Five things to know on America and the Holocaust – A new PBS documentary is scheduled to start Sept. 18 | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Five things to know on America and the Holocaust  – A new PBS documentary is scheduled to start Sept. 18 


Are you planning to watch the Ken Burns’ PBS documentary, “The US and the Holocaust,” Sept. 18-20? Here are five things to know, which could be helpful as you watch.  

  1. The Nazis studied Jim Crow. Although legal racism against racial and ethnic minorities in the United States did not make the rise of Nazism inevitable, it did serve as inspiration for Nazi Germany. Legal professionals from Nazi Germany studied the American model of racism and used it as an inspiration for some laws, including the infamous 1935 Nuremberg Laws, which stripped German Jews of their citizenship and political rights. Racist laws in the United States were also used by Nazi Germany to deflect criticism and justify their antisemitic laws and actions. 
  2. The German American Bund operated nationwide, including in Wisconsin. Founded in 1936, the German American Bund was an American pro-Nazi organization that promoted Nazi ideology and propaganda. The Bund had approximately 25,000 members and operated a number of youth camps across America, including one in Grafton. The Bund was outlawed by the U.S. government after America entered World War II in December 1941. 
  3. German Jewish refugees collected vital intelligence for the U.S. military. During World War II, 20,000 American soldiers known as Ritchie Boys were trained at Camp Ritchie in Maryland to collect tactical battlefield intelligence. Approximately 2,000 Ritchie Boys were German-Jewish refugees who fled to America and later joined the military. According to David Frey, professor of history at West Point, over 60% of usable intelligence gathered by Americans on the battlefield in World War II came from the Ritchie Boys. This intelligence helped save the lives of countless American soldiers and defeat Nazi Germany. 
  4. Most Americans opposed admitting Jewish refugees, including the MS St. Louis passengers. In May 1939, 937 passengers (almost all Jewish refugees from Europe) set sail from Hamburg to Cuba on the MS St. Louis. The majority of the passengers planned to stay in Cuba until they received their U.S. visas; however, the Cuban government invalidated their landing permits which left the passengers stranded on the boat. Despite appeals to the U.S. government by American Jewish organizations and the ship’s captain, the passengers were not allowed to disembark in America and were forced to return to Europe. While enroute to Europe, the passengers were accepted by the United Kingdom, Belgium, France and the Netherlands; however, this refuge was temporary. In 1940, Nazi Germany invaded western Europe and 254 of the St. Louis passengers were murdered during the Holocaust. 
  5. Americans were aware of the Holocaust as it was happening. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, over 1,800 articles were published by Wisconsin newspapers about the Holocaust (not yet referred to by this name) as it happened. Headlines include “U.S. Studies Jews’ Plight” from the Milwaukee Journal on March 22, 1933, and “Embattled Remnants of Warsaw Ghetto Fire on Nazi Execution Squads” from The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle on May 13, 1943. American Jews also raised awareness with the 1943 pageant, “We Will Never Die,” developed by Hollywood screenwriter Ben Hecht and performed for a total of 100,000 people in New York City, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles.  


Michael A. Morris is the community engagement manager with the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center.