by Dr. Rafael Medoff
The month-long “Kurt Weill Fest” now underway at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco highlights the musical accomplishments of the renowned composer who, after being chased out of Hitler Germany, became one of the leading lights of Broadway in the 1930s and 1940s.
Today Weill is perhaps best remembered for such classics as his collaboration with playwright Bertolt Brecht on “The Threepenny Opera.” But what is often forgotten is Weill’s unique use of music to advance the cause of rescuing Jewish refugees from the Holocaust.
Like many German Jewish artists, Weill was denounced as a “degenerate” by the new Nazi regime in 1933. He fled to France, then settled in the United States in 1935. Weill closely followed events in Germany, particularly the escalating persecution of German Jews in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Deeply wounded at the mistreatment of his coreligionists, Weill refused to ever speak German again, and was upset when Life magazine referred to him as a “German composer.”
Soon Weill made the transition from observer to protester, thanks to the influence of the Hollywood screenwriter-turned-Jewish activist Ben Hecht. In the autumn of 1941, Weill volunteered to compose the music for “Fun to Be Free,” a political rally and theatrical revue that Hecht staged before a packed house of 17,000-plus at Madison Square Garden. The performers and speakers included Carmen Miranda, Jack Benny, Tallulah Bankhead, and the inimitable manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Leo Durocher, among many others. They urged America to launch a pre-emptive war against Nazi Germany as the only way to preserve world peace–not exactly a popular position, given America’s isolationist mood prior to Pearl Harbor.
By early 1943, the Allies had confirmed the news of Hitler’s mass murder of Jews in Europe. Hecht decided to convene a meeting in New York City of thirty playwrights, novelists, and other cultural luminaries, including Weill. “I felt certain that if we banded together and let loose our talents and our moral passion against the Germans, we might halt the massacre,” Hecht later recalled. “How they could dramatize the German crime! How loudly they could present the nightmare to America and the world!”
But when Hecht asked his guests to join him in organizing protests, only two of the thirty stepped forward. One was the director Moss Hart. The other was Weill. “Please count on me for everything,” he told Hecht.
Within weeks, Hecht had written a dramatic pageant called “We Will Never Die,” to publicize the Nazi mass-murders and appeal for Allied intervention. Weill contributed in the way he knew best: through his music. He composed the musical score for the pageant, and members of the NBC orchestra performed it. Weill’s score provided the thematic power and mood that helped bring Hecht’s script to life and dramatized the plight of Europe’s Jews in a way that nobody else could.
“We Will Never Die,” starring Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, and Stella Adler, opened at Madison Square Garden in March 1943, with two shows that were attended by more than 40,000 people. Among the congratulatory messages that Weill received after the opening performance was a telegram from a 35 year-old Congressman from Texas named Lyndon B. Johnson.
When it was staged in Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall, the audience included First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, six justices of the Supreme Court, and more than two hundred Members of Congress. Mrs. Roosevelt was so moved by the performance that she discussed it in the next installment of her syndicated newspaper column.
The pageant was also staged in Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, and the Hollywood Bowl. A total of more than 100,000 Americans attended the shows. For many, it was the first time they heard about the the mass murder of Europe’s Jews or gave it serious attention. Hecht, Weill and their colleagues had pierced the wall of silence surrounding the Nazi genocide.
Once the silence was shattered, action became possible. The group that sponsored and staged “We Will Never Die,” a political action committee known as the Bergson Group, followed the pageant with a campaign of rallies, full-page newspaper ads, and lobbying in Washington. These efforts, combined with Congressional hearings and behind-the-scenes pressure from Treasury Department officials, convinced President Roosevelt to belatedly establish the War Refugee Board. During the final fifteen months of the war, the Board helped saved the lives of over 200,000 refugees.
After the war, Weill continued using his talents for humanitarian goals. Hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors were trapped in Europe, longing to reach Palestine but shut out by England’s harsh restrictions on Jewish immigration to the Holy Land. Weill agonized over the international community’s failure to intervene. “There is too much silence still,” he told Hecht.
Hecht was determined to put an end to that silence. In the summer of 1946, he wrote a play called “A Flag is Born,” about the survivors’ plight and the need for a Jewish State. Once again, he turned to Weill. While some of Hecht’s other colleagues in the struggle had by then “melted away,” Weill was the exception. “My composer friend was unmeltable,” Hecht noted proudly. Weill contributed what the New York Times called “a beautiful theatre score” for “Flag.”
Starring Celia Adler, Paul Muni, and 22 year-old Marlon Brando, “Flag” debuted at Manhattan’s Alvin Theater (today the Neil Simon Theater) in September 1946. The four-week opening run was extended to ten weeks by popular demand.
The characters’ sharp criticism of British rule in Palestine irked many in England. The London Evening Standard called it “the most virulent anti-British play ever staged in the United States.” American reviewers were kinder. Walter Winchell said Flag was “worth seeing, worth hearing, and worth remembering … it will wring your heart and eyes dry … bring at least eleven handkerchiefs.” Weill’s stirring music contributed significantly to the audiences’ strong response.
Flag’s successful multi-city run included a stop in Baltimore, where the Bergson Group and the local NAACP forced the Maryland Theater to suspend its policy of restricting African-Americans to the balcony. NAACP leaders hailed the “tradition-shattering victory” and used it facilitate the desegregation of other Baltimore theaters.
In city after city, “A Flag is Born” helped sway public opinion to support creating a Jewish homeland as a haven for the refugees. The play even raised enough money for the Bergson Group to purchase a ship –renamed the S.S. Ben Hecht– that tried to bring refugees to Palestine in defiance of the British.
Not many composers take part in political or social controversies–and fewer still have found ways to use their music to advance their beliefs. Kurt Weill deserves to be remembered as one of the few who did both, on behalf of a beleaguered people, exactly when they needed him most.