- Good evening, I'm Sylvia Bugg, chief programming executive and general manager at PBS.
Thank you for joining us for tonight's conversation on "The Holocaust and Refugees: Lessons for Today," part of a series of events leading up to the broadcast of "The US and the Holocaust," the new film by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein.
"The US and the Holocaust," which will air over three nights, starting September 18th and stream on all PBS platforms, timed to the premiere, explores America's response to one of the greatest humanitarian crises in history.
The film examines the rise of Hitler and Nazism in Germany in the context of global antisemitism and racism, the eugenics movement in the United States, and race laws in the American South.
The series, written by Geoffrey Ward, sheds light on what the US government and American people knew and did as the catastrophe unfolded in Europe, including how America responded to the refugee crisis.
Tonight, Ken Burns and Sarah Botstein will join Madlin Sadler, chief operating officer of the International Rescue Committee, in a conversation moderated by Jake Tapper, CNN anchor and chief Washington correspondent.
Our next event on Thursday, September 15th will focus on the Holocaust and authoritarianism with Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House.
It will be moderated by Julia Ioffe of "Puck."
We will begin tonight with a look at the introduction to the series, "The US and the Holocaust."
(gentle pleasant music) (soft melancholy music) - [Woman] There are some events so tragic, we think we'll never forget.
Days pass, lives pass, and the lessons we vow to learn pass away with them.
It takes work to keep stories alive, to paint a picture of the past, and help the next generation move forward together so we never forget.
(slow dramatic music) (tram hums and dings) - [Peter] On a sunny March afternoon in 1933, a German businessman and his family went for a stroll in the center of Frankfurt.
Otto Frank snapped a picture of his wife, Edith, and their two daughters, Margot, seven years old, and Annalise, just three.
Otto's ancestors had lived in Germany since the 16th century.
Merchants and bankers, they were not particularly observant Jews.
Otto, a proud officer in the great war, was a patriotic German.
But in January of 1933, Adolf Hitler had come to power, and everything had begun rapidly to change.
Jews, Hitler charged, were parasites, not Germans.
Nazi thugs roamed the Frankfurt streets, beating anyone they thought was Jewish.
Most of the Frank's Gentile friends fell away.
Their landlord insisted they find other quarters.
Margot was made to sit apart from her classmates in school.
(muffled shouting) - [Man] The world around me had collapsed when most of the people of my country turned into hordes of nationalistic, cruel, antisemitic criminals.
I had to face the consequences, and though this hurt me deeply, I realized that Germany was not the world, and I left forever.
- [Peter] By the time Otto Frank photographed his family, he and Edith were already planning to move to Amsterdam in the Netherlands.
By early 1934, they would be living in a spacious, sunny apartment in the city's River Quarter, alongside hundreds of other Jewish families from Germany.
They would eventually try to seek a safe haven in the United States, only to find, like countless others fleeing Nazism, that most Americans did not want to let them in.
(gulls caw) (ship horn booms in distance) - [Woman] "Here at our sea-washed sunset gates shall stand a mighty woman with a torch whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name, Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon hand glows worldwide welcome.
Her mild eyes command the air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
'Keep ancient lands, your storied pump,' cries she with silent lips.
"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed, to me.
I lift my lamp beside the Golden Door."
(soft guitar music) Emma Lazarus.
- [Peter] In 1883, Emma Lazarus, the descendant of Portuguese Jews who had fled the inquisition and found sanctuary in Manhattan before the American Revolution, had written the poem expressing what the Statue of Liberty meant to her.
But a few years later, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, a writer whose family had also lived in America since colonial times, wrote another poem warning of what he believed would happen to his country if the Golden Door remained open.
(muffled chatter) (horse hooves clop) - [Man] "Wide open and unguarded stand our gates, and through them presses a wild motley throng.
In street and alley, what strange tongues are these?
Accents of menace, alien to our air, voices that once the Tower of Babel knew.
Oh, Liberty, white goddess, is it well to leave the gates unguarded?"
- I think Americans have a very hard time deciding what kind of country they want to have.
We all tend to think of the United States as this country with the statue of Liberty poem, "Give me your tired, your poor," but in fact, exclusion of people and shutting them out has been as American as apple pie.
(soft melancholy woodwind music) - All of my grandparents are immigrants from Eastern Europe, except one grandmother was born here.
So I've grew up haunted by stories of, as they used to say, the old country, haunted by this story of my grandfather's brother and his family living in a provincial town in Eastern Poland, and then they disappeared.
