L.A. Pageant Raised Curtain on Holocaust
Sixty years ago this week, many residents of Los Angeles became aware of the Nazi Holocaust for the first time, thanks to a dramatic pageant staged at the Hollywood Bowl by an alliance of Jewish activists and Hollywood celebrities.
The pageant, called, “We Will Never Die,” was the brainchild of Ben Hecht, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter (“Gone With the Wind,” “Scarface”). Hecht was active in a Jewish political action committee led by Peter Bergson, a Zionist emissary from Palestine, who sought to bring about Allied action to rescue Jews from Hitler.
“We Will Never Die” was an enormous production, with a cast of hundreds and a backdrop of 40-foot-high tablets of the Ten Commandments. It began with a survey of Jewish contributions to civilization, leading up to the Nazi genocide. Hecht added a segment to the Hollywood Bowl performance to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto revolt, which had erupted just weeks earlier.
The U.S. and British governments looked askance at the project. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt refused to send a message of greetings to the opening-night performance on the grounds that it might “raise a political question” — he feared “We Will Never Die” would increase pressure to admit Jewish refugees to America.
The British Embassy in Washington considered the pageant “implicitly anti-British,” because Hecht called for allowing refugees into Palestine — something London vehemently opposed for fear of angering Arab opinion.
Hollywood Against the Holocaust
However, Bergson and Hecht found significant support in Hollywood. Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, Sylvia Sydney and Luther Adler volunteered to star in “We Will Never Die”; Moss Hart directed it and Kurt Weill composed an original score for the event.
The two opening performances at Madison Square Garden were viewed by more than 40,000 people. “We Will Never Die” was next staged in Washington, D.C., before an audience including first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, six justices of the Supreme Court, several hundred members of Congress and numerous members of the international diplomatic corps.
The pageant was later held in Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston. The climactic performance took place at the Hollywood Bowl on July 21, 1943, with guest stars Edward Arnold, John Garfield and Paul Henreid.
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.”
Tinsel Town provided a unique atmosphere for the pageant, as the Times noted: “Photographers’ flashbulbs lighted the Hollywood Bowl last night like myriad stars dotting the many tiers of seats — for the big names of Hollywood were as abundant as Mr. and Mrs. John Public are at most affairs…. It was an autograph-seeker’s paradise. Youngsters dashed up and down the aisles before the pageant began, squealing with excitement and enthusiasm as each new celebrity appeared.”
The Times described the audience as “a California who’s who,” including numerous Hollywood luminaries, such as David O. Selznick, Sam Goldwyn and Jack Warner; as well as Gov. Earl Warren; the Rev. W. Bertrand Stevens, the bishop of Los Angeles, and presiding Superior Court Judge Emmet H. Wilson.
Some residents of Los Angeles undoubtedly had already gleaned some information about Hitler’s massacres from the local press. But the spectacular nature of “We Will Never Die” made a conscience-stirring impression that was far more memorable than ordinary newspaper articles.
The Rescue Campaign
“We Will Never Die” was one component of Bergson’s yearlong campaign to bring about the rescue of European Jewry. His tactics also included placing controversial full-page newspaper ads and staging public rallies.
Some of the ads appeared in the Los Angeles press. One in the Los Angeles Daily News, urging the Allies to set aside territory to temporarily shelter refugees, was headlined: “25 Square Miles or Two Million Lives: Which Shall It Be?”
Just before Yom Kippur in 1943, Bergson organized a march of 400 rabbis to the White House. Roosevelt avoided the protesters by slipping out through a rear exit.
Bergson activists also undertook extensive Capitol Hill lobbying that culminated in October 1943 in the introduction of a congressional resolution urging creation of a government agency to rescue Jewish refugees. Rep. Will Rogers Jr. of Beverly Hills, who was co-chairman of the Bergson group, was the bill’s lead sponsor in the House, and his California colleague, Sen. Sheridan Downey, was a co-sponsor in the Senate.
The controversy caused by congressional hearings on the resolution, combined with behind-the-scenes pressure from Treasury Department officials, convinced Roosevelt in January 1944 to establish the rescue agency the resolution had sought: the War Refugee Board.
