To alert the American public about of European Jewry, screenwriter and Bergson Group activist Ben Hecht in 1943 authored a dramatic 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 and describe the Nazi slaughter of the Jews, culminating in a dramatic recitation of “Kaddish,” the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead, by a group of elderly refugee rabbis. The pageant was the first major public activity by the Bergson Group concerning the Holocaust.
Hecht tried but failed to persuade major Jewish organizations to co-sponsor “We Will Never Die.” A meeting of representatives of 32 Jewish groups, hosted by Hecht, dissolved in shouting matches as ideological and personal rivalries left the Jewish organizations unable to cooperate. Not only did they refuse to co-sponsor it, but in some cities, mainstream Jewish groups actually sought to discourage attendance. Some Jewish leaders feared the Bergson Group’s vocal activism would usurp their own leadership role in the Jewish community. Other Jewish leaders worried that dramatic public activities such as Hecht’s pageant might provoke anti-Semitism. Some would not work with Bergson because their particular factions in the Zionist movement regarded him as their political rival because he had been a follower of the founder of Revisionist Zionism, Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky
The White House had its own reasons for spurning “We Will Never Die.” The pageant’s producer, Billy Rose, wrote to a senior White House adviser, David Niles, to request a message from President Roosevelt to be read aloud at the event. FDR’s advisers urged him to refrain from sending the message because it might “raise a political question.” They feared “We Will Never Die” would increase pressure to admit Jewish refugees to the United States or to British-controlled Palestine. The President declined Rose’s request.
Despite the lack of cooperation, Bergson and Hecht went ahead with “We Will Never Die” on their own. Starring Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni, and directed by Moss Hart with an original score by Kurt Weill, it played to audiences of more than 40,000 in two shows at Madison Square Garden on March 9 and March 10, 1943.
“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 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, D.C.’s Constitution Hall. A total of more than 100,000 Americans attended the performances.
The Washington event was attended by more than two hundred Members of Congress, numerous members of the international diplomatic corps (“ambassadors from everywhere,” Hecht called them), six justices of the Supreme Court, and Eleanor Roosevelt. It was not the first time that the famously independent First Lady failed to toe the president’s line. Mrs. Roosevelt was so moved by the performance that she devoted part of her next syndicated column, “My Day,” to the pageant and the plight of Europe’s Jews. For millions of American newspaper readers, it was the first time they heard about the Nazi mass murders.
Sources: Wyman and Medoff, A Race Against Death, pp.34-36, 71-73; Baumel, The “Bergson Boys,” pp.114-119.