All you think about is that they had been consumed by this conflagration that consumed all of Europe.
(muffled chatter) (silverware clinks) (children laugh and shout) (water splashes) - [Peter] When Nazi rule began in 1933, there were nine million Jews in Europe.
12 years later, when the Second World War ended in 1945, at least two out of every three of them had been murdered.
(muffled chatter) - It's not so easy to put the picture together.
The real scale of what happened to people, it is unbelievable.
It boggles the imagination.
You don't know what six million people looks like.
- [Peter] As the catastrophe of what would come to be called the Holocaust unfolded, Americans heard about Nazi persecutions of Jews and others on the radio, read about it in their newspapers and magazines, and glimpsed it in news reels.
Some Americans responded by denouncing the Nazis, marching in protest and boycotting German goods.
Individual Americans performed heroic acts to save individual Jews.
Some government officials battled red tape and bigotry to bring Jewish refugees to America.
(soft somber string music) In the end, the United States admitted some 225,000 refugees from Nazi terror, more than any other sovereign nation took in.
And by defeating Nazi Germany on the battlefield, the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and their allies stopped the killing of the surviving Jewish people in Europe.
But during the years when escape was still possible, the American people and their government proved unwilling to welcome more than a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of desperate people seeking refuge.
- The Holocaust disrupts any idea that we have of good and evil, of right and wrong.
This is a story in which everyone is challenged all the time.
We are challenged as Americans.
We're challenged as parents, as children.
We're challenged as neighbors and as friends to think about what we would've done, what we could have done, what we should have done.
And even though the Holocaust physically took place in Europe, it is a story that Americans have to reckon with, too.
- We tell ourselves stories as a nation.
One of the stories we tell ourselves is that we're a land of immigrants, but in moments of crisis, it becomes very hard for us to live up to those stories.
I think the impetus should not then be to wag your finger at people in the past and think that we're somehow superior to them, but to struggle to understand why that's such a tension between having a humanitarian ideal and then living up to it on the ground.
- Part of our national mythologies that we are a good people, we are a democracy, and we are a democracy, and in our better moments, we are very good people, but that's not all there is to this story, and I think if we're going to congratulate ourselves on our democracy, which I think we should, we also need to face up to the other side.
- In the past few years, I've begun to wonder how serious America's commitment to looking at some of the dark marks in its history really is.
How can we learn from the past?
Where did we go wrong?
How can we not go wrong the next time?
And I think while there is much we can be proud of of this country, the episode of America and the Holocaust is not one that red redounds to our credit.
- How did America treat its potential refugees?
The refugees, they lost their lives because those doors, the Golden Door was not wide open.
- Hi, everyone, I'm Jake Tapper from CNN, and it is my honor to be moderating this event this evening with my three guests, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, who are the forces behind this incredible documentary, "The United States and the Holocaust," and Madlin Sadler, who's with the International Rescue Committee with a focus on refugees.
Let me just start by saying I'm a proud Jewish American and went to a Jewish day school and Jewish camps, did a semester in Israel, was at the opening of the Holocaust Museum, and I learned a great deal watching this documentary series, even though I am rather steeped in the Holocaust and the events during those years.
I really highly recommend it, and I found a lot to be very ashamed of as an American while watching this, not only in the ugly facts that they present matter of factly, but also in the fact that a lot of this was hidden from me as an American student.
And Ken, let me start with you because you're eight minutes into the episode, episode one.
There are three episodes.
Each is about two hours long.
Eight minutes in, to me, is the thesis of this series, which is in Peter Coyote's lovely voice.
"During the years, when escape was still possible, the American people and their government proved unwilling to welcome more than a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of desperate people seeking refuge."
That to me is the thesis of this documentary, and boy, do you prove it.
Tell me about the genesis of this.
Why was it important to show this?
- Well, we made a film, Lynn and and Sarah Botstein, made a film written by Jeff Ward that came out in 2007 on World War II called "The War," and after it was done, we were out on the road and we were approached by people all the time with simplistic and misinformed things.
FDR's an anti-Semite.
Why didn't you take the St. Louis?
Why did we turn away the boat, the St. Louis?
Why didn't we bomb the rail lines at Auschwitz?
