A Holocaust Pageant That Was ‘Too Political’ for FDR

March 4, 2013 2:41 pm 1 comment

Eleanor Roosevelt attending the “We Will Never Die” pageant in Washington, DC in 1943. Photo: Courtesy of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

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.

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 percent believed it was true, while 29 percent dismissed it as a rumor; the remaining 24 percent 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, “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.

Madison Square Garden in the 1940s. Photo: Courtesy of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

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 U.S. 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. Since there were so many people gathered on the sidewalks outside who were unable to enter the packed hall, 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 JNS.org. “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, and Washington, DC’s Constitution Hall. All together, more than 100,000 Americans attended the performances.

More than 200 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 attended the Washington event. 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 15 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.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, D.C. His latest book is “FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith.”

1 Comment

  • Thank you for publishing this excellent, highly interesting article about a tragic time in the history of the world’s inhabitants in general and the Jewish people in particular. The mention of Raoul Wallenberg and his singular, courageous, humanitarian mission of rescue in Budapest is of special interest to a group of men and women (many survivors of the Holocaust) who established Raoul Wallenberg Unit of B’nai B’rith in Melbourne, Australia, in 1985.

    The Unit has grown to around 150 members whose main purpose is to highlight the work of Raoul Wallenberg and to heighten awareness of the mystery surrounding his arrest and disappearance after the end of World War Two and his subsequent imprisonment by the Russians.

    To celebrate its 25th anniversary in 11985, the Unit, in conjunction with Max Stern & Co and Australia Post, released a Raoul Wallenberg Stamp Sheet with ten 60 cent Australia Post stamps and tabs with photos of Raoul Wallenberg from his early childhood to adult soldier. The Stamp Sheet also includes a brief history; the Sheet is enclosed in a sturdy envelope (which can be used as a stand to display the Stamp Sheet) with a Schutz-pass (protective passport) which saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust, on the back.

    To commemorate Raoul Wallenberg’s 100th birthday on 4 August 2012, the Unit stamped a small, limited edition of 250 of the Stamp Sheets with a special commemorative Centenary postmark. Stamp Sheets from this Centenary edition are still available. For further information please contact: judi@judischiffphotography.com

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Book Reviews Personalities Biography Sheds New Light on David Ben-Gurion’s Place in Jewish History

    Biography Sheds New Light on David Ben-Gurion’s Place in Jewish History

    JNS.org – There is one sentence in “Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel” that made me sit up in surprise. I thought that I knew the basic facts about how Israel came into being, but while describing what it was like in the days and hours before the state was declared, author Anita Shapira provides one important anecdote I was not aware of. On the 12th of May, the Zionist Executive met to decide what to do. Moshe Sharrett had just returned [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada ‘Death of Klinghoffer’ Actress Compares Met Opera to ‘Schindler’s List’

    ‘Death of Klinghoffer’ Actress Compares Met Opera to ‘Schindler’s List’

    An actress starring in the controversial Met Opera The Death of Klinghoffer defended the show on Tuesday by comparing it to the 1993 Holocaust film Schindler’s List, New York Post reported. “To me, this was like [the movie] Schindler’s List. We make art so people won’t forget,’’ said the actress, who plays a captured passenger in the show and asked not to be identified. The Met Opera focuses on the infamous murder of Lower East Side Jewish resident Leon Klinghoffer, 69. The wheelchair-bound father of [...]

    Read more →
  • Analysis Arts and Culture Beyond ‘Klinghoffer’: Opera’s Composer, Librettist Have Broader Jewish Problem

    Beyond ‘Klinghoffer’: Opera’s Composer, Librettist Have Broader Jewish Problem

    JNS.org – One of the most controversial operas in recent memory, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” debuted Oct. 20 at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The Met has scheduled seven more performances through November. The first staging did not occur without protest, as about 400 demonstrators—including Jewish communal and nationally recognized leaders—came to Lincoln Center to denounce the anti-Jewish and anti-Israel opera. “Klinghoffer,” the creation of composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman, premiered in 1991—with few additional stagings. The opera is based [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Israeli Actress Gal Gadot in Talks to Star in Ben-Hur Remake

    Israeli Actress Gal Gadot in Talks to Star in Ben-Hur Remake

    Israeli actress Gal Gadot is in negotiations to take on the female lead role in the remake of the 1959 classic Ben-Hur, according to The Hollywood Reporter. If the deal is finalized Gadot will play Esther, a slave and Ben-Hur’s love interest. Actor Jack Huston will star as the Jewish prince who is betrayed into slavery by his childhood friend Messala, played by Toby Kebbell. Ben-Hur fights for his freedom and vengeance with the help of Morgan Freeman’s character, who trains Ben-Hur how to win at chariot-racing. [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports Young Israelis Try to Crowd-Fund Their Way to Major League Baseball Playoffs

    Young Israelis Try to Crowd-Fund Their Way to Major League Baseball Playoffs

    JNS.org – Baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie are the American dream. So why do two young men who have built their lives in Israel have a GoFundMe crowd-funding webpage with the urgent message that they need $3,000 to travel to the U.S. to watch the Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles square off for Major League Baseball’s (MLB) American League championship? Brothers Naftali and Yoni Schwartz, 27 and 25, respectively, are Kansas City natives. Even though they made aliyah with their [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Sports Race Cars Speed Through Jerusalem in Amazing Exhibition

    Race Cars Speed Through Jerusalem in Amazing Exhibition

    Some 3,000 years ago, King David probably never imagined cars racing at 240 kilometers per hour (150 miles per hour) through the ancient capital of the Jewish people. But on Monday and Tuesday, October 6-7, thousands of Israelis lined the streets to watch Porsche, Audi, and Ferrari race cars fly through the capital against the backdrop of the Tower of David, the Old City Walls, and other city landmarks. The second annual non-competitive Jerusalem Formula One Road Show had been [...]

    Read more →
  • Israel Sports NBA Superstar LeBron James Says He Wants to Visit Israel

    NBA Superstar LeBron James Says He Wants to Visit Israel

    Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James expressed interest in visiting Israel someday, local news site Cleveland.com reported on Sunday. Speaking to Israeli reporters before the Cleveland Cavaliers’ preseason debut against Maccabi Tel Aviv, the NBA star said he had never visited the Jewish state but “I want to look forward to going there if I get an opportunity to.” When asked by an Israeli reporter if there was “any chance that LeBron James and Cleveland comes to Tel Aviv,” the athlete said [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Florida Rabbi Dominates Former Basketball Star Congressman in Hoops Showdown (VIDEO)

    Florida Rabbi Dominates Former Basketball Star Congressman in Hoops Showdown (VIDEO)

    A Florida-based Chabad rabbi put former basketball star, U.S. Congressman Curt Clawson to shame on the court when the two faced off one-on-one recently. A YouTube video, posted online on Tuesday, shows Rabbi Fishel Zaklos of Chabad of Naples shooting hoops with the Florida politician, who played basketball in high school and at Purdue University in Indiana. The game took place in the parking lot of the Chabad Jewish center run by Zaklos. During the 1-minute clip, Zaklos scores two impressive [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.