Preparing the Pageant
In late November 1942, newspapers throughout the United States reported that Nazi Germany and its collaborators had already killed two million European Jews as part of its mass murder campaign. Many Americans found it difficult to believe the information; a January 1943 poll showed that only 48% believed it to be true.
Oscar-winning Hollywood screenwriter Ben Hecht, who was Jewish, believed the information and was horrified by it. His February 1943 article in The American Mercury magazine, “The Extermination of the Jews,” recounted Nazi terror from the victims’ point of view. The piece was soon excerpted in Reader’s Digest for a wider audience and retitled “Remember Us.”
After writing these magazine pieces, Hecht decided to author a dramatic pageant to further raise awareness of the plight of European Jews. He called the show We Will Never Die. To produce the show, Hecht teamed up with Peter Bergson, the militant Zionist leader of the “Committee for a Jewish Army.” Bergson’s committee, which campaigned for the formation of a Jewish Army fighting under Allied command, had already been planning a rally at Madison Square Garden in early March, to be called “Action—Not Pity.” After agreeing to work together, Bergson opted to stage Hecht’s performance instead.
Bergson’s brash tactics angered American Jewish organizations, but he and Hecht found eager partners in both the Hollywood and Broadway communities. Broadway director Moss Hart and producer Billy Rose signed on for We Will Never Die. German refugee composer Kurt Weill quickly created a powerful score from original and pre-existing compositions. Cinema and stage stars performed the major roles, with a new cast in each city. The program booklet featured cover artwork by refugee artist Arthur Szyk.
The Premiere at Madison Square Garden
We Will Never Die premiered at Madison Square Garden at 8:30 pm on Tuesday, March 9, 1943, to a sold-out crowd of 20,000. The large cast (newspapers claimed 1,000 participants) performed the entire show again that evening at 11 pm for another sold-out performance, with the audio broadcast outside the theater to an overflow crowd.
The show opened with Yiddish stage actor Jacob Ben-Ami informing the audience: “We are here to say our prayers for the two million who have been killed in Europe.” Twenty rabbis, whom the audience were told had escaped from Europe, recited the Shema Yisrael prayer as they stood on risers in front of two forty-foot-high tablets representing the Ten Commandments. Two narrators—Hollywood stars Paul Muni and Edward G. Robinson at the New York performances—listed the names of prominent Jews throughout history, from the biblical figures Moses and King David, to Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, psychologist Sigmund Freud, and twenty Jewish Nobel laureates. Actors played Jewish soldiers in short skits, showing that Jews were risking their lives in World War II under the flags of the Allied countries. The final scene of the pageant depicted a postwar peace conference, with actors portraying Jewish ghosts, describing their murders in concentration camps, in ghettos, and on killing fields, as they implored the victorious Allies to “Remember us.” One narrator added: “There will be no Jews left in Europe for representation when peace comes. The four million left to be killed are being killed.”
As the end of the performance neared, the narrators informed the audience:
No voice is heard to cry halt to the slaughter, no government speaks to bid the murder of human millions end. But we here tonight have a voice. Let us raise it.
The show ended with the singing of the kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.
The next morning, March 10, 1943, the Committee for a Jewish Army published a full-page advertisement in the New York Times, stating that the success of We Will Never Die showed that “the conspiracy of silence which surrounded the Jewish disaster in Europe is definitely broken...it will be sinful if we do not agree upon a policy of action to save the millions who still survive.”
Performances across the United States
On April 12, 1943, We Will Never Die was performed at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC, again to a sell-out crowd, including seven Supreme Court justices, two Cabinet members, more than two hundred members of Congress, and diplomatic representatives of countries then under German occupation. With such a powerful audience in attendance, Ben Hecht rewrote the final text:
“The challenge of war has called forth the righteous roar of our champions. The deeper and more powerful evil of massacre inspires no such outcry. On the field of battle soldiers die. On the field of massacre, civilization dies. We have come to the great and historic city of Washington to ask the question—what is our answer to this crime?”
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who also attended, wrote in her “My Day” newspaper column that it was “one of the most impressive and moving pageants I have ever seen. No one who heard each group come forward and give the story of what had happened to it at the hands of a ruthless German military, will ever forget those haunting words: ‘Remember us.’”
The pageant was performed at Philadelphia’s Convention Hall on April 22, at Chicago Stadium on May 19, at Boston Garden on June 6, and at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles on July 21. For the Hollywood Bowl performance, Ben Hecht, inspired by news of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, added a new section to the pageant called “The Battle of Warsaw.” Music for this sequence was written by émigré film composer Franz Waxman, who conducted the orchestra and choir for the performance.
At least 100,000 Americans witnessed the pageant, and many more listened to it on the radio, saw newsreel coverage, or read newspaper articles about the performances.
Legacy of We Will Never Die
The spectacle of We Will Never Die, the power of Hecht’s text, the involvement of Hollywood and Broadway stars, and Peter Bergson’s talent for publicity meant that the pageant certainly raised awareness of the Nazi murder of European Jews. Public pressure began to mount in 1943 for a dedicated American response to Nazi atrocities, in part due to the success of We Will Never Die.