was a Jewish Czech working in Singapore when the Japanese invaded in 1942.  Stoppard, his mother, and his brother fled to India, but his father died before he was able to join the family.  While Stoppard knew that he was born a Jew, he embraced a British identity which was afforded him after his father’s death, his mother’s remarriage to a British officer, and Major Stoppard’s adoption of young Tom.   The play focuses on the fate of the members of an assimilated Jewish family in Vienna, similar in many details to the Straussler family from Zlin, Czechoslavakia   The first act is set on Christmas Day 1899, complete with a Star of David atop a Christmas tree; the last in 1955 when the young boy who escaped by being adopted by a British diplomat meets with his cousins who survived the Holocaust in Europe.  A handwritten family tree is projected between each act.  In the final act of the play, the returning escaped cousin asks after each named person on the tree.  After each name, a European cousin responds monosyllabically, like a death knell: suicide, Auschwitz, Dachau.

On September 18, PBS broadcast the first episode of The U.S. and the Holocaust.  The production is marked by the same features that characterize other Burns productions, careful research, powerful images, brilliant and informed commentary, all woven together into an evocative narrative.  The title makes clear as does the production, this is not a documentary about the Holocaust; it is a documentary about America’s response to the Holocaust.  While I believe that Mr. Burns is much too forgiving of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his portrayal of the country’s attitude about immigration, isolationism, and Jews is unflinching.   I knew many of the details imbedded in this narrative, but I had not seen them woven together quite so deftly.   Just a couple of details highlighted in the series:

  1. After November 9, 1938, Kristallnacht, 94% of Americans expressed horror at the brutality of that night, but 70% of Americans did not believe that the United States should modify immigration quotas to welcome those fleeing Nazism.  Even after the photographs and news reports of the liberation of the camps in 1944, only 5% of Americans believed the United States should give special consideration to the victims of Nazism.
  2. On November 20, 1938, while the images of Kristallnacht were plastered over front pages of newspapers across the country, Reverend Charles Coughlin, the most popular preacher of the day (who happened to be one of the publishers of The Protocols of Zion), argued that the actions of the Germans were justified because Jews were communists.
  3. Competing with President Roosevelt for the hearts and minds of Americans in the years leading up to America’s entry into World War II was Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh spoke of the importance of our staying out of the war because of our need to protect the white race. In a 1939 Reader’s Digest article he wrote of “our inheritance of European blood” and our need to guard against “foreign armies and dilution by foreign races.” In a 1939 diary entry, Lindbergh asserted that “A few Jews add strength and character to a country, but too many create chaos. And we are getting too many.”
  4. On June 5,1941, Senator Robert Reynolds announced on the floor of the United States Senate: “I wish to say — and I say it without the slightest hesitation — that if I had my way about it at this hour, I would today build a wall about the United States so high and so secure that not a single alien or foreign refugee from any country upon the face of this earth could possibly scale or ascend it.”
  5. Few voices within the government were as powerful as Samuel Breckenridge Long, who from 1940-1943 was in charge of the Visa Division of the State Department. A rabid nativist, Long argued against the need for loosening the limitations on immigration, eventually providing false testimony to the United States Congress on the facts of America’s immigration records. In December of 1943, U.S. Treasury officials made public Long’s attempts to suppress information regarding the facts of the killing camps.

In the final episode of The U.S. and the Holocaust, the creators include reference to more recent events, including excerpts from the 2015 racist postings of  Dylann Roof (the shooter in the American Emanuel Methodist Church in Charleston), a clip of a 2016 rally of  then candidate Donald Trump calling for a wall along the Southern border to prevent immigrants from coming to America, video of crowds shouting “The Jews will not replace us”  in Charlottesville in 2017,  and pictures of the Tree of Life synagogue, where worshippers were killed in  2018.

As William Faulkner wrote: “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”