by Dr. Rafael Medoff
The actress Jane Wyatt, who died in California last week at 96, is widely remembered for her Emmy Award-winning role as the mother on the popular 1950s television show “Fathers Knows Best.” What is not widely known is that during the Holocaust, Wyatt took on another important role–she spoke out against the Allies’ abandonment of European Jewry.
As the Holocaust raged, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration insisted nothing could be done to help the Jews except to defeat Germany on the battlefield. FDR’s supporters depicted him as a sort of supremely wise father figure who knew best when it came to anything involving the war.
But not everyone blindly accepted the administration’s “rescue through victory” approach. Refugee advocates warned that by the time Allied victory was achieved, there would be no Jews left alive to rescue. The Bergson Group, a maverick Jewish political action committee, used high-profile tactics to publicize the need for immediate rescue steps. It sponsored more than 200 newspaper ads, staged dramatic theatrical productions, organized a march in Washington by 400 rabbis, and created the first serious “Jewish lobby” on Capitol Hill.
The Bergsonites contended that there were numerous practical steps the Roosevelt administration could take to rescue Jews, such as using empty supply ships to bring refugees back from Europe, pressing the British to open the doors of Palestine, and bombing the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz.
One of the Bergson Group’s most innovative efforts was its recruitment of Hollywood celebrities as a way of sparking public interest in the plight of Europe’s Jews. Ben Hecht, the era’s most prominent screenwriter, and Stella Adler, the prominent actress and acting coach, were early Bergson Group supporters. They used their contacts to spread the group’s message among film producers, writers, and actors. And Jane Wyatt responded.
In June 1944, the Bergson Group placed an advertisement in various newspapers describing Europe’s Jews as “persecuted by enemies and ignored by friends” and calling for “the immediate opening of Palestine” to Jewish refugees. Not only had the Allies done little to aid the Jewish refugees, they still hesitated even to acknowledge that the Jews were being singled out for annihilation, and refused to treat the Jews as a conquered nation with legitimate rights that deserved to be addressed.
The ad featured a list of more than two hundred prominent Americans who supported the group’s positions. This was the Bergson Group’s Rainbow Coalition. Among the names one could find distinguished men and women from all walks of life: world-famous conductors Erwin Piscator and Leonard Bernstein; sports commentator Bill Stern; the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., soon to become one of the few African-Americans in the U.S. Congress; sculptor Jo Davidson; and numerous actors of note, including Charles Bickford, Sidney Blackmer, Eddie Dowling–and Jane Wyatt.
Nothing in Ms. Wyatt’s background offered any clues as to why she was willing to take part in the campaign for Jewish rescue and survival. She grew up in Manhattan in what has been described as “a socially prominent family whose ancestors on both sides included luminaries from the Revolutionary War.” After a string of successful roles on Broadway in the 1930s, Wyatt began landing parts in major movies. The same year as the Bergson newspaper ad, she was featured alongside Cary Grant and Ethel Barrymore in “None But the Lonely Heart.” As a rising young film star, Wyatt risked jeopardizing her career if she associated herself with a controversial political cause. But she took that risk.
Years later, Wyatt would earn a permanent place in America’s heart as Mrs. Margeret Anderson, the mother in the extremely popular “Father Knows Best” television series. As one would expect from a 1950s show set in a stereotypical Midwestern suburb, Wyatt’s Mrs. Anderson was the dutiful and supportive wife.
But in real life, Jane Wyatt had demonstrated that sometimes, meekly echoing father’s views was not the right thing to do. At a time when too many Americans chose to ignore the suffering of Europe’s Jews, Wyatt stood up for principle and did not allow herself to be intimidated by narrow career considerations or other fears. When it came to the Holocaust, ‘father’ Roosevelt didn’t know best. Jane Wyatt and the Bergson Group knew better.