Dozens and dozens of questions that suggested to us that we hadn't quite actually done a complete story of the Holocaust, and then seven years later, Geoff Ward and I did a film on the Roosevelts and covered some of the same territory, and the same questions came out, and we began to talk among ourselves that we needed to do a standalone thing on "The US and the Holocaust."
When we were approached by the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, and said, "We're mounting this exhibition on Americans and the Holocaust to get at the the inside out of the thesis," that you just suggested, Jake.
And they asked us if we were interested in doing something.
We said, "Of course," and they served as an amazing partner, directing us to archives, directing us to survivors who are, of course, the beating heart and soul of this film, but also to the scholars who revealed to us the complications and the contradictions of this and made us understand.
So it's really more a story of what happened and with which we present the facts as best as we know to this day about what went on.
But I can just tell you personally, Jake, not a Jew, that we did take in, as we say, surrounding that sentence written by Geoffrey Ward, 225,000 refugees, more than any other sovereign nation, but we had the ability to let in, just based even on our limited quotas, five times that amount, and if we'd done 10 times that amount, I think we'd still get a failing grade for what it was.
And it's easy and convenient to say, "Oh, blame it on a bold face name like FDR," but it's pretty hard to completely do that because this is a guy who's considered by the out and out anti-Semites as Frank D. Rosenfeld and the Jew deal, as they dismissively call him, and he appoints more Jews to his administration than anybody else.
He is at times a cold and calculating politician who knows he needs to do something when our retrospective humanitarian heart might suggest another thing.
And so our film is pretty equal opportunity tough on everybody, but it's a heartbreaking story.
It's been seven years of a labor of love but one of just absolute heartbreak, and it is not, as Deborah Lipstadt said, "a redounds to our benefit."
There are wonderful points of light and wonderful human beings who do great things and organizations that don't ever get enough credit that do great things, but there is a failure, and it's throughout the executive, the legislative, and, most important, I think, the American people.
- Let me, first of all, say as a spokesman for the American Jewish people that you just disappointed a lot of Jewish people to find out that Kenneth Burns is not Jewish, who vicariously had been taking credit for your success.
But one of the other things, Lynn Novick, that's interesting, and Ken's right, it's very nuanced.
It's very nuanced.
It isn't FDR is the bad guy.
This is where the American people were, and also, this is why some of them were.
It wasn't just all antisemitism.
Some of it was fearing an influx of individuals who were gonna take jobs from the American people, and, of course, also, yes, antisemitism.
But Lynn, in terms of the nuance, one of the great through lines for this documentary is obviously the most famous Holocaust victim is Anne Frank, and you just saw it in that clip from episode one, we learned that the Franks wanted to go to the United States.
They wanted, and in terms of nuance, they weren't expressly denied, right?
It was just that the immigration system that was set up by the State Department, and I'll get to the relevant today part of that in a second, made it impossible.
While we were working on the film, and it was, as Ken said, many years in the process, some documents came to light that showed that Anne Frank's father, Otto Frank, who you saw in the introduction, had been writing letters to a friend in the US, asking for help to get out of Amsterdam as things got worse and worse after the Nazi occupation began.
And he had everything that you needed, and it was a lot of stuff to put together, affidavits and letters of support and all kinds of visas.
There was just enormous amount of paperwork, and yet, while they were in the process of doing that, the State Department, like you said, made it even harder because they said, "If you had relatives in Germany, then you would be a security risk to come to the United States."
And it speaks to this fear of refugees, fear of immigrants as people who don't belong here and who will harm our country in some way.
And when we think about Anne Frank and her family, to frame this whole narrative for Americans as she will help us, their story, I think, helps us as Americans appreciate our, not responsibility for the Holocaust.
We did not perpetrate the Holocaust, but our obligation to help people that could've been saved, as Ken was saying.
And it was really revelatory to us to see that that was true of the Anne Frank and her family, and so we decided to make that a through line through the entire film.
- Revelatory is right.
Revelatory is right.
Thomas Bailey Aldrich, you have the poem from him, and one line from it, Madlin Sadler, is, "Wide open and unguarded stand our gates, and through them presses a wild motley throng."
This is a poem that one could hear read theoretically on Fox.
This is a poem you could hear read at a MAGA rally about immigrants.
And I'm wondering as we continue to be bombarded with these horrible stories of people who are very desperate, whether in Ukraine or Afghanistan or Central America, et cetera, I'm wondering, Madlin Sadler, the chief operating officer of International Rescue Committee, have we learned lessons, or are we still as a country doing more than any other country but not nearly enough?
