The Hollywood Director Who Alerted America About the Holocaust

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

The artistic achievements of Hollywood director and playwright Moss Hart were honored last week, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, with the issuing of a commemorative postage stamp bearing his likeness.  But in addition to his cultural contributions, Hart deserves to be remembered for his crucial but long-forgotten role in alerting America about the Holocaust.

Among other accomplishments, Hart coauthored the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical comedy “You Can’t Take It With You,” won a Tony Award for directing the stage version of “My Fair Lady,” and wrote the screenplays for “Hans Christian Andersen” and “A Star is Born.”  But when news of the Nazi genocide was confirmed in late 1942, Hart used his theatrical talents for a purpose more urgent than entertainment.

Anguished by the news from Europe, the playwright and Hollywood writer Ben Hecht organized a meeting of thirty Jewish screenwriters and dramatists, and one composer, in February 1943.  Hecht hoped to persuade them to speak out on behalf of Europe’s Jews.  “What would happen if these brilliant Jews cried out with passion against the German butchers?” Hecht later recalled.  “How they could dramatize the German crime!  How loudly they could present the nightmare to America and the world!”  But only two of Hecht’s guests responded to his appeal. One was the composer, Kurt Weill.  “With misty eyes,” Weill said: “Please count one me for everything.”  The other was Moss Hart.”If I can do anything,” he told Hecht, “call on me.”

Hecht soon called.

With Hart as director, Billy Rose as producer, and an original score by Weill, Hecht prepared a dramatic pageant called “We Will Never Die.”  Featuring a cast of hundreds and two forty-foot-high tablets of the Ten Commandments, “We Will Never Die” surveyed Jewish contributions to civilization throughout history, described the Nazi slaughter of the Jews in painful detail, appealed for Allied intervention against the genocide, and culminated in the dramatic reciting of “Kaddish,” the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead, by fifty elderly rabbis who had escaped from Europe.

The performances of “We Will Never Die” were sponsored by the Bergson Group, a maverick political action committee led by Peter Bergson (Hillel Kook), a Zionist emissary from Jerusalem.

“We Will Never Die” opened at Madison Square Garden in March 1943, with two shows that were attended by more than 40,000 people.  The event received substantial media coverage, thus carrying its message to audiences well beyond those who actually attended the pageant.

The pageant was next staged in Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall on April 12, before an audience that included First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, six justices of the Supreme Court, more than two hundred Members of Congress, and numerous members of the international diplomatic corps.  Mrs. Roosevelt was so moved by the performance that she devoted part of her next syndicated column to the pageant and the plight of Europe’s Jews.

Some of the top stars of Hollywood and Broadway appeared in the show.  In New York, it featured Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, Sylvia Sydney, Stella Adler and Luther Adler.  The Philadelphia performance guest-starred Claude Rains and Edward G. Arnold; at the Chicago Stadium, it had John Garfield and Burgess Meredith in the lead roles; at the Boston Garden, the guest stars included Ralph Bellamy, Lionel Atwill, and Howard Da Silva.

More than 100,000 Americans attended performances of “We Will Never Die,” and many others read the news coverage or the First Lady’s newspaper column.  For many, it was the first time they heard about the the mass murder of Europe’s Jews or gave it serious attention.

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, Hecht and the Bergson Group 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 President Roosevelt to establish the War Refugee Board in January 1944.

The War Refugee Board’s activities, which included sponsoring and financing the rescue work of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest, helped saved the lives of over 200,000 people during the final fifteen months of the war.  “We Will Never Die,” directed by Moss Hart, helped set in motion the events that led to the saving of those lives.  For that, too, Hart deserves to be remembered and honored.

November 2004