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The Story Behind NBC’s Historic Yom Kippur Broadcast on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Seventy years ago, two marketing geniuses harnessed the power of mass media to bring Jews into the American mainstream

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Morton Wishengrad, writer of “The Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto,” and Milton Krents, director of AJC radio department. (All images courtesy of the American Jewish Committee)
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AJC found dozens of allies ready to accept its projects, research, and story ideas. The Veterans of Foreign Wars released two full-page advertisements that ran in 383 and 499 newspapers respectively. Rothschild recalled in a report on AJC’s wartime work that INS, the International News feature syndicate, “sent out countless pieces on the unity theme under the heading ‘I am an American.’ ” Look magazine ran a piece in 1942 titled “Anti-Semitism—A Danger to Our Nation.” Meanwhile, a feature in the Woman’s Home Companion, “The Mother Racket,” warned of a growing number of organizations such as We, the Mothers, that had intentionally selected names with “mother” to convey a false wholesomeness. In reality, these organizations were associated with individuals such as Father Coughlin and minister Gerald L.K. Smith, the America First party founder who railed against Jews, Negroes, communists, and foreigners. Richard Rothschild’s ever-present “divide and conquer” theme—the idea that internal divisions played right into Nazi interests—was picked up by the Ad Council and used by Fortune magazine in a series on Hitler.

Meanwhile, AJC provided the research for True Comics’ They Got the Blame, the story of the scapegoat in history. In comic books and cartoons, Americans learned about Morris Abraham Cohen—known as Two-Gun Cohen, who in the 1920s served as a bodyguard to the Chinese leader Sun Yat Sen—as well as WWI hero Abe Krotishinsky, WWII ace pilot Malcolm Hormats, and other Jewish military figures. Classrooms across the country hung posters designed by AJC and distributed by Scholastic Magazine featuring quotes by figures such as Adm. Nimitz and Gens. Eisenhower and MacArthur on national unity and Hitler’s “divide and conquer” tactics. As Rothschild would record, “Every channel to the American people via print was used.”

For all the accomplishments in the print media, Rothschild readily admitted, the greatest success was in Krents’ radio department. Krents worked across the radio spectrum reaching a broad range of listeners. For Uncle Don, a popular children’s program on New York’s WOR radio station, he produced the All Americans Contest, which challenged children to send in essays on the topic “Why It’s Grand To Be an American.” The winner received Broadway tickets. If they were stumped, Uncle Don was ready to help out—with scripts written by Milton Krents. “Maybe you know a boy or girl who is different from you,” he explained. “I mean whose skin is a different color … or whose daddies and mothers speak a different language than your mothers and daddies. Well … it’s a wonderful thing to know that all these boys and girls are the same … they’re all Americans.”

Material was prepared for an array of other shows: Mr. District Attorney, Town Meeting of the Air, and Quilting Bee, where four women spoke about current events while quilting. Krents’ monthly logs reveal a close relationship with Kate Smith, the popular singer, who by the late 1930s had become a radio star, hosting two of the nation’s most popular programs, The Kate Smith Hour, and Kate Smith Speaks. She accepted material such as the story of Irving Strobing, the Brooklyn-born radio operator who sent out the last message from Corregidor, and also occasionally had AJC schedule guests. In 1939, Krents arranged for an interview with Edith Lehman, wife of the New York state Gov. Herbert Lehman, on democracy, titling it “The First Lady of the State Interviewed by the First Lady of Radio.”

Krents’ most outstanding project was the Dear Adolf radio series. “I got this bright idea of doing a series of letters to Hitler right smack on answering his propaganda, tying in with Rothschild’