by Rafael Medoff
Seventy years ago this week, 40,000 New Yorkers watched as Jewish activists and Hollywood celebrities joined hands to bring news of the Holocaust to the vaunted stage of Madison Square Garden. But a requested message of greeting from President Franklin D. Roosevelt never arrived, because the White House decided the mass murder of the Jews was too “political” to touch.
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In January 1943, a Gallup poll 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.
The failure of the news media to treat the Nazi genocide as a serious issue contributed to the public’s skepticism. To some extent, editors were following the lead of the Roosevelt administration, which, after issuing a condemnation of the mass murder, made no effort to publicize the tragedy or aid Jewish refugees.
Ben Hecht, the newspaper columnist and Academy Award-winning screenwriter, responded in the way he knew best: he picked up his pen and began to write.
With his out-sized dramatic sense in high gear, 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, describe the Nazi slaughter of the Jews, and culminate in an emotional recitation of “Kaddish,” the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead, by a group of elderly rabbis.
“Will it save the four million [Jews still alive in Europe]?,” Hecht wrote on the eve of the opening. “I don’t know. Maybe we can awaken some of the vacationing hearts in our government.”
Hecht was involved with a small group of Jewish activists led by Hillel Kook, a Zionist emissary from Palestine who operated under the pseudonym “Peter Bergson.” The Bergson Group booked Madison Square Garden for the evening of March 9, and set about trying to convince the established Jewish organizations to cosponsor “We Will Never Die.”
Bergson’s well-meaning attempt at Jewish unity flopped. A meeting of representatives of several dozen Jewish groups, hosted by Hecht, deteriorated into shouting matches as ideological and personal rivalries overshadowed the massacres in Europe. It was an example of what the historian Henry Feingold has described as the sad tendency of some Jewish organizations to “allow themselves the luxury of fiddling while Jews burned.”
Hecht succeeded, however, in persuading some of Hollywood’s most prominent Jews to volunteer their services. Actors Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, Sylvia Sydney, and Stella Adler assumed the lead roles; Kurt Weill (“The Threepenny Opera”) composed an original score; Moss Hart (“You Can’t Take It With You”) agreed to serve as director, and famed impresario Billy Rose signed on as producer.
It was Rose who decided to approach President Roosevelt. Through White House adviser David Niles, Rose asked the president for a “brief message” that could be read aloud at the pageant. Nothing bold or controversial, of course; just something that would “say only that the Jews of Europe will be remembered when the time comes to make the peace.” Rose assured the White House that “There is no political color to our Memorial Service.”
But apparently even the very mention of the Jews was “political,” in the eyes of official Washington. White House aides warned the president that sending the requested message would be “a mistake.” Despite Rose’s assurance, “it is a fact that such a message would raise a political question,” Henry Pringle of the Office of War Information advised.
What Pringle meant was that publicizing the slaughter could raise the “political question” of how America was going to respond to the Nazi genocide. And since President Roosevelt had decided the United States was not going to take any specific steps to aid the Jews, raising that question would be embarrassing. Hence Rose was informed (by presidential secretary Stephen Early) that the “stress and pressure” of the president’s schedule made it impossible for FDR to provide the few words of comfort and consolation that the Bergson Group sought.
None of this deterred the irrepressible Ben Hecht and his comrades from making sure that the show would go on. More than 20,000 people jammed Madison Square Garden on the frigid evening of March 9. There were so many people gathered on the sidewalks outside, who were unable to enter the packed hall, that the cast decided, on the spot, to do a second performance immediately after the first. The second show, too, filled the Garden.
Editor and children’s book author Miriam Chaikin, who at the time was a member of the Bergson Group’s office staff, attended the first performance. “The atmosphere was electric,” she told me. “People in the audience were stunned by the pageant–and by the whole idea of Jewish issues being presented in such a place. In those days, it just wasn’t done. It really brought home the suffering of Europe’s Jews in a very powerful way, which really shook people up.”
“If there was a dry eye at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night, it wasn’t mine,” wrote reviewer Nick Kenny in the New York City daily PM. “It was the most poignant pageant we have ever witnessed. It is a story that should be made into a moving picture, just as it was presented at the Garden and shown in every city, town and hamlet in the country.”
The Bergson Group did, in fact, take the show on the road. In the months to follow, “We Will Never Die” was performed before sell-out crowds in Chicago Stadium, the Boston Garden, Philadelphia’s Convention Hall, the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall. All together, more than 100,000 Americans attended the performances.
The Washington event was attended by more than two hundred Members of Congress, numerous members of the international diplomatic corps (“ambassadors from everywhere,” Hecht called them), six justices of the Supreme Court, and Eleanor Roosevelt. It was not the first time that the famously independent First Lady failed to toe the president’s line.
Mrs. Roosevelt was so moved by the performance that she devoted part of her next syndicated column, “My Day,” to the pageant and the plight of Europe’s Jews. For millions of American newspaper readers, it was the first time they heard about the Nazi mass murders.
Shattering the wall of silence surrounding the Holocaust was the first crucial step in the process of mobilizing the American public against the slaughter. Throughout 1943, Bergson and Hecht organized a series of public rallies, full-page newspaper ads, and Capitol Hill lobbying efforts that culminated 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 that agency, the War Refugee Board, in January 1944.
The War Refugee Board’s activities, which included financing the rescue work of Raoul Wallenberg, helped save the lives of an estimated 200,000 people during the final fifteen months of the war. Seventy years ago this week, “We Will Never Die” helped set in motion the process that led to the saving of those lives.