Let me start by saying as the only non-American in this virtual room that this documentary is salutary for not just America.
It really does show in a tortured and incredible way that inhumanity has a history that we really need to acknowledge, understand it, and ultimately, we really need to learn from it, and America is definitely not alone in needing to do that.
So I do want to say that, threaded through this documentary, which I was spellbound by, and thank you so much, Lynn and Ken, Sarah for making it, it really showed that the world lets the Jews of Europe down, not just America.
And I know it focused on America, but we were all complicit in letting that population down, and we're all complicit in letting these populations down today.
Have we learned the lessons?
Well, there are 100 million forcibly displaced people in the world right now, and of that 100 million refugees and displaced people, 1% of people will be (indistinct) somewhere somehow.
- Lynn, you're gonna introduce the next clip, which has to do- - I'm gonna do it, Jake.
- Oh, I'm sorry, Ken, - Yeah, that's Ken.
- which really touches off exactly on what Madlin was talking about.
- The shape of the world.
- I couldn't believe how perfectly Madlin and perhaps intentionally set up all that we're going to do.
We're going to drop you into a little bit later in our film.
Obviously, Hitler has come to power in January of 1933.
It's been a drip, drip, drip of steady erosion of rights of Jews in Germany.
They're borrowing from the Jim Crow laws.
Hitler is re-arming against the Versailles treaty's obligations, and he's entered into the Rhineland, the buffer zone between France and Germany that was defined by the Versailles treaty, and he's gone into (speaks in foreign language), the takeover of Austria and reunified this larger German empire with great vigor and support by most of the Austrian people.
But he's also now getting more and more Jews who he wants to just leave.
He's happy that the Franks are leaving and others, and so now there is this torrent of people trying to get into the United States, trying to get out of Germany and out of Austria, and there are banging on consulates everywhere, and the United States, which has tried to pretend that there's no problem, particularly our State Department, which is hide bound and filled with a few anti-Semites that are really obstructing things, they have to admit it.
The journalist, Dorothy Thompson says, "The price of paper is the difference between life and death, between even suicide."
It's this idea of a visa or something that gets you out of it.
And so in the face of that, the United States feels, Franklin Roosevelt feels obligated to do something.
So this is a clip about that.
We're in 1938, this summer.
The fall disaster of Kristallnacht has not happened, but that's where we are right now if we can play this second clip.
- In 1938, Americans are asked whether they think the persecution of Jews in Germany has been Jews' own fault, and 2/3 of Americans say partly or entirely.
Something bad is happening to the Jews abroad, and an inclination of a lot of Americans is to blame the Jews.
(soft poignant music) - [Peter] Roosevelt called for a conference in Evian, France for the international community to discuss a collective solution to the problem of political refugees seeking to flee Hitler.
He was careful not to say that most of those in flight were Jews.
- There is a sense in the US government that antisemitism is so strong in America that they don't want people to think or even get the hint that the United States might be going to do anything particular for the Jews, to rescue the Jews.
- [Peter] Since the US Congress was not willing to alter America's quota system, Roosevelt would not ask any other country to change its own laws to take in more immigrants, though it was his hope that other countries might volunteer to do so at the upcoming conference.
In July, representatives of 32 countries met for a week and managed only to form an intergovernmental committee for refugees without any funds or power to assist them.
- Representatives of all 32 nations at that conference stand up and say, "This is a horrible problem.
Let us tell you why we can't let in refugees now."
- [Peter] The French delegate claimed France had reached the extreme point of saturation as regard to refugees.
Four Central American countries jointly said they had no need for merchants and intellectuals, by which they meant Jews.
The Australian spokesman said, "As we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one."
Great Britain refused to increase and then sharply limited the number of Jews allowed into Palestine, the Middle Eastern territory they controlled.
Representatives of Jewish organizations were present but only as observers.
A young Golda Meir remembered her sorrow, rage, frustration, and horror at not being allowed to speak.
- So what you have is a week's worth of nations standing up, one after the other saying, "This is terrible, but we don't want any.
This is awful, but we don't want any."
At which point the Germans say, "Well, you don't want the Jews anymore than we do."
- [Peter] Chaim Weizmann, the president of the World Zionist Organization, dedicated to creating a Jewish state in Palestine, said, "The globe was now divided into places where Jews cannot live and places into which they cannot enter."
Very, very powerful.
Is this working?
Can you hear me?
- Yes, yes.
