Exactly 70 years ago, Hollywood’s top stars got together to expose the Holocaust.
It was early 1943, and Hitler’s armies were finally in retreat from North Africa and the Soviet Union. D-Day was more than a year away, and the Nazis had murdered almost three million Jews.
Since the start of the war, eyewitness accounts of mass shootings and death camps had made their way to governments around the world. “Rescue through victory” remained the official Allied strategy, and the killings receiving little attention.
As the genocide reached its apex, Hollywood decided to take action.
A seasoned journalist and screenwriter, Ben Hecht was the first celebrity to publicize the Holocaust. Hecht’s February 1943 essay, “The Extermination of the Jews,” rang warning bells even as the US State Department buried reports of genocide.
“Of these 6,000,000 Jews of Europe, almost a third have already been massacred by Germans, Romanians, and Hungarians,” Hecht wrote in Reader’s Digest. “The most conservative of scorekeepers estimate that before the war ends at least another third will have been done to death.”
Not content with writing op-eds, Hecht decided to do what he did best — put on a sweeping drama. An Oscar-winning screenwriter who contributed to “Gone With the Wind” and scripted “Scarface,” Hecht knew how to stir emotions and frame an epic story.
Claiming “frustration over American policy and outrage at Hollywood’s fear of offending its European markets,” Hecht spent one month scripting a Hollywood extravaganza to expose the Holocaust and urge rescue action.
Evoking the Hebrew prophet Habakkuk’s “They shall never die” prophecy, Hecht called his show We Will Never Die. Featuring hundreds of performers and a 50-piece NBC orchestra, the production’s six-city tour was Hollywood’s first political protest en masse.
Composer Kurt Weill crafted the score and engaged stars like Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni and Stella Adler to appear in the Billy Rose-directed “propaganda pageant.” Fifty elderly rabbis rescued from Europe took the stage to chant the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer as the finale.
Hecht had partnered closely with the Committee for a Jewish Army, a Revisionist Zionist group led by future Knesset member Hillel Kook — alias, Peter Bergson. The so-called Bergson Group enlisted non-Jewish celebrities including Frank Sinatra and Burgess Meredith for We Will Never Die’s national tour.
The New York premiere took place on March 9, 1943, at Madison Square Garden, just one week after a massive Stop Hitler Now! rally on the same site. Pageant producers added another show on opening night to meet demand, allowing 40,000 people to attend.
“These are the two million Jewish dead of Europe today,” a narrator said as the show opened. “The four million left to kill are being killed, according to plan. When the time comes to make the peace, they will have been done to death.”
Dwarfed by a set Cecil B. DeMille would envy, celebrities spoke as “voices for the voiceless” next to ghost-like children repeating, “Remember us.” Two 40-foot-tall tablets emblazoned with the Ten Commandments in Hebrew framed the musical dramatization of Jewish history and the ongoing massacre.
“Remember us who were in the Ukraine,” actors murmured. “The Germans took our women into the roads and tied them together with our children. Then they drove their heavy motor lorries into us. Thousands of us died this way, with the Germany military cars running back and forth over our broken bodies. Remember us.”
The We Will Never Die performance in Washington, DC, on April 12 was attended by 300 legislators, six Supreme Court justices and First Lady Eleanore Roosevelt. To motivate the prestigious audience members, Hecht added specific rescue appeals throughout the show.
“Remember us who were put in the freight trains that left France and Holland and Belgium and who rode across Europe . . . standing up,” intoned rag-clad actors. “We died in the freight cars standing up . . . Remember us.”
Many Americans read about the genocide for the first time when Eleanore Roosevelt devoted part of her syndicated column to the production: “No one who heard each group come forward and give the story of what had happened to it at the hands of a ruthless German military, will ever forget those haunting words, Remember us,” the first lady wrote.
The Los Angeles performance on July 21 at the Hollywood Bowl was broadcast nationwide by NBC, but also marked a rancorous end to the pageant’s four-month run.
Bergson and Hecht had convened the heads of 32 national Jewish organizations in New York to ask for their approval of the pageant. Suspicious of the aggressively Zionist Bergson Group and anxious about their own turf, the leaders refused to add their organizations’ names to the production.
“English and Yiddish outcries filled the room,” Hecht wrote in his autobiography about the frustrating meeting. “Within five minutes a free-for-all, bitter as a Kentucky feud, was in full swing. The spectacle of Jews comically belaboring each other in the worst hour of their history sickened me.”
We Will Never Die also faced opposition from local Jewish leaders, who worried it would incite anti-Semitism and dominate communal agendas. The American Jewish Congress campaigned to ban the production in affiliate cities, sending letters to rebuke the Committee for a Jewish Army and its pageant.
“I must ask you to cancel this pageant and discontinue all your further activities on behalf of the Jews,” New York’s influential Rabbi Stephen Wise wrote to Hecht. “If you wish hereafter to work for the Jewish cause, will you please consult me and let me advise you.”
Not all prominent voices were against We Will Never Die. The Philadelphia Jewish Exponent heaped praise on the production’s wake-up call.
“We Will Never Die demonstrated for all to see that in order to reach the conscience of the Christian as well as to arouse the Jew himself, popular psychology must be understood and utilized,” claimed an Exponent editorial. “The old reliable organizations, with the mothballs of their sanctimoniousness, would do well to emulate the example set.”
As the production toured the country, political efforts to alleviate the plight of European Jewry failed. Countries refused to accept Jewish refugees at the Bermuda Conference, and Britain would not even discuss letting Jews into Palestine.
Despite its short run, We Will Never Die helped create a “boiling pot” atmosphere, leading to President Roosevelt’s creation of the War Refugee Board in January 1944. During fifteen months of operation, the Board took concrete steps to lessen the pace of genocide, rescuing as many as 200,000 Jews.
We Will Never Die had been seen live by 100,000 people, and by several million others on NBC broadcasts. Hecht was never satisfied with his project or the results, calling them inconsequential.
“The pageant has accomplished nothing,” Hecht told Weill. “Actually, all we have done is make a lot of Jews cry, which is not a unique accomplishment.”
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