The War Refugee Board’s activities, which included financing the rescue work of Raoul Wallenberg, saved the lives of more than 200,000 people during the final 18 months of the war. By publicizing the tragedy in unique and dramatic fashion, “We Will Never Die” helped set in motion the events that led to the saving of those lives — and that was no small accomplishment.
Athens and Baghdad
The legacy of Athens was not only the glory of Western democracy. It was also the brutality of Roman tyranny. And the legacy of Baghdad is not only Wahhabi obscurantism and viciousness. It is also religious tolerance and a this-worldly spirituality.
Islam may have been born in Mecca and Medina, but it matured and flowered under the civilization that issued from noble Baghdad. Civilization is never static. It changes with the seasons of history. An inward-looking America of a century ago would hardly be recognizable to a student of American foreign policy since World War II.
Civilizations wax and wane but never stop evolving. Since this is so clearly the case, I can’t understand why so many self-appointed pundits of Islam are convinced that Islam and democracy don’t mix.
Who would have thought in 1945 that Japan would become one of the world’s most powerful, liberal democracies only two decades later? Centuries of militarism and despotic rule there were turned around in a generation. It is hard to conceive of a return to the collective mentality of imperial Japan in my children’s or their children’s generation.
It is true that Islam is not a "democratic" religion. But then, I know of no religion that is. Certainly not Christianity, with its divinely appointed hierarchy. And not Judaism, which derives its legal tradition from God — not from the Sanhedrin.
The bottom line of democracy is the freedom of every individual to vote one’s conscience, and that tenet is missing equally from Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It has been argued that democracy in the West required that people experience the repeated and violent failures of feudalism to prove its worth, and the subsequent catastrophes of fascism and communism to confirm its value.
I don’t believe it’s a stretch to point out that the Muslims of the Middle East know very well how feudalism, fascism, communism and theocracies have failed them miserably. So what is to prevent Arab Muslims from diving enthusiastically into democracy?
The answer is their taste of the bitter fruits of democracy itself. Democracy has worked best in tandem with capitalism, and capitalism has always required expanding markets, greater supplies of resources and cheap and dependable labor.
These requirements have convinced many in the business world to exploit less-developed areas for their resources, their labor and their purchase power. There is nothing wrong with exploitation — but there are two meanings to the term. One meaning is utilization, development and management. The other is abuse, mistreatment and manipulation.
In the search for a fast and easy buck, our capitalists have too often read exploitation the wrong way. The amazing thing about this is that we have managed to remain largely immune from the effects of our grand schemes.
Sept. 11 was our wake-up call. It hit us hard and it hit us where it really hurts. So as any nation would, we responded. With our superior technology and firepower, we managed to destroy two threats to our immediate security. First, it was the theocracy of Afghanistan, and now, the secular tyranny of Iraq.
We must now follow our display of military prowess with a responsible demonstration of our conviction that democracy works. We need to teach the Iraqis, as we did the Japanese, that we will accept nothing less than full capitulation and reversal from tyranny and violence.
But as any teacher knows, effective teaching fails when students can see the disconnect between teaching and personal example (and students can always see when there is a disconnect between teaching and example). This is the root failure of European colonialists. They educated indigenous elites on the principles of democracy and social justice, but set personal examples of racism, negative exploitation and autocracy.
Which message was the one that was learned?
We can teach effectively only by example. That means that America must demonstrate to the Iraqis and the entire Muslim world that our war was not a clash of civilizations or just another excuse for exploitation, but rather a demonstration of what American values are all about.
We need to prove that democracy can work for everybody; that it is not only a Christian or a Western experience. It may mean a slightly poorer bottom line for our businesses in the short term, but the long-term results will more than make up for it.
Reuven Firestone is professor of medieval Judaism and Islam and the director of the Edgar F. Magnin School of Graduate Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institue of Religion in Los Angeles.
Visiting Peru’s Would-be Jews
Chan Chan is the world’s largest mud city. Lying just
outside the town of Trujillo, on Peru’s northern coast, Chan Chan’s high
earthen walls feature pre-Columbian carvings paying tribute to the civilization’s
In 2001, I ventured to Peru, not just to visit the ruins of
great ancient cities founded by the Incas and their predecessors, but to meet
nearly 200 Inca descendants who have found Judaism in recent decades.
