We Will Never Die Pageant
March 9, 1943
On a stage in Madison Square Garden, in front of a backdrop of two towering tablets inscribed in Hebrew with the Ten Commandments, a rabbi opened a performance dedicated to the murdered Jews of Europe. "We are here to say our prayers for the two million who have been killed in Europe," he announced, "because they bear the names of your first children -- the Jews.... We are not here to weep for them." He continued, "We are here to honor them and to proclaim the victory of their dying. For in our Testament are written the words of Habakkuk, prophet of Israel, 'They shall never die.' "
It was the 9th of March 1943, and 40,000 people had turned out to watch the "We Will Never Die" pageant. The event was the brainchild of members of the Committee for a Jewish Army [see below] and some of the most prominent Jews in show business, including scriptwriter Ben Hecht. They hoped that it would publicize the fate of the Jews of Europe. Hecht enlisted composer Kurt Weill to write a score and Moss Hart to direct the show. The cast featured 200 rabbis, 200 cantors, 400 actors and 100 musicians.
The show's producers hoped that President Roosevelt would raise the profile of their event by sending a few words that could be read to the audience. The White House was reluctant to issue any statement, and when staffers at the Office of War Information produced a vaguely worded message that didn't even mention Jews, White House staffers found even that to be too strong. In the end no message was sent. But the pageant spoke powerfully enough for itself. In a moving final sequence, voices of the Jewish dead urged the audience to remember them.
Voice: Remember us who were put in the freight trains that left France and Holland and Belgium and who rode across Europe...standing up. We died in the freight cars standing up.... Remember us.
Voice: Remember us who were in the Ukraine...[the Germans] took our women into the roads and tied them together with our children. Then they drove their heavy motor lorries into us. Thousands of us died this way with the Germany military cars running back and forth over our broken bodies. Remember us."
The narrator ended the performance by reminding the audience that the mass killing of Europe's Jews was not a Jewish problem. "It is a problem," the narrator said, "that belongs to humanity. It is a challenge to the soul of man."
With the success of the show in New York, the producers tried to schedule performances in dozens of other cities. Eleanor Roosevelt, six Supreme Court Justices and some 300 senators and congressmen watched the drama when it came to Washington. Mrs. Roosevelt described it as "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 First Lady however failed to mention the need for action to save the remaining Jews in Europe.
In all, some 100,000 people saw the pageant in six cities. Ironically, it failed to travel to as many locations as the organizers had hoped, or have the political impact they imagined partly because of infighting within the Jewish community. The pageant had been put on by a group called the Committee for a Jewish Army (CJA), a Zionist organization led by Palestinian Jews who'd come to the United States several years earlier to push for the establishment of a Jewish state. When details of Hitler's plans to destroy the Jews of Europe become known in the West, the CJA shifted course and began to campaign for the rescue of European Jewry. But established Jewish leaders distrusted the CJA; in their minds it was an organization led by a group of interlopers who had no mandate to speak for American Jews. Representatives of the American Jewish Congress began a campaign to prevent "We Will Never Die" from being performed. They sent letters to many of the show's backers maligning the CJA and in the end sponsors withdrew their support. One observer concluded that the internecine squabbling had effectively disarmed "the most powerful single weapon yet produced to awaken the conscience of America."