- Okay, great.
So one of the things that was really astounding that we learned at a different part in this second episode of the series, of the documentary series is that 3/4 of the victims of the Nazis, 3/4 of them died within 20 months.
So there was a long time where millions of lives could've been saved, not just Jews, obviously, but Roma and Catholics and gays and lesbians, et cetera, et cetera, but primarily focused on Jews, the genocide.
3/4 of the victims died in in the last 20 months.
And Ken, one of the things that I found so resonant to today and this doesn't have to do with the refugee issue so much as it has to do with efforts to placate dictators, is that the point is made that Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford makes vehicles for the German army and refuses to provide engines for the British Air Force.
Woolworth's and the Associated Press go along with the Nuremberg laws, firing Jewish employees who live in Germany.
Even though many studios are controlled by Jews, Hollywood goes along with German rules with the exception of, and I'm proud to be associated with Warner Brothers, a sister company here, and, in fact, from 1933 to 1939, not one bad word about Nazis is said on American movie screens in major motion pictures other than in news reels, and even there, it's soft pedaled.
Again, the Nazis are responsible for the Holocaust, and Vichy France and all the co-conspirators from other countries, they're responsible, but we sat back as Americans and let it happen.
- Yeah, it's a sorry, sorry chapter.
Henry Ford is an implacable anti-Semite.
He thinks Jews are responsible for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
He buys a newspaper, the "Dearborn Independent," which rises to the second largest circulation in the country and promulgates the old 19th-century Russian hoax, "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," which suggests there's an international Jewish conspiracy to take over the world, and he prints this in 60 or so editions and then puts it in a book that's translated into German.
And so you have people making decisions based on anti-Semitism, based on racism, based on nativism, and anti-immigrant sentiment.
"We don't wanna change.
We don't wanna be replaced."
That would be echoed in Charlottesville in 2017, and you've got just the buck.
Sometimes it's just an understandable one, as you suggested earlier, Jake, that the Depression is going on in the 1930s.
People are desperate to put food on their table, and the idea of letting other people in that might take your job or steal from your plate is part of it, too.
But at the end, there's a kind of accumulated insensitivity to this powerful and evident humanitarian need, and we cannot hide behind the skirts any longer that we didn't know.
There were 3,000 articles in American newspapers in 1933 alone, the first year, not '34, '35, all the way up to the beginning of the Second World War and the beginning of the decision to exterminate all the Jews in Europe, 3,000 articles in one year about the mistreatment of Jews.
We were not unaware of what was going on, and yet we chose to always do something else, and we had this terrible Johnson redact that had a quota system that was skewed so that only Northern Europeans could get in, and even then, we didn't let in the people within the quota system because a couple of individuals in the State Department, as I said before, were implacably antisemitic as well, and kept changing the bar, changing the rules, all of that stuff.
It is not a pretty chapter but one we have to fully invest in.
If we say that we're in an exceptional country, Jake, then we have to be tougher on ourselves than anything else.
That's how people who are exceptional in any field do that.
They are the hardest working in that, and we don't do that.
We rest on the treacly stories, the sanitized Madison Avenue versions of our past, a nation of immigrants, which is absolutely true, but we've spent as much time as, Peter Hayes said, trying to keep immigrants from coming here as we have in welcoming them.
- And Lynn, the episode two also mentions the Wagner-Roberts Bill, which would have allowed 10,000 children, just children, so nobody's job was gonna be taken, children a year to come into the United States for two years, 20,000 children.
It didn't even get a vote in Congress or in the House or the Senate.
It was opposed by the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution and others, just 20,000 Jewish kids lives that would've been saved.
And I was hearing this and thinking about the reputations of people at the State Department, like secretary of state Cordell Hull, who was antisemitic and did not want Jews to come into the country, and Breckinridge Long, not to mention Henry Ford, not to mention the head of the Olympics, Avery Brundage.
It would surprise no one who pays attention that the Olympics were not concerned about genocide, not to mention Charles Lindbergh about whom there is an airfield named after in San Diego, not to mention World War I hero Eddie Rickenbacker, not to mention the CEO of Sears Roebuck, all of these people, antisemitic, could've stood in the way of Jewish lives being saved.
And if anyone deserves to be, quote unquote, "canceled," it's these individuals, Lynn.
- Well, we're not in the business of canceling people.
We're just trying to understand what happened and why people did the things they did or didn't do the things they should have done.
