by Dr. Rafael Medoff
During the 1940s, Academy Award-winning screenwriter Ben Hecht authored a series of controversial newspaper advertisements intended to alert Americans about the Holocaust. But none of the ads caused more of a stir than the one he wrote in 1943, which declared that the world was looking forward to a Christmas with no Jews left alive in Europe.
Hecht’s ads were placed in major newspapers around the country by a Jewish activist organization known as the Bergson group. It was headed by Peter Bergson (Hillel Kook), a Zionist emissary from Jerusalem who organized protest rallies, lobbied Congress, and sought to raise public consciousness about the plight of Jews in Hitler Europe.
The advertisements featured eye-catching headlines such as “How Well Are You Sleeping? Is There Something You Could Have Done to Save Millions of Innocent People–Men, Women, and Children–from Torture and Death?” and “Time Races Death: What Are We Waiting For?”
In early 1943, Hecht read a newspaper report in which Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels was quoted as vowing to finish the task of murdering all European Jews in time for Christmas. The Nazi threat inspired Hecht to pen an advertisement headlined “Ballad of the Doomed Jews of Europe.” Rumors about the ad, and the ballad it contained, reached some journalists even before it was published. The Independent Jewish Press Service reported that the ad “would have to be printed on asbestos, it was so hot,” because the ballad “says that there’s going to be a very happy Christmas this year because by December there just wouldn’t be any Jews left for the Christian world to spit at.”
That report was not far off the mark. Hecht’s ballad began:
“Four million Jews waiting for death / Oh hang and burn but–quiet, Jews! / Don’t be bothersome; save your breath– / The world is busy with other news.”
The second stanza challenged the Roosevelt administration: “Four million murders are quite a smear / Even our State Department views / The slaughter with much disfavor here / But then–it’s busy with other news.”
Such public Jewish criticism of the Roosevelt administration was quite unusual, given the high level of American Jewish support for FDR and the New Deal. Even those Jews who were privately troubled by Roosevelt’s refusal to aid European Jewry were reluctant to speak out, fearing that any public disagreement with the president during wartime might provoke antisemitism. But Bergson and Hecht believed the desperate situation of Europe’s Jews required them to speak out.
The last stanza of Hecht’s “Ballad of the Doomed Jews” was the most jarring: “Oh World be patient–it will take / Some time before the murder crews / Are done. By Christmas you can make / Your Peace on Earth without the Jews.”
The ad was scheduled to appear in the New York Times in early 1943, but was delayed because of the wartime paper shortage. In the meantime, someone at the Times leaked the text to officials of the American Jewish Committee, a mainstream Jewish organization that strongly opposed Bergson’s outspoken approach. Bergson was urgently summoned to the office of AJCommittee president Joseph Proskauer, who warned him that “such an anti-Christian attitude [as implied in the ad] could well bring on pogroms in the USA.”
Bergson agreed to withdraw the ad, but insisted that Proskauer convene a meeting of Jewish leaders to discuss taking concrete steps to press for U.S. action to aid European Jewry. The meeting, held in New York City some weeks later, was attended by officials of more than a dozen prominent Jewish organizations. Bergson, who spoke at the meeting, urged them to sponsor an emergency conference on the issue of rescuing Jews from Hitler. But “they wanted just to get a repeated assurance that [the ad] won’t be published,” he later recalled.
Bergson held back the ad for several more months, hoping that Proskauer and his colleagues might yet decide to take a more activist approach on the rescue issue. When no such action was forthcoming, he decided to publish the ad. It appeared in the New York Times on September 14, 1943.
Needless to say, the ad did not cause any pogroms. On the contrary: “Ballad of the Doomed Jews” and the other Hecht ads played a crucial role in the Bergson group’s campaign for U.S. rescue action, by drawing attention to the plight of Europe’s Jews and rousing public support for U.S. intervention. The campaign 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 President Roosevelt, in January 1944 to establish the rescue agency the resolution had sought–the War Refugee Board. The Board’s activities, which included financing the rescue work of Raoul Wallenberg, saved the lives of over 200,000 people during the final 15 months of the war.
Those American Jewish leaders who believed nothing could be done to help European Jewry, or who claimed there would be a severe antisemitic backlash if American Jews protested, had been proven wrong. The Bergson group had demonstrated that Jewish activism was a realistic and effective option in the United States during the Holocaust years.