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 recalled. “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 sellout crowds in Chicago Stadium, the Boston Garden, Philadelphia’s Convention Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, and Washington’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 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.