NJ-PBS discussion panel covers American response to Holocaust

Members of the Ramapo community were invited to join “Considering the Past to Shape the Future: Reflections on The US and the Holocaust,” an online NJ-PBS discussion panel centered around the new documentary series “The US and the Holocaust” by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein. Dr. Jacob Labendz, director of the Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, joined panelists Dr. Rebecca Erbelding, rabbi Matthew Gewirtz and Rebecca Kirzner to weigh in on antisemitism, immigration, refugees and rethinking history using the documentary as a backdrop for discussion.

Erbelding is a historian who works at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. She also served as a historical advisor for this documentary and said the fact-checking and research process was rigorous. Gewirtz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun. He is also a published author and religious commentator on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and CNN’s “State of the Union.” Kirzner is the senior director of grassroots organizing and advocacy at HIAS, an organization founded by the Hebrew community that helps refugees all across the globe. Iilyse Shainbrown, an educator and director of Holocaust education for the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, served as the moderator.

Shainbrown began the discussion by asking the panelists “Why the U.S.?” in terms of the documentary’s choice to focus on the U.S. instead of Europe where the Holocaust took place. Erbelding responded by saying there is a lot to this story and the responses from the American people. She emphasized the word “responses.” 

“When I talk to people, they either assume that Americans knew nothing about what was happening as it was happening and were surprised by liberation, or people think we knew everything that was happening in Europe as it was happening, but we were too anti-semitic or indifferent to do anything about it. The reality is there is no one answer to this,” she said. She further explained that America is a “complicated country” and the documentary shows that complicated process of the US becoming involved. 

Gewirtz discussed it from a Jewish perspective, having shown the documentary to his congregation. “What we didn’t know was how much hatred there was implicit, explicit, intrinsic, and so it really was incredibly difficult to watch, but incredibly important in the most informative of ways, and what came out of it,” he said

The next question was directed towards Labendz of translating the film into today’s world as an educator. 

“It’s a stressful time in America, an anxious time, and it’s a time where we’re debating more broadly how we want to tell our story, who we are as an American people, to the extent that we can even talk about something like an American people…” he said. Labendz also added that he feels students “are already primed to rethink American history” which makes it easier to reckon with the past. He also mentioned the broader Bergen County community discussion he held when he invited Erbelding to discuss her work to his students.

Another important topic of discussion was the way immigration was viewed in the 1930s and comparing it to now. Erbelding discussed it from the historical context of eugenics. Hitler considered Jews to be a race, not a religion. Eugenics came into immigration law with White Protestants being the top of the hierarchy. She mentioned that those racist immigration laws kept Jews out of the US based on their country of origin and also limited Asians, blacks and indigenous populations from immigrating. 

Kirzner discussed immigration in a modern lens based on her work with HIAS. “For me, the documentary, I think more than anything, was a very acute reminder of how similar the anti-immigration rhetoric in the 1930s and 1940s in the United States can sound to today’s anti-immigration rhetoric,” she said. She used the 2016 Muslim ban as an example, comparing it to the restrictive immigration laws first passed in the 1920s. She also said that anti-semitism and anti-immigration sentiments can go hand in hand, using the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 as an example.

A final important discussion point was how this film can be used as an educational tool to further the discussion of the Holocaust in connection to today.

“Six hours is a lot of film and it’s a challenge,” Labendz said, referencing the total length of the documentary. “I assigned my students to watch the entire six hours… Students have a lot of different ways of consuming media. It’s our job at the university level to teach them how to read critically and thoroughly. But that’s a process. So I’m really grateful for resources like these.”

The discussion ended with a few minutes set aside for audience questions and the event was recorded for attendees. The full recording can be viewed online.



Photo by Matthew Wikfors.