I can think of a few things that could benefit anyone involved in orchestrating last week’s shameful stunt of sending planeloads of desperate, unsuspecting migrants from Florida to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. For instance: sitting them down for six hours and 38 minutes to watch Ken Burns’ The U.S. and the Holocaust, which aired on PBS this week.
I’m unsure anyone who hatched this cruel plan has ever watched a minute of PBS, seen a Ken Burns documentary – or seen a documentary, period – but this three-part series should be required viewing for them. (For anyone, really.)
The central point of the documentary (co-made with Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein) is that while Americans might see their country as a haven for immigrants, and a saviour during the Second World War, the U.S. in fact closed its doors pretty tightly during that critical period – to Jews, in particular. The State Department, lobby groups such as one called America First (sound familiar?), and average Americans didn’t want Jews entering the country. When asked two weeks after Kristallnacht whether the U.S. should allow more Jews into the country, 70 per cent of respondents said no.
“The exclusion of people and shutting them out has been as American as apple pie” says historian Peter Hayes, in episode one.
(Canada is not the focus of this project, but we do earn a mention in our turning away of the MS St. Louis, filled with hundreds of Jewish refugees, who were then sent back to Europe.)
Episode two opens with a scene from a Nazi rally, before the war, but after Hitler had made his thoughts about the Jews clear.
“You will make a statement as to whether you consider my work to be right, whether you believe that I have been diligent, that I have spent my time decently, in the service of my people, and thus entitle me to say that what I am declaring here and now is what Germany desires, what the German people desire.”
A roar of approval fills the packed house, as the crowds stand, arms outstretched.
It was particularly chilling to watch that scene shortly after photos emerged of an Ohio Trump rally where some attendees stood in a similar pose. Even if their outstretched arms included a pointed finger, associated with Trump’s “America First” rallying cry, it was a stomach-turning image. It happened last Saturday.
The Burns documentary is about history, but it is also a warning about what is happening now. Not just the references to Charlottesville’s Unite the Right rally (“Jews will not replace us!”) and the January 6 insurrection, including the guy in the “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt, but about increasingly alarming attitudes toward immigrants.
The parallels are striking. Sickening.
During the Second World War, Americans were concerned about the influx of Jews; that they were being “replaced” – the narrator emphasizes this word, surely a nod to the Great Replacement Theory that certain far-right, white nationalist elements have adopted.
In 1941, U.S. senator Robert Reynolds stated: “If I had my way, 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.”
It was a humanitarian crisis, yet there was great reluctance to help. There were open calls for the status quo – a “white, gentile-ruled United States.” There was suspicion about German-Jewish refugees entering the U.S.
“Something curious is happening to us in this country and I think it is time we stopped and took stock of ourselves,” wrote first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. “Are we going to be swept away from our traditional attitude toward civil liberty by hysteria?”
Something is happening – again, still – in the U.S. There is probably a better word for it than “curious.”
It should be shocking to every American, to every human being, that officials paid by tax dollars – that anyone, in fact – devised this nasty scheme for these migrants. That others agreed to it, carried it out. That human beings approached these vulnerable people, lied to them, loaded them onto planes and dumped them not where they were told they were going.
And these prankster perpetrators maybe even laughed, amongst friends, about it. And in the case of Donald Trump, claimed that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis had stolen the idea from him. Mr. Trump wanted the credit.
This is the country that put children in cages, children who want to live in America. Well, who sends a child out alone to try to cross a border, some people tut-tut.
I’ll tell you who: Desperate parents willing to do the unthinkable for a shot at safety for their children, a good life. It happened during what we now call the Holocaust. And it’s happening now.
Historian Deborah Lipstadt says in the film, “The time to stop a genocide is before it happens.”
The time to stop anti-immigrant madness is before it happens. The next best time is now.