by Meredith Jacobs
Seventy years ago, in 1943, there were many in America, including Jews, who did not believe the rumors of the Holocaust. After all, why would the Germans commit time and resources to killing Jews? It was unimaginable that the annihilation of the Jewish people was a driving force for war.
Without going into too much history, suffice it to say, the State Department was preventing information from reaching the American public.
When the media wouldn’t cover it, Peter Bergson, born Hillel Kook in Palestine, and founder of the controversial Bergson Group, purchased ads in The New York Times raising awareness of the mass murder of, at the time, 2 million European Jews.
Screenwriter Ben Hecht, a member of the Bergson Group, wrote a pageant, We Will Never Die, and using music and song and readings by famous actors (including Edward G. Robinson, Frank Sinatra and Burgess Meredith) and prayers by leading rabbis, presented the story of the Holocaust.
An audience of 40,000 attended the pageant in Madison Square Garden. The show traveled to Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston. It was staged at the Hollywood Bowl. And when it came to Washington, D.C., First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, six Supreme Court Justices and some 300 senators and congressmen were in attendance.
Last Thursday, the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington commemorated the 70th anniversary of We Will Never Die at the Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum. I was deeply honored to be among the four readers to recreate portions of the pageant (Cantor Adrianne Brown of Adas Israel Congregation, Paul R. Tetreault, director, Ford’s Theater, and the Hon. Jack Evans, D.C. councilmember, were the other three). In the audience were two local men who, as teenagers, were part of the chorus of the original D.C. production.
Academics Dr. Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and Dr. Allan Lichtman, professor, American University department of history, placed our re-enactment in historical context – helping us to understand what was happening in the U.S. in 1943 and how We Will Never Die influenced and informed public opinion.
It was a history I had not known.
As impactful as the morning’s events, it was when Dr. Alfred Munzer stepped onto the historic bima that the message of “we will never die” truly hit home.
Munzer was an infant when his parents gave him to a family in the Netherlands. His sisters were given to a devoutly Catholic family. His parents went into hiding.
His parents were soon discovered and sent to camps. The father of the family protecting his sisters turned them in to the Nazis. They died in Auschwitz. They were 6 and 8 years old.
Munzer believes he is alive today because of the Indonesian nanny who cared for him. She could not read or write, but she understood the danger circling her infant charge. She slept with Munzer in her bed, a knife under her pillow.
He called her Mema Babo.
His father died soon after the camp was liberated. His mother survived and reunited with her son. They ultimately emigrated to the U.S. where Munzer works as an internist and pulmonologist and volunteers at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
He recently spoke to a group of Indonesian teens brought over by the State Department. They did not know his story, only that he was a Holocaust survivor.
He showed them a photo of a woman in traditional Indonesian garb, holding a baby. “That’s me,” he told them. And then he remembered the Indonesian lullaby she sang to him at night.
He began to sing.
Their voices joined his, singing the lullaby they too heard as children, safely nestled in their mothers’ arms.
And at that moment, he told all of us assembled in the historic synagogue on Third and G, the old man who survived the Holocaust and the young teens from Indonesia, who were separated by years and miles and cultures and languages, became family.