How America Learned of the Holocaust

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Sixty years ago this week, large numbers of Americans for the first time became aware of the Nazi Holocaust–thanks to a dramatic pageant staged at Madison Square Garden by an alliance of Jewish activists and Hollywood celebrities.

A few weeks earlier, a Gallup poll had 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 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. When the news of the genocide was revealed, Bergson and Hecht changed their agenda and began concentrating on urging the Allies to rescue Jews from Hitler.

Unfortunately,Hecht and Bergson failed to persuade major Jewish organizations to co-sponsor “We Will Never Die.” A meeting of representatives of 32 Jewish groups, hosted by Hecht, dissolved in shouting matches as ideological and personal rivalries left the Jewish organizations unable to cooperate.

Not only did they refuse to co-sponsor it, but in some cities, mainstream Jewish groups actually sought to discourage attendance. Some Jewish leaders feared the Bergson group’s vocal activism would usurp their own leadership 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 (he had been a follower of the founder of Revisionist Zionism, Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky).

The White House was equally unenthusiastic. The pageant’s producer, Billy Rose, wrote to a senior White House adviser, David Niles, to request a message from President Roosevelt to be read aloud at the event. FDR’s advisers urged him to refrain from sending the message because it might “raise a political question.” They feared “We Will Never Die” would increase pressure to admit Jewish refugees to the United States or to British-controlled Palestine. The President declined Rose’s request.

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 on March 9 and March 10, 1943. The event received substantial media coverage, thus carrying its message to audiences well beyond those who actually attended the pageant. It was the first major effort to rouse America’s conscience about the Holocaust.

Shattering the wall of silence surrounding the Holocaust was the first crucial step in the process of mobilizing an American campaign against the slaughter. Throughout 1943, Bergson and Hecht organized a series of public rallies, full-page newspaper ads, and Congressional lobbying efforts that culminated, in October 1943, in the introduction of a Congressional resolution urging the creation of a U.S. government agency to rescue Jewish refugees. The public controversy caused by Congressional hearings on the resolution, combined with behind-the-scenes pressure from Treasury Department officials, convinced Roosevelt to establish the War Refugee Board in January 1944.

The War Refugee Board’s activities, which included financing the rescue work of Raoul Wallenberg, played a crucial role in saving the lives of over 200,000 people during the final 15 months of the war. “We Will Never Die” helped set in motion the events that led to the saving of those lives–and that was no small accomplishment.

April 2003