Sixty years ago this month, in January 1943, a Gallup poll asked Americans: “It is said that two million Jews have been killed in Europe since the war began. Do you think this is true or just a rumor?” Although just a few weeks earlier, the Allied leadership had publicly confirmed that two million Jews had been murdered, the poll found that only 47% believed it was true, while 29% dismissed it as a rumor; the remaining 24% had no opinion.
A major part of the reason for the public’s skepticism was the failure of the American media to treat the Nazi genocide as a serious issue. And so Ben Hecht, the newspaper columnist and Academy Award-winning screenwriter, responded the only way he knew how: he picked up his pen and began to write.
Determined to alert the American public, Hecht authored a full-scale pageant called “We Will Never Die.” On a stage featuring forty foot-high tablets of the Ten Commandments, it would survey Jewish contributions to civilization throughout history and describe the Nazi slaughter of the Jews, culminating in a dramatic recitation of “Kaddish,” the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead, by a group of elderly refugee rabbis.
Hecht was involved with a small Jewish activist group led by Peter Bergson, a Zionist emissary from Palestine who had been lobbying for the creation of a Jewish army to fight the Nazis, but was now concentrating on urging the Allies to rescue Jews from Hitler. Hecht and Bergson believed “We Will Never Die” would have maximum impact if it were sponsored by a broad coalition of Jewish organizations.
Sixty years ago this month, on a frigid January evening in 1943, Hecht spoke to a meeting in New York City attended by representatives of 32 Jewish groups, “from the powerful B’nai B’rith to a society of Brooklyn rabbis,” as Hecht later recalled. Hecht described the pageant to them and handed out copies of the script.
In his colorful autobiography, Hecht recounted their reaction:
“The representative of the American Jewish Congress stood up, pointed a finger and cried out, ‘As an organization, we refuse to work with Morris Goldfarb! Never will the American Jewish Congress join up with anything in which the Arbeiterring [the socialist Workmen’s Circle group] is involved!’
“A man, possibly Morris Goldfarb, was on his feet yelling back, ‘And we will never work with the American Jewish Congress in a thousand years!’ Other voices arose. English and Yiddish outcries filled the room. Within five minutes a free-for-all, bitter as a Kentucky feud, was in full swing. The 32 Jewish organizations were denouncing each other as Socialists, as Fascists, as Christians, as undesirables of every stripe.
“The door opened and the 33rd representative entered. He understood instantly what was going on and began yelling without taking his hat off. I retreated to the bedroom. The spectacle of Jews comically belaboring each other in the worst hour of their history sickened me.”
Not only did the major Jewish organizations refuse to cooperate with each other; they also refused to work with the Bergson-Hecht group. An official of the American Jewish Committee who attended the meeting wrote afterwards to a colleague: “They may in fact produce a pageant. It may even have literary merit. Obviously we as a Committee should have nothing to do with this venture.”
Some Jewish leaders feared the Bergson group’s vocal activism would usurp their own role in the Jewish community. Other Jewish leaders worried that dramatic public activities such as Hecht’s pageant might provoke anti-Semitism. Some would not work with Bergson because their particular factions in the Zionist movement regarded him as their political rival.
Despite the lack of cooperation, Bergson and Hecht went ahead with “We Will Never Die” on their own. Starring Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni, and directed by Moss Hart with an original score by Kurt Weill, it played to audiences of more than 40,000 in two shows at Madison Square Garden. It was subsequently staged in Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, and Washington D.C., where the audience included First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, six Supreme Court justices, numerous members of the international diplomatic corps, and an estimated 300 Members of Congress.
It was the first major step in the effort to rouse America’s conscience about the Holocaust. But it would have been far more effective had it enjoyed the co-sponsorship of America’s largest Jewish organizations. Not only did they refuse to co-sponsor it, but in some cities, the mainstream Jewish groups actually sought to discourage attendance.
Disunity has plagued the Jewish people since biblical times. But its tragic effects were never on more painful display than during the Holocaust, when it interfered with efforts to convince America to save Jews from Hitler.