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, www.WymanInstitute.org , which focuses on issues related to the U.S. response to the Holocaust.