Reflections on America and Its History: Takeaways from the First Part of ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
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 world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” 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!”
– Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus, 1883

(C) 2022 PBS & Florentine Films

Last night I finally watched The Golden Door, the first episode of The U.S. and the Holocaust, a new three-part documentary by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein that aired recently on PBS and had its home media release on October 4, all the way through.

As I may have mentioned in previous posts, I received my three-disc Blu-ray set from Amazon two weeks ago – on its “street date” – but because I always (stupidly) chose to start watching the documentary late at night, I fell asleep well before the end of the 128-minute-long episode. This, of course, is a shame, because not only is The U.S. and the Holocaust an important and highly relevant documentary that every American needs to watch but it was made by Ken Burns, one of the most celebrated and talented documentarians of our time.

I’m too tired from another long, sleepless night to get into a detailed discussion of The Golden Door, but I will share a few brief takeaways from my first complete viewing of the episode.

  • Anne Frank, perhaps the world’s most famous – and tragic – teenage diarist, and her family might have survived the Holocaust…if the United States’ immigration policies of the 1930s had not catered to the anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant xenophobia that shaped the decision-making process in the U.S. State Department
  • Until the 1880s, America had “open borders,” and while nativism and prejudices toward immigrants existed then, too, most Americans who were descendants of immigrants from Great Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia, and Germany tolerated newcomers because they were needed to help American expansion in the West and to build the infrastructure that made American industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries possible
  • Adolf Hitler and the Nazis studied American immigration laws – particularly the exclusionary ones created after the 1880s to keep immigrants from southern Europe, Asia, and Latin America out – and based their own racial discrimination laws on the South’s “Jim Crow” laws
  • And until it became clear that the U.S. was not going to remain neutral in World War II, Hitler admired America’s white population and the way it had found a “Final Solution” to its problem with the native population during the country’s westward expansion in the 19th Century. As a boy, Hitler read avidly the Westerns written by German author Karl May, and once commented that for Germany the Volga River, located deep inside Russia, must its Mississippi. In other words, the Nazis were to do to the Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Lithuanians, other Slavs, and the Jews what white America had done with the Native American tribes: exterminate them via genocide, then put the survivors in small enclaves, aka reservations

I also noticed that each of the three episodes’ titles is derived from Emma Lazarus’ famous poem, The New Colossus, which she wrote in 1883 to raise funds for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Part One is titled The Golden Door (Beginnings – 1938); Part Two is titled Yearning to Breathe Free (1938-1942); and Part Three is titled The Homeless, Tempest-Tossed (1942- ).   

The biggest takeaway is, of course, the oft-cited refrain of “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

2 thoughts on “Reflections on America and Its History: Takeaways from the First Part of ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’

    1. You’d think that after 150 years, many Southerners would have accepted that their ancestors’ cause was morally wrong, or that 80 years after the fact, conservative whites would admit that sending a segregated military into WWII was stupid, but the facts show otherwise. The fact that backlash to Barack Obama’s two-term Presidency ushered in the rise of the MAGA movement is evidence that we’ll never learn anything.

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