A major part of the reason for the public's skepticism was the failure of the American media to treat the Nazi
genocide as a serious issue. Ben Hecht, a newspaper columnist and Academy Award-winning screenwriter (Gone with the Wind, The Front Page, Scarface), responded the only way he knew how: he picked up his pen and began to write.
A colleague later recalled:
"Once Ben Hecht decided right from wrong on
any issue, he mobilized all his faculties
to fight for his beliefs with righteous fury.”
journalist Max Lerner put it this way:
Hecht's talent lay in his capacity to dramatize
whatever it was that he touched. He could
make a breakfast egg seem theatrical.”
Determined to alert the American public about the Nazi slaughter of the Jews, Hecht authored a dramatic pageant that he called We Will Never Die. (The title derived from a biblical verse affirming Jewish national survival.) With its cast of hundreds, We Will Never Die would be an extraordinary production in every sense of the word.
According to Hecht's plan, actors would stand in front of two forty-foot-high tablets of the Ten
Commandments and would read aloud a long list of Jews who made important contributions to civilization throughout history. They would also describe the Nazi slaughter of the Jews in painful detail. A group of children, garbed in white rags and their faces painted grey to resemble corpses, would quietly say the words "Remember us" over
and over again. The performance would culminate
in the dramatic reciting of “Kaddish,” the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead,
by fifty elderly rabbis who had escaped
Hecht presented the project to Peter Bergson (who would later become a Knesset parliamentarian under the name Hillel Kook), a Zionist emissary from Palestine who had established a political action committee called the Committee for a Jewish Army to lobby in Washington for the creation of a Jewish army to fight the Nazis. When the news of the genocide was revealed, Bergson changed his agenda and began concentrating on urging the Allies to rescue Jews from Hitler.
Hecht and Bergson tried, but failed, to persuade major Jewish organizations to co-sponsor We Will Never Die. A meeting that brought together representatives of 32 Jewish groups, hosted by Hecht, dissolved in shouting matches as ideological and personal rivalries left the Jewish organizations unable to cooperate.
Not only did they refuse to cosponsor it, but in some cities, mainstream Jewish groups actually sought to discourage attempts to organize local performances of the pageant. Some Jewish leaders feared that Bergson's groups' vocal activism would usurp their own leadership role in the Jewish community. Other Jewish leaders worried that dramatic public activities such as Hecht's pageant might actually provoke anti-Semitism. Some would not work with Bergson because their particular factions in the Zionist movement regarded him as their political rival (he had been a follower of Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist
The White House was also less than enthusiastic about the project. The pageant's producer, Billy Rose, wrote to senior White House adviser David Niles requesting a message from President Franklin
D. Roosevelt to be read aloud at the event. FDR's advisers urged him to refrain from sending the message because it might "raise a political question." They feared We Will Never Die would increase pressure to admit Jewish refugees to the United States.
The President declined Rose's request.
The British were equally unhappy.
A memo from the British Embassy in Washington to
the Foreign Office in London complained that the
pageant was “implicitly anti-British.” Although
the text of We Will Never Die did not directly
denounce the British, its appeal to the Allies to
find havens for Jewish refugees was understood as
including the possibility of allowing the refugees
to enter British-controlled
Palestine — something London vehemently opposed, for fear of angering Arab
Where Bergson and Hecht did find significant support was in Hollywood and on Broadway.
Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, Sylvia Sydney, and Luther Adler all agreed to star in We Will Never Die.
Moss Hart would direct and Kurt Weill composed an original score for the event. Local stars also were recruited to take part when the pageant came to their various cities. Ben Hecht's ability to attract prominent figures from the entertainment industry gave an important boost to Bergson's campaign against the Holocaust.
We Will Never Die played to live audiences of more than 40,000 in two shows at Madison Square Garden on March 9 and March 10, 1943. The event received substantial media coverage, thus carrying its message to audiences well beyond those who actually attended the pageant.
The pageant was next staged in Washington, D.C.'s Constitution Hall on April 12, before an audience that included First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, six justices of the Supreme Court, more than two hundred Members of Congress, and numerous members of the international diplomatic corps.
Mrs. Roosevelt was so moved by the performance that she devoted part of her next syndicated column 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.
For the Washington, D.C. performance,
Hecht inserted several special passages appealing
to the Allies to take action to rescue the Jews from Hitler. “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.” This was an important departure from the conventional
wisdom of those days, which was expressed in a slogan
that Roosevelt administration officials offered when
challenged on the refugee issue: “Rescue through
victory,” basically meaning there was nothing the U.S. could
do to help the Jews until after the Nazis were defeated
on the battlefield.
On April 22, We Will Never Die was
performed in Philadelphia's Convention Hall, with
guest stars Claude Rains and Edward G. Arnold in
the lead roles. More than 15,000 people attended - it
was the largest Jewish public event in the city in
many years - and it received extensive coverage
in the local press.
An editorial in the Philadelphia
Jewish Exponent commented on the Bergson group's
use of an unconventional tactic, a dramatic theater
production, to raise consciousness about the Holocaust:
“Even the most indifferent, whether Jew or
Christian, had impressed upon him the twin themes:
the tragedy of the Jews in Europe and [the need
for] 'action--not pity'... '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. The 'old reliable' organizations,
must with the mothballs of their sanctimoniousness,
would do well to emulate the example set.”
