Seventy-five years ago this week, as the Academy Award-winning screenwriter Ben Hecht was putting the finishing touches on a dramatic pageant to alert the world about the Holocaust, his telephone rang.
The caller was Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, longtime leader of the Zionist Organization of America, the American Jewish Congress and several other Jewish institutions.
“Rabbi Wise said he would like to see me immediately in his rectory,” Hecht recalled. “His voice, which was sonorous and impressive, irritated me. I had never known a man with a sonorous and impressive voice who wasn’t either a con man or a bad actor. I explained I was very busy and unable to step out of my hotel.”
So Wise got straight to the point. “I have read your pageant script and I disapprove of it,” the veteran Jewish leader declared. “I must ask you to cancel this pageant and discontinue all your further activities in behalf of the Jews. If you wish hereafter to work for the Jewish cause, you will please consult me and let me advise you.”
Wise had no problem with the content of the pageant. Titled We Will Never Die,
its intention was to survey Jewish contributions to civilization throughout history and describe the Nazi slaughter of Europe’s Jews, culminating in an emotional recitation of “Kaddish” 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.”
Rabbi Wise’s objection was that We Will Never Die
was created by the Bergson Group, a handful of upstarts who were acting independently of the established Jewish leadership.
Wise and his colleagues opposed the project “not because they are against it, but because they are against us,” a Bergson Group leader explained to the bewildered Hecht. “Stephen Wise will not tolerate any other Jewish organization [that is] stealing honors and publicity from him.”
One of the most revealing anecdotes about Wise’s personality comes from Wise himself. He enjoyed recounting how Sigmund Freud once asked him to name “the four greatest living Jews.” Wise named Einstein, Ehrlich, Freud and Brandeis. Freud expressed surprise that Wise had not included himself in the list. “No, no, no, no, you cannot include me,” Wise replied. To which Freud responded: “If you had said ‘no’ once, I would believe you, but four ‘nos’ leads me to suspect that you protest too much.”
Today, too, the American Jewish community is saddled with “leaders” whose self-perception sometimes seems a tad inflated. An Israeli newspaper recently described how one Jewish official “reveled” in describing how he was introduced by someone in Washington as “the most important Jew in America.” Some of the Jewish figures involved in the recent visits to Qatar have compared themselves to “Moses, Esther and Herzl,” and characterized their critics as “haters” and “antisemites.”
One leader of an American Zionist organization recently was quoted as boasting that his group’s banquet was “the greatest Jewish dinner in history.” Does getting a lot of Jews to eat really qualify as an organizational accomplishment? “Often a hen who has merely laid an egg cackles as if she laid an asteroid,” Mark Twain wrote.
Back to 1943. To their credit, Ben Hecht and his Bergson Group colleagues ignored Rabbi Wise’s objections. They understood that in view of the crisis facing Jewry, the show must go on. More than 20,000 people jammed Madison Square Garden on the chilly evening of March 9, 1943. There were so many people gathered on the sidewalks outside – because all the seats inside were filled – that the cast decided to do a second performance immediately afterwards. The second show, too, filled the arena.
“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 newspaper 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 sell-out crowds in Chicago Stadium, the Boston Garden, Philadelphia’s Convention Hall, the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, and Washington, DC’s Constitution Hall. All together, more than 100,000 Americans attended the performances – and millions more read about the Nazi mass murders for the first time when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote about We Will Never Die
in her syndicated newspaper column.
The wall of silence surrounding the raging Holocaust was finally shattered, despite the damaging disunity fostered by Jewish “leaders” whose own egos sometimes got the best of them – as they do today, as well.The writer is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, DC. His latest book is Too Little, and Almost Too Late: The War Refugee Board and America’s Response to the Holocaust.