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 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 outsized 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. 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 composed an original score; Moss Hart agreed to serve as director, and famed impresario Billy Rose signed on as producer.
It was Rose who decided to approach 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 – 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.
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 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 that the “stress and pressure” of the president’s schedule made it impossible for FDR to provide the few words of comfort and consolation the Bergson Group sought.
None of this deterred the irrepressible Ben Hecht and his comrades from making sure 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 to do a second performance immediately after the first. The second show, too, filled the Garden.