Confronting our History

Confronting our History

In September 1938, Helmut, 29, arrives in New York alone. He hopes his wife, Steffi, will join him soon – she is still living in Breslau, Germany, and listed as “Person in Old Country” on his entry manifest. 59 days later, Helmut returns to Germany to be with his wife, convinced that time is running out and a second United States visa is unlikely.1

One year later, Helmut and Steffi receive visas to leave Germany and enter Bolivia, the only country that would accept them both. Within a short period of time, Germany will restrict and stop all Jewish emigration. Finally, in November 1947, Helmut, Steffi, and their six-year-old son, Peter, arrive in New York to settle permanently in the United States.

Peter is my father.

I tell this story not because it is unique, but as just one example of the immense, life-determining circumstances facing the Jews of Europe as World War II and the Holocaust loomed. Of course, we know that, tragically, as violence against Jews rapidly increased in the 1930s, millions of others could not escape the Nazi regime and were subsequently murdered.

That story – of the tragic consequences of the American public’s indifference to the plight of European Jewry, even after the scale of the Holocaust became public knowledge – is the one told by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein in their newest documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust. The three-part, six-hour series will begin airing on PBS stations this Sunday, September 18th.

How did Americans collectively respond when faced with the rise of hatred, violence, and murder in Europe? How did attitudes among Americans, including racism and race laws, antisemitism, and the eugenics movement, impact American immigration policies even as the realities of the Holocaust became clear? In confronting these questions, The U.S. and the Holocaust tells an immensely particularistic story about Jewish history and the global response that failed to save European Jewry. At the same time, the inability or unwillingness of people to open their eyes and hearts to the “other” even in the face of horrific acts is a universal question.

As Burns himself notes, “What is so urgent about the story we’re telling here is that while it is a timeless story and important story to tell and one that reflects the most recent scholarship on the subject and our best storytelling ability — and I won’t work on a more important film — there is an urgency that comes from the fact that while making it, the film began to resonate more and more with the current period.”

In part because of the urgency to confront our past and present, Federation is proud to sponsor the WETA PBS broadcast of The U.S. and the Holocaust.

We are committed to telling the stories of the Holocaust and its survivors as widely as possible, to supporting the remaining survivors in their final years, and to encouraging our continued communal and national learning from the Holocaust. Doing so is both painful and critical – and among our most important responsibilities. We owe it to the Holocaust survivors, to ourselves, and to the next generation to continue learning about and confronting this difficult part of our collective history. And we owe it to the future of Jewish peoplehood and the world to ensure this truly never happens again.

I hope you’ll join me in tuning in for this important broadcast in the coming week. You can find more information here.

Thank you for continuing to connect with and care for one another, and for ensuring that our community is a place where each of us can live full, meaningful Jewish lives – together.

[1] Manifests were gathered by my wife, Terri Brown Preuss, as part of her genealogical research on our family.

By the end of June 1939, 309,000 Jews from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia applied for the 27,000 visas available (US Holocaust Memorial and Museum website).

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