Ken Burns’ latest documentary “The U.S. and the Holocaust” shows a brief clip of massive crowds filling Madison Square Garden and the surrounding streets on March 27, 1933 to protest Nazi anti-Semitism. But Burns’ focus—here and throughout his film—remains confined to the elite speakers, ignoring the critical roles played by “ordinary” American Jews.
In April 1933, less than three months after Hitler became chancellor of Germany, newspapers across the United States published a photograph that featured grinning stormtroopers parading a Jewish man around the town of Chemnitz in a garbage wagon. The caption informed readers that the stormtroopers had rounded up Chemnitz’s Jews and forced them to scrub walls before jeering crowds. When the Jewish man refused to comply with the stormtroopers’ order, they placed him on exhibit in the garbage wagon. Horrified by the photograph and accompanying report in The Billings Gazette, a Jewish woman in the hamlet of Roundup, Montana immediately wrote to her U.S. senators appealing to them to ask the American government to pressure Germany to “stop these unspeakable humiliations” of Jews.
Such media reports and the grassroots response to them were not unusual. Almost from the moment Hitler assumed power, the American press published accounts of Nazis publicly displaying Jews in a manner that associated them with garbage and human excrement. Readers readily discerned that the Nazis considered Jews not merely subhuman but “waste” that German society had to discard. The Nazis’ unmistakably annihilationist rallying cry “Perish Judea” had been widely heard beginning with the 1930 and 1931 Berlin pogroms, which were front-page news in major American newspapers.
Many American Jews and some foreign sympathizers recognized the implications of such reports. American Jewish activists noted with horror that, with nearly all countries barring or severely restricting entry to Jewish refugees, some German Jews were even attempting to escape to Poland. Prominent American Jewish journalist Alexander Brin, who traveled throughout Germany in late 1933 to investigate the Jews’ predicament, concluded in November of that year that Germany’s Jews were the victims of a cruelty unprecedented in the history of anti-Semitism. The Spanish Inquisition was “a mere brawl” compared to Nazi anti-Semitism, he said. Rabbis across the United States devoted their Purim sermons to denouncing Hitler as the modern Haman, acknowledging Nazi annihilationist intentions. All of this goes unmentioned in Ken Burns’ film.
Although ignored by Burns, massive numbers of American (and British) Jews from the working- and lower-middle classes vehemently demanded that Britain “open the gates of Palestine” to Jews fleeing persecution. On March 23, 1933, the Jewish War Veterans of the United States (JWV) presented an appeal at the British consulate in New York that called on the British government to set aside restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine. In November, Pierre van Paassen, whose column was widely syndicated in American newspapers, endorsed honorary president of the American Jewish Congress Rabbi Stephen Wise’s call for settling 150,000 German Jews in Palestine, but warned that unless such a plan were carried out at once, “there will be no 150,000 German Jews left to settle in Palestine.” As America kept its doors shut, many Jews saw Mandatory Palestine as their best—or only—hope.
From the beginning of Nazi rule, American Jews inundated the White House with letters and telegrams demanding that President Franklin D. Roosevelt make an official protest to the German government against the persecution of German Jews. The Manchester Guardian reported that outrage over Nazi policies “flamed high in the United States.”
Roosevelt did nothing. Uninterested, he merely forwarded the avalanche of letters and telegrams to the State Department, where he knew they would be ignored. Roosevelt’s Secretary of State Cordell Hull claimed that anti-Semitic “manifestations” were subsiding in Germany and that Hitler had ordered his followers to maintain law and order.
Throughout Burns’ film, the focus is on Jewish and government leaders, a top-down approach to history that has long been deemed inadequate and misleading. In fact, relentless grassroots Jewish pressure was the engine of change. It was this pressure that forced a hesitant American Jewish Congress, one of the two most influential Jewish organizations, to schedule mass protests across the United States against Nazi anti-Semitism for March 27, 1933. “Ordinary” American Jews initiated the call for mass protest and a boycott of German goods and services. Responding to the grassroots demands, the American Jewish Congress held a meeting to plan action, which Burns’ film mentions only in passing.
Burns, wedded to the top-down approach, focuses on a clash between two Jewish leaders—Rabbi Wise of the American Jewish Congress and Judge Joseph Proskauer of the American Jewish Committee—at the meeting. The film ignores the determination of the American Jewish Congress to bar entry to a contingent from the JWV, which was an organization of grassroots Jews it could not control and considered too “militant.” Standing its ground, the JWV forced a compromise that allowed several of its members to attend the meeting. When admitted, the JWV moved for an immediate endorsement of an organized boycott of German goods and services, echoing the cry from the grassroots. Their opponents would not agree to this, but finally, in August 1933, the American Jewish Congress yielded to the grassroots and endorsed the boycott.
None of this is mentioned in Burns’ film. This is the real American Jewish response to the approach of the Holocaust. It should never be omitted—or forgotten.
Stephen H. Norwood is a Professor of History and Judaic Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of six books, including Prologue to Annihilation: Ordinary American and British Jews Challenge the Third Reich (2021) and The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower: Complicity and Conflict on American Campuses (2009).