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.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of
the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies,
Echoes of Esther
The Purim beauty pageant of 1956 is long forgotten in the shtetl that was Queens Village, N.Y. But for me it is the stuff of personal destiny.
In those postwar years, women stayed home with their children, and men went from job to job before landing at their ultimate careers. The whole neighborhood buzzed with the promise of economic expansion and grand rewards for hard work.
I was not a conventionally pretty girl. My face — even at 8 years old — betrayed a kind of insistent intelligence that made adults squirm.
But when the mimeographed flyer came home announcing the costume contest for Queen Esther, there was no question that we would compete. Bess Myerson was already the first Jewish Miss America. Anything could happen.
My father worked as a window trimmer. He created the storefront commercial displays that attracted buyers on city streets. It was a low-prestige job my mother clearly felt was beneath him. But if he didn’t yet have his own store or a profession like other Queens dads, my father had talent that no one else could match: crepe paper.
Dad and I worked on my costume for what seemed like weeks. My skirt and crown were silver. He laid out the colored balls of thick, corrugated streamers creating the flower accents. He demonstrated how to make the huge roses that would sit on my waist and shoulder — tying the whole assembly together. He stretched the expanding paper to the left and right and twirled it into the most beautiful cabbage leaves I’d ever seen.
As we sat there, twirling red and pink and orange paper, we moved back in time but forward into urgency. I was Esther, and Dad was Mordechai, preparing me for my fate. To my mind, Esther was no more beautiful than I, but she knew what she was about. By the time I paraded through the tiny shul that Purim Sunday, winning by acclaim, I was one with the Jewish people.
Over many years, I’ve had reason to ask what makes people leave their faith, and what makes them stay. During the early angry years of feminism, there seemed more reason to leave an entrenched male-dominated Judaism than struggle for change. But I couldn’t ever leave, and maybe the twists and turns of a paper rose explain why.
I spent Monday morning with director-writer Ellen Sandler, as she put the finishing touches on “Echoes: Voices of Esther,” an original reading created by the MorningStar Commission, a Hollywood-based group affiliated with Hadassah and committed to improving the media portrayal of Jewish women. “Esther” will be performed this Sunday night at the Skirball Cultural Center. Sandler and six other writers have returned to their own roots to see the connection between the biblical Esther and their own lives.
Sandler was rehearsing Melissa Greenspan in the role of Sophie Lapin, a founder of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (written by Lapin’s granddaughter, actor-writer Shelly Goldstein). For some, Lapin is merely the stuff of history, but for Sandler, this is her own life.
“I was there,” said Sandler, who is the former co-executive producer of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” “I came to New York from Sioux City, Iowa, to make it in theater. I got my start sewing 200 seams on the right and 200 seams on the left.”
It’s easy to hear the echoes of Esther in the voices of famous women like Golda Meir, Lillian Hellman and Henrietta Szold, but also of lesser known Nina Friedman Abady, product of Jewish Selma, Ala., who walked with Martin Luther King, Jr. (whose story is co-written and portrayed by her daughter, Caroline Aaron); Hannah Levitt, who danced with Adolph Hitler, and Tola Friedman, the youngest person to survive Auschwitz-Birkenau. In the audience, listening to her own “echo,” will be Soraya Nazarian, who brought her family to safety out of Ayatollah’s Tehran.
Perhaps every Jewish woman’s life echoes that of Esther: who creates the tough roots of destiny from stuff as fragile as a paper rose.
For tickets or more information, please call (310)
712-5400 or visit www.morningstarevents.com .
A Map Is a Mirror