And that is quite a rogues gallery that you've laid out, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.
And this question of children, first of all, even the idea that you're gonna be separating children from their parents to get them here, and even that, just as a concept, that's already problematic, and the fact that it was not given a vote because the sense was that instead of winning passage, it would've provoked the passage of more laws restricting immigration.
So that was the threat.
"If you bring this to a vote," said the Congress, "we'll just make it worse," and so they backed down.
But in the film, Peter Hayes also makes a point that FDR is trying to get the Neutrality Act repealed so that we can help Great Britain and Western Europe prepare for war, and so it is important.
Our film is about "The US and the Holocaust," but if you're in charge of this country, you have other things you're trying to figure out at the same time.
So on the one hand, we recognize the overt antisemitism and racism and xenophobia of all the people you mentioned, and they haven't really been fully held to account for that, but also some understanding that these were tough decisions, even for the people who might've wanted to help.
So we try to show that there's some complexity, but we see in the film children being delivered to the UK at the same time in the Kindertransport, which I think we've all heard of.
So even that we couldn't do.
That's what it meant.
- During COVID, I did a lot of genealogical research, and I found somebody in our family who married into our family, not a blood relative, but married into our family who was a child on the Kindertransport.
He's now like a 95-year-old rabbi in the UK.
And in any case, I'm at the point now where I'm supposed to kick it to Lynn to introduce this third clip that does describe, and it is important for the documentary viewers to know or the would-be documentary viewers to know that there were American heroes.
Obviously, all of those who went to fight and defeat Nazi Germany are American heroes, but also, there were individuals like the individual Lynn is gonna tell you about right now.
- Okay, thank you.
This takes place in 1940 after Germany has overrun France and all the low countries, and there's a huge refugee crisis in Southern France where people have escaped to Vichy France and this nebulous area where there's basically concentration camps there, but there's tens of thousands of refugees from all over Europe that are there.
And Americans form something called the Emergency Rescue Committee with owner Roosevelt support and a number of other people to try to do something, especially because they find out that there's quite a number of well-known artists and intellectuals there among these tens of thousands of other people, and they decide to send someone over there, and this man volunteers, a man named Varian Fry.
He's 32 years old.
He went to Harvard.
He's a writer.
He'd been a Nazi Germany in the 30s and had seen some of the horrible antisemitic violence there, and he volunteers to go, and he takes $3,000 in a list of people he's supposed to find in Southern France and try to rescue, and I think we're gonna drop you into the middle of this scene.
- [Peter] He took room 307 at the Hotel Splendide and went to work.
News quickly spread that an American with visas had arrived.
Refugees knocked at his door at all hours, filled the hallways, and lined the stairs.
25 letters a day turned up for him at the reception desk.
The telephone rarely stopped ringing.
(upbeat 40s music) (telephone rings) The American vice consul in Marseilles, Hiram Bingham, Jr., and some of his colleagues were happy to help whenever they could.
Bingham was the son of a Senator from Connecticut.
His Groton classmates had called him Righteous Bingham for his earnestness.
He, too, had seen Nazi brutality firsthand, and he believed it his duty to obtain "as many visas as I could for as many people" and was sometimes willing to break the rules.
He allowed the fugitive German-Jewish novelist, Lion Feuchtwanger, to hide in his villa and then cooperated in smuggling him out of the country with Reverend Waitstill Sharp, a veteran rescue worker for the Unitarian Service Committee.
In order to emigrate to the United States from Vichy, each refugee required an American immigration visa, visas for neutral Portugal and Spain, a steamship ticket from Lisbon, and an exit visa from France.
Each took time to obtain, and each had an expiration date.
By the time the last document was procured, another had often expired, requiring the whole laborious process to begin all over again.
To get around the system, Varian Fry helped to smuggle refugees across the Pyrenees into Spain.
He assembled a staff of 46 volunteers that included refugees, young American men and women, a French gendarme, and a Viennese cartoonist who proved an adept forger of documents and official stamps.
Fry worked closely with American Jewish organizations that provided crucial financial support from Portugal and with sympathetic diplomats from other countries, Mexican, Brazilian, Siamese, and an especially empathetic Chinese consul whose formal-looking documents in Mandarin were rarely challenged at the border because neither French nor German officials could read them.
- [Man] It's stimulating to be outside the law.
The experiences of 10, 15, and even 20 years have been pressed into one.
Sometimes I feel as if I have lived my whole life.
