News

Holocaust And The Home Front

THANKS TO A MAN NAMED SPIELBERG, the Holocaust is becoming a hot TV concept. That's not to trivialize the monstrous, only to note that the home box office has always taken cues from the one at the multiplex (and just as often botched them). In early April public television will pack three Holocaust-themed documentaries-conceived before "Schindler's List" opened but positioned to ride its wake-into two consecutive nights. Their subjects are a shrine, the haunting of a Holocaust survivor and some unconscionably rotten attitude-among the good guys. This trilogy isn't easy viewing, but it moves and enlightens, even roughs up some of our most cherished assumptions about the United States. When's the last time the TV toy store dared do that? The shrine is Washington's year-old U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. PBS's "For the Living" (April 6) skillfully documents its harrowing impact: visitors experience the sensations of someone walking through a Nazi death camp. Now, so will viewers. The haunted survivor was Primo Levi, the Auschwitz inmate who's the subject of "The Memory of the Offense" (April 5). This is the tale of a celebrated writer who, in painstakingly recording his own passage through the abattoir, became increasingly tormented by a kind of guilt: "the worst survived, the best all died." Levi committed suicide in 1987.

But it's the trilogy's longest act that will hit home most forcefully. 'America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference" (April 6) indicts the administration of Franklin Roosevelt as an accomplice in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of European Jews. The 90-minute documentary, part of PBS's "The American Experience" series, makes a convincing case that the State Department gleaned Hitler's plans for the Jews as early as 1938. Yet as the stream of likely victims seeking U.S. sanctuary relentlessly swelled, the people who controlled State's immigration policies-an old-line WASP gentlemen's club traditionally suspicious of aliens-refused to unlock the gates. Worse, the department's higher ups, the program charges, suppressed information about the Holocaust and actively blocked several Jewish rescue efforts. In one revealing memo, Assistant Secretary of State Breckenridge Long proposed that American consuls in Europe "postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of visas."

Some of this could be attributed to Depression-spawned fears of foreign hordes swamping the unemployment offices. Yet it's a dismal fact that America was beset by a virulent and pervasive anti-Semitism. It's all here: hotels and country clubs proudly proclaiming themselves "Restricted"; columns of help-wanted ads carrying the abbreviation "Chr" (for Christian); signs at private beaches warning NO JEWS OR DOGS ALLOWED. A 1942 opinion poll found that Americans regarded Jews as the third greatest menace to the nation (just behind the Germans and Japanese). No less chilling is Laura Delano, the president's cousin, urging the denial of asylum to nearly 20,000 Jewish children: "Twenty thousand charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults."

The documentary stops short of indicting the president himself, though it does knock Roosevelt for "refusing to focus" on the issue of Nazi genocide. It wasn't until Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau (this film's Oskar Schindler) confronted the president in 1944 with proof of the government's obstructionism that FDR gave in to Jewish activists and created the War Refugee Board, which helped rescue tens of thousands. Still, says historian David Wyman, "the great shame" was that Roosevelt hadn't acted earlier and, in the process, "rescued the conscience of the nation." Expect a flurry of op-ed page defense briefs from the keepers of FDR's flame.

Producer-writer Martin Ostrow, a veteran PBS documentarian, deftly frames his "J'accuse" with one Jewish-American's seven-year struggle to save his trapped German parents. But Kurt Klein couldn't breach the State Department's calculated uninterest; only later, as a GI liberating his homeland, did he learn that his parents had perished at Auschwitz. Without ever succumbing to preachiness, "America and the Holocaust" delivers a message. At a moment of new "ethnic cleansing," this documentary offers a useful reminder of the secret ways governments hang DO NOT DISTURB on their hearts. Watching the faces of these abandoned Jews, one thinks not of "Schindler's List" but of a very different movie classic about World War II whose title seems all too applicable: "They Were Expendable."

Editor's Pick