Groups of native Peruvians, who were religious Christians,
began practicing Judaism after they came to believe that it was impossible to
follow biblical laws without adhering to Jewish ritual.
Prospero Lujan, at 70 an elder statesman among the “Inca
Jews,” escorted me to Chan Chan one afternoon. I asked him why these Peruvians
would take an interest in Judaism, when Peru’s own ancient cultures built such
“Where are they and their gods now?” he replied, referring
to their destroyed civilization.
Prospero’s past may be Inca, but his future is in Israel.
Next month, Prospero will fly to Israel on a chartered plane full of new
Peruvian converts making aliyah. Two groups of Inca Jews were converted and
made aliyah before 1991. The remaining community in Peru struggled for more
than 10 years to gain the attention of Israel’s chief rabbinate. The rabbinate
initially promised to return soon to Peru to convert more people, but reversed
course after several earlier converts “defected” to a more secular lifestyle in
The Inca Jews finally prevailed in November 2001, when an
Orthodox beit din (Jewish court), came to Peru from Israel and converted
Prospero Lujan and 83 others. I reminded Prospero that war-torn Israel is no
paradise, but he was unfazed, feeling the Promised Land will rejuvenate him.
“I will never be afraid again. When I am 80 in Israel, they
will think I am 40,” he said. “Spiritually, I feel young. Practicing Judaism
has totally renewed me.”
The new converts’ enthusiasm is matched by the disappointment
of approximately 80 Inca Jews the beit din left behind.
Ester Guerra, who immigrated to Israel with the first groups
in 1991, recently called me in the middle of the night, having heard that I am
a friend to the Peruvian communities. The family of her brother, Lucio Guerra,
was one of those wishing to convert with the rabbis last fall. The rabbis
passed over Lucio’s family.
“Please do something,” Ester begged. “I am all alone here in
Israel, and it is destroying me. You know my brother Lucio’s family, how
religious they are.”
When I was in Peru, I visited the Guerras in Cajamarca, a
town over 8,000 feet high in the Andes, six hours inland from Trujillo. As we
spoke, Lucio’s wife, Marina, prepared a fish lunch with hot peppers, baked
yucca and rice. The Inca Jews generally eat only vegetarian food and scaly
fish, because they cannot get kosher meat.
Lucio formerly drove a cargo truck, but was forced to become
a garbage truck driver for the municipality to avoid working on Saturdays.
“My old job was better-paying, but we have to look toward
spiritual goals before material concerns,” he explained. Lucio tries to support
his family of six on approximately $175 a month.
The Guerras’ children, in navy and white school uniforms,
ran in from their morning classes just as lunch was ready. Everyone performed a
ritual hand washing and said the Hebrew blessing over rice. As we ate, I talked
to Eliel Guerra, 10, about life in Peru’s public schools.
“Our teacher makes us pray the Catholic way,” he said. “When
she called on me to lead the prayers, I looked the other way, and she pulled me
to the front and hit me twice on each hand with her tablet.”
The Guerras do not know why they were denied conversion last
fall by the beit din. Ester thinks it may be because Lucio does not lay
tefillin — which he cannot afford to buy.
Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum, a member of the beit din in Israel,
said the failure to use tefillin would not itself be a reason for denying a
conversion. However, Birnbaum would not say why any particular family or
individual was denied conversion last fall.
Rabbi David Mamou, the head of the beit din, said he hopes
to organize another group of rabbis to go to Peru about six months after this
group of 84 people has been “successfully absorbed” — though it’s not clear
exactly how that determination will be made.
“We have opened a door and we hope to continue forward,”
Birnbaum said. “Another 10 years of inaction will not pass.”
The Peruvians want to believe the rabbis, because they
cannot bear the thought of waiting another decade.
“Now we are waiting for the opportunity offered publicly by
the beit din to return to Peru,” said Aquiles Lujan, Prospero Lujan’s oldest
son, who also was passed over by the beit din in November. Aquiles has become
the new president of Trujillo’s community.
