Viewpoint: Robert Azzi – Still yearning to breathe free

For the Ledger-Transcript
Published: 9/29/2022 7:40:10 AM

I am a big fan of New Hampshire's storied filmmaker Ken Burns and am fully appreciative of his multifaceted presence in the Granite State. I appreciate, for example, that his presence in Walpole is not only a center for creative filmmaking but he has also introduced a world-class eatery to the Connecticut Valley alongside an internationally renowned handmade chocolates shop where my favorite mango-filled dark chocolate candies are available.

I love that.

Recently, Burns, who lives in Walpole, told The Guardian, "I live in nature. I walk constantly and do a lot of letter-writing and speechwriting and script-writing and script-fixing and editing in my head and that’s very helpful. And I happen to live in a particularly beautiful part of the country.”

That's true. I get that.

Burns is on my mind today for a work he just gifted to us, what might be the most-important film made on the Holocaust by an American for Americans, a work for which we should all be grateful.

“The U.S. and the Holocaust,” which Burns co-directed with Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, is a powerful, relentless indictment of America for its failure to fully confront the horrors befalling the Jews of Europe in real time, for its failure to help rescue Jewish families pleading with us for rescue once the full import of the Nazi genocide was realized. Burns's film is also a caution that we're in danger of letting it happen again within our own borders.

Today, there are Americans who stand in front of America First signs -- as antisemite Charles Lindbergh as spokesman of the isolationist America First Committee once stood -- and spew hatred and lies about people who are not white Christian nationalist supremacists.

America has never, in spite of its expressed aspirations, rid itself of the demons of racism, antisemitism, nativism, xenophobia and white supremacy.

While in 1790, George Washington wrote a letter to the Jews of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, wishing " ... For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction ... May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid... " the reality is that what Washington wished for the Jews of Truro would never be fully realized, that the children of the stock of Abraham, and stock of so many others, were never to be fully welcome in these lands.

So when, in the 1930s and 1940s, as Hitler and the Nazis were committing unspeakable atrocities and evil, too many Americans who knew what was happening deliberately refused sanctuary and shelter to hundreds of thousands yearning to breathe free.

It was a process of exclusion so deliberate that even after France surrendered to the Nazis, officials in our State Department were still scheming to deny refugee status and immigration into America.  American consular officers were instructed by Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long that they could “put every obstacle in the way and require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of visas.”

As millions were being threatened and exterminated, America, driven by the demons of nativism and antisemitism, worked from the early 1930s into the late 1940s to deny refuge to huddled masses yearning to be free. It was nativism so prejudiced that North Carolina Sen. Robert Reynolds even declared, “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 the Earth could possibly scale or ascend it.”

Sound familiar?

Last week, as “The U.S. and the Holocaust” was being released by PBS, Burns told interviewers that the series was originally scheduled to be released in 2023 but said he accelerated production "because I felt the urgency that we needed to be part of a conversation." A conversation that Americans have been trying to have for a very long time - and still haven't figured out how to do it.

To have that conversation, we have to acknowledge that America, like all nations, was born in sin -- that without the enslaved labor of people brought to the Americas against their will, without the genocide of Indigenous peoples and theft of their land, America might be other than what it is today.

We have to acknowledge, also, that many of the voices advocating for the demonization, marginalization and disenfranchisement of the Other in America today are echoing what America has heard before, too many times, and in “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” Burns has brilliantly connected those voices for us.

Spoiler alert

I am thankful that the filmmakers brilliant ended their film with images of impoverished beings whose identity is based on hatred, whose hatred for the Other is not unlike what we have confronted before.

And those voices are connected.

Images of a neo-Nazi white supremacist who murdered nine Blacks in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015; images of white supremacists with tiki torches marching in 2017 at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., chanting “Jews will not replace us!" neo-Nazis whom President Donald Trump included among "very fine people."

Images of Pittsburgh's Tree of Life Synagogue, where in 2018 an antisemite murdered 11 worshippers, images of a Donald Trump-inspired attempted coup and insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, replete with images of confederate flag, of a "Camp Auschwitz" hoodie and a scaffold and noose for lynching Vice President Mike Pence.

“We must take sides," Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote in "Night." "Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe."  

We must take sides, I believe, until all can sit in safety under their own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make them afraid.

Until all can breathe free.

Robert Azzi, a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter, visits frequently in the Monadnock region. He can be reached at theother.azzi@gmail.com. His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com.


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