- [Peter] Reports of what Fry was up to eventually reached Washington.
Secretary of State Cordell Hull himself cabled the Marseilles consulate that, "This government cannot, repeat, cannot countenance the activities of Mr. Fry and other persons, however well meaning their motives may be."
The State Department tried to force Fry out of France, but he somehow managed to remain in Marseilles for another seven months until Vichy police escorted him out of the country.
(slow string music) Together, Fry and Bingham, whom Fry remembered as his partner in the crime of saving lives, are thought to have rescued at least 2,000 people from the Nazis.
Some were the celebrated people Fry had been sent to save, including the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, the film director Max Ophuls, the sculptor Jacque Lipchitz, the philosopher Hannah Arendt, and the artists Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and Marc Chagall.
But also among them were hundreds of men, women, and children who were not well known, just human beings in need of help.
- So it is powerful and important to hear about those Americans who did do everything they could to save lives of these refugees during World War II, and obviously, the soldiers and the sailors and the Marines and everyone who supported the World War II effort deserves immense credit.
My son's bedroom is decorated with images of World War II, soldiers from Ima Jiwa, from D-Day, and our favorite show is "Band of Brothers."
He's 12, he's about to be bar mitzvah, and we are very proud to be Americans, and we are very proud to be the country that helped rescue the world from Nazis and took in more refugees in World War II than any other country.
But this documentary opens your eyes as to how difficult a task that was for Franklin Roosevelt, President Roosevelt, and Deborah Lipstadt, who's currently in the Biden administration, ambassador to Combat Antisemitism, she takes issue with the idea that, once the war started, the US could not have engaged in more rescue missions to save refugees when FDR would talk about, "No, our way to stop this is to win the war."
She takes issue with it.
It's a lot of provocative questions and things to think about, and Ken, as you know, it is a strong, confident country that acknowledges its mistakes - That's right.
- and learns from them.
But I have to say, I did not know, and again, I'm not surprised this was not taught to me in school, but I did not know that Hitler was inspired by Jim Crow and that Hitler was inspired by how the US massacred Native Americans as we moved west.
And in fact, our Mississippi "must be the Volga," he said.
He wanted to do the same thing except he wanted to move east.
There are horrifying facts.
- There are, and they resonate with today in really unfortunate and scary ways, the susceptibility to authoritarianism, the willingness to, as we contemplated in the depth of the Depression, yielding to the impulse that the democracies were not capable of managing the economic crisis or some of these other crises.
It's a mixed bag, and it's important that we highlight all of the points of light, the Varian Frys and the Hiram Binghams and also the organizations like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the American Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the YMCA, the Unitarian Service that Waitstill Sharp was from.
These are people who risk their lives, in many cases, certainly spent a lot of money.
The American Jewish committee was working overtime to do that, and, in fact, one of the great ironies, Jake, and you alluded to it earlier, is that by the time there's a single American boot on the ground in Italy, Sicily in Italy, 3/4 of the people who are going to be murdered in what we call the Holocaust, the Shoah, have already perished.
It'll be more than that before we even have an air base that would permit us perhaps to go and bomb rail lines at Auschwitz.
That's a whole nother argument about whether they would be rebuilt overnight, which they could've been, whether we could've hit them, which is probably unlikely, whether you would then try to disrupt the activities of the camp.
In fact, Auschwitz was accidentally bombed when bombs intended for an IG Farben synthetic rubber plant five miles away went astray.
80% of our bombs did not land within five miles of their intended targets.
So there's a lots of ironic things, but what happens in a positive vein is that the Treasury Department at the State Department creates a War Refugee Board, and they, after great stalling on the part of the State Department and FDR's intervention and the secretary of treasury, Henry Morganthau, the Jewish man who was in charge of that department, they do more than any other organization to save human lives.
And in fact, the celebrated Raoul Wallenberg, who saved, we think, over 120,000 lives in Hungary and Romania, felt he was following an American program by using the American funds that came from the War Refugee Board to forge passports as they were doing in Southern France, as you saw in the Varian Fry thing, and protect people, give them documents, safe houses, and try to protect some of the remaining Jews of Europe before they were all exterminated.
But it's a real questionable moment.
I think Deborah is absolutely correct.
We could have yelled louder.
We could have made a bigger stink and still have maintained the same war effort, but we did not do that, and millions of people did not get out.
Hundreds of thousands for sure did not get out that perhaps could've gotten out had we been more in keeping with the ideals that we like to celebrate.