“We also remain at the mercy of men of good will and kind
actions to make possible the return of the rabbis,” he continued, stressing the
role that world Jewry can play — both with funding and advocacy — in helping
the remaining Inca Jews convert and move to Israel.
Under Israeli law, no rabbis other than Mamou’s group can
help the Peruvians realize their dream of immigrating to Israel.
Malka Kogan, an attorney at Israel’s Interior Ministry,
explained, “The State of Israel’s rule is to allow a man to immigrate who
converted in a congregation where he lives.”
But what if the man is like Lucio Guerra or Aquiles Lujan,
without an authorized local congregation willing to help?
“Then the chief rabbi’s office must convert him before we
can bring him to Israel,” Kogan said.
No matter how long that takes. Â
Bryan Schwartz, an Easton, Pa.-based lawyer, is completing his first book, “Scattered Among the Nations: Photographs and Stories of the World’s Most Isolated Jewish Communities.”
End the Silence
Only three weeks ago it was possible to speak in optimistic terms about a united front against terrorism. History seemed to be blowing at our back, pushing the forces of civilization onward and upward to victory against the scourge of modern times. Writing in this space in early October, I quoted with admiration the prediction made by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak; that the nations of the world would now join together against terrorism much as the nations of the post-Napoleonic period had defeated piracy. For a brief heady moment, it looked like we American Jews could sit back in the warm protection of our nation acting out of grief and righteous revenge.
But the center is not holding. The coalition is falling apart, especially United States reliance on Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
And Israel, which on Sept. 11 epitomized a western nation fighting valiantly against terrorism, is now isolated. Israel has gone from victim to scapegoat. The pirates seem to be winning.
The anxiety on the part of the American Jewish community is growing. It’s time to regain our voice.
Last week, I spoke at a luncheon for Hadassah and Israel Bonds at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. With me on the podium was activist and law professor Susan Estrich.
We could not miss feeling the change in the wind, and the sense that our silence was hurting us.
Many in the room had recently returned from a deeply demoralized Israel, which in the aftermath of the assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavan Ze’evi, was rapidly turning to a fear-driven political right. They wanted to know how to respond to the Bush administration’s hypocritical warning to Ariel Sharon to stop reacting to terrorism, while the United States was trying to "take out" Osama bin Laden.
Others were alarmed by the turn in the war itself, a new Vietnam in the making. But this time American Jews could not reveal the Emperor’s empty closet for fear that such truths, too, would erode support for Israel.
Still others were focused on domestic concerns, especially the America media’s new fascination with our Muslim community.
How could we, as American Jews, speak up without causing ourselves and Israel backlash and pain?
I find these questions right on the money, but since Sept. 11, our community leadership has played from the sidelines. They have preferred to play out their influence behind the scenes, content to cite the Chicago Sun Times public opinion poll that 72.8 percent of the American public supports Israel, while Palestinian support is down to 7 percent, lowest since the intifada.
Polls are not enough. It’s time to answer back, not only in defense of Israel, but on our own behalf.
Take for example the endlessly debated question: "Why do they hate us?" which played and replayed on American media throughout the last six weeks. That’s one question American Jews should be shooting at with a sling. At best, it’s a cheap rhetorical trick, at worst, it’s an insult to the 5,000 dead.
"Why do they hate us?" is an old media ploy, an intellectually vacuous equivalent of "Do you still beat your wife?" designed to give the enemy the upper hand. When applied to Jews, the question is always an invitation to anti-Semitism, as more than one Los Angeles radio station learned when it opened its programming to the question. "Why do they hate us?" is open season on hate.
As it turns out, even when applied to America, "Why do they hate us?" is still an invitation to anti-Semitic, or at least anti-Israel, views. Every story about why some Muslims despise us falls into the tar pit of Middle East politics. If the question is why they hate us, the answer must be America and its Jewish ally.
"The press fall into a trap, blaming Israel," Alex Safian, of CAMERA, told me. "For if Islam means ‘peace,’–" a point Safian disputes — "Israel must be what made it violent."
With groups like MEMRI and CAMERA monitoring the press these days, such tactics don’t go unanswered. CAMERA will hold its annual conference on Nov. 11 at Stephen S. Wise Temple. It will be one way to get back your voice.