The same week that We Will Never Die was performed in Philadelphia, representatives of the American and British governments were meeting in Bermuda to discuss the Jewish
refugee problem. But despite 12 days of discussions, the conference which was supposed to help rescue the refugees produced no concrete plans for rescue. The U.S. delegates reaffirmed the Roosevelt administration's refusal to take in more refugees, while the British delegates would not even discuss the possibility of opening Palestine to Jews fleeing Hitler.
The Bermuda fiasco aroused outrage
throughout the American Jewish community. The Bergson
group placed a large advertisement in the New
York Times, headlined “To 5,000,000 Jews
in the Nazi Death-Trap, Bermuda Was a Cruel Mockery.” While
mainstream Jewish organizations were often at odds
with Bergson, they were on the same side in denouncing
Bermuda. Dr. Israel Goldstein, president of the
Synagogue Council of America, blasted the conference
as “not only a failure, but a mockery,” and
bluntly added that “the victims are not being
rescued because the democracies do not want them.” The
Labor Zionist magazine Jewish Frontier charged
that the delegates to Bermuda had acted “in
the spirit of undertakers.”
On Capitol Hill, too, angry voices
were heard. Congressman Emanuel Celler denounced
the Bermuda conference as “diplomatic tight-rope
walking.” His colleague Samuel Dickstein declared:
“Not even the pessimists among us expected
Until the Bermuda conference, most
American Jews and most Members of Congress had accepted
FDR's “rescue through victory” approach. But
in the wake of Bermuda, there was a growing conviction
that by the time the war was won, there might be
no European Jews left to save.
During the spring and summer of 1943, the Bergson group intensified its campaign of newspaper ads, public rallies, and lobbying on Capitol Hill. It also continued to stage We Will Never Die in major cities.
On May 19, Hecht's pageant was performed
at the Chicago Stadium, with guest stars John Garfield
and Burgess Meredith in the lead roles. An estimated
20,000 people attended as the stadium, “scene
of many a hectic convention and gaudy circus, was
turned into a house of worship,” as the Chicago
Daily News put it.
On June 6, We Will Never Die was
performed at the Boston Garden, with guest stars
Ralph Bellamy, Lionel Atwill, Howard Da Silva, Berry
Kroger, and Jacob Ben-Ami in prominent roles. The
Boston Jewish Advocate reported: “This spectacle
must have impressed and stirred the imagination of
the many who saw it to a degree impossible to achieve
through the printed word.”
The climactic performance was at
the Hollywood Bowl on July 21. The Los Angeles
Times reported: “The vast stage was filled
with hundreds of symbolic figures, while 10,000 spectators
watched almost with bated breath the remarkable pictorial
impression — one of the greatest that has ever
been revealed in the outdoor amphitheater.” The
audience included “a California Who's Who,” among them Governor Earl Warren, Bishop and Mrs.
W. Bertrand Stevens, Presiding Judge of the Superior
Court Emmet H. Wilson, and a long list of Hollywood
actors, writers, and producers.
Capitalizing on the publicity from We Will Never Die, the newspaper ads, and other protest activities, Bergson persuaded leading Members of Congress, in October 1943, to introduce a resolution urging the creation of a U.S. government agency to rescue Jewish refugees. It quickly passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was the subject of hearings before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The hearings on the rescue resolution set off a firestorm of controversy when a State Department official presented testimony that wildly exaggerated the number of refugees who had already been permitted to enter the United States.
Meanwhile, just as the refugee controversy
was making headlines, a group of senior aides to
Treasury Secretary Henry
Morgenthau, Jr. were uncovering a pattern of
attempts by the State Department to obstruct rescue
opportunities and block the flow of Holocaust information
to the United States. They drafted a report titled
to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government
in the Murder of the Jews.”
Armed with this information, Morgenthau
went to the president in January 1944 to
warn him that the refugee issue had become “a
boiling pot on [Capitol] Hill” and Congress
was likely to pass the rescue resolution unless the
White House acted. Roosevelt pre-empted Congress
by establishing the new agency that the resolution
had sought — the War
Morgenthau acknowledged that it
was the Bergson group's work that had created that
“boiling pot.” At a Treasury Department
staff meeting not long after the creation of the
War Refugee Board, discussing the factors that made
its creation possible, he remarked: “The tide
was running with me.... The thing that made it possible
to get the President really to act on this thing
[was] the [rescue] Resolution [which] at least had
passed the Senate to form this kind of a War Refugee
Committee, hadn't it? I think that six months before
[the rescue resolution] I couldn't have done it.”
Major newspapers saw it similarly.
An editorial in the Christian Science Monitor noted
that the establishment of the Board “is the
outcome of pressure brought to bear by the Emergency
Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, a
group made up of both Jews and non-Jews that has
been active in the capital in recent months.” A Washington
Post editorial commented that in view of Bergson's
“industrious spadework” on behalf of
rescue, the Emergency Committee was “entitled
to credit for the President's forehanded move.”
The War Refugee Board's activities, which included financing the rescue work of Raoul Wallenberg, saved the lives of over 200,000 people during the final 18 months of the war. We Will Never Die helped set in motion the events that led to the saving of those lives.
In total, We Will Never Die was seen live by 100,000 people and by several million others on NBC broadcasts. Despite its mass appeal and its success in leading to the creation of the War
Refugee Board, 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.”