- One of the things that is so great about your work, Ken and Lynn, and I'm a long time admirer going back to "Baseball" is, or is it "The Civil War"?
Whichever one came first, "Baseball" or "The Civil War."
- "Civil War," "Civil War."
- Okay, so Civil War back then, I'm saying all the way back, is letting the audience think for themselves.
A great moment of that is in your Vietnam series, when you talk about the ability of some individuals to get out of going to Vietnam by either using connections or seeking cushy jobs, cushier jobs stateside, and you show images of a young Bill Clinton and a young George W. Bush, but you don't even mention their names.
You just show the pictures, and no one's saying that we're about to have another Holocaust in the United States, but the authoritarian impulses that you reference are unmistakable in terms of their relevance.
And Lynn, one of the things that I thought was so interesting, two lines that really stuck out to me, one is Deborah Lipstadt just talking about Hitler, talking about the things, the characteristic of tyrants is they just are constantly pushing to see how far they can go and see what they can get away with, which is something that we see today with all sorts of authoritarians in all sorts of countries.
The other one that I thought was interesting has to do with our devotion to democracy, Lynn, which is the idea that the power brokers that allowed Hitler to come into power, this is an episode one, entered into this pact with the devil because they thought, "Boy, if we keep allowing democracy, then the left and the labor unions are gonna take over in free and fair elections.
Therefore, let's get rid of free and fair elections," which is something, again, we see all over the world, and we see attempts to get rid of free and fair elections here in the United States.
- You said it perfectly.
I would just go back to the first thing, which is the idea that the norms get broken slowly a little bit at a time.
And Deborah Lipstadt, as you said, is explaining they try a little bit.
"Let's just have one law discriminating against Jews.
Oh, nobody complained.
Now we can go farther," and they're watching the world's reaction, and that goes to what Ken was saying that we didn't react.
And if we had said more or perhaps boycotted, who knows what, take action of some sort, I'm not talking about military action, but just had a more vigorous reaction to the incremental drip, drip, drip of persecutions and dehumanizing and laws and arresting people, beating them up, putting them in concentration camps, this didn't happen overnight.
But it also is that thing where it's slowly and then it's all of a sudden, so you're this slow process, and then you turn around and you're living in a dictatorship and the people that were there, hundreds of thousands of Jewish Germans, have no rights, and that's one of the interesting phenomena that we see.
We're living through that right now, it feels like, certainly to me, I think to many of us who worked on this film.
That's one of the ways in which our film feels very relevant and we wish it weren't.
We really, really wish that this film was just a nice, safe trip down something that happened in the past and we could just look at it and dispassionately try to understand, but that's one reason why we really rushed to get the film on the air this fall because these frightening trends are getting worse and worse, and the threat to democratic norms, voting, security of elections, integrity of the process, we're on razor's edge right now.
And I just wanna say one thing because Madlin had an audio problem to say that we wanted to show the Varian Fry clip because there's a direct line from Varian Fry and the work he did to the International Rescue Committee today and the amazing work they do.
I'm sorry that she's not able to say that, but I just wanted to drop that in here because it's very important we recognize that the scale, he did something on a small scale, but IRC is doing something on a very big scale, and we're very honored to have you here.
- Yeah, and the IRC does amazing work, and if you can afford to help, if you can afford to donate, please consider a donation to the IRC.
I wanna just like tell people, I don't know how often people attend webinars or lectures or moderated panels like this, and often it is true that people like me who have very busy day jobs are given questions.
These are all questions I came up with because I was so engaged in this documentary.
Nothing was handed to me to ask, and I just think anybody who watches, and I should remind you to watch the documentary, which airs in streams on your local PBS channel beginning on September 18th.
So you have a little time to prepare for it and set your DVRs and all that.
It's really, really important.
We're not taught about our warts in this country.
We're not shown our warts.
We might be the best country in the world, and I think we are, but that's not necessarily saying much, and there's a lot of room for improvement.
And I'm honored, Ken and Lynn and Madlin, that you asked me to moderate this, and I hope people tune in, and I hope to have you on my show sometime soon to help promote this documentary, although news today, obviously, I don't know how much I'm gonna be controlling my show for the next week.
But thank you so much, and thank you, PBS, and thank you.
Don't forget to support Madlin Sadler and the International Rescue Committee, and I appreciate your tuning in tonight.
- Thank you, Jake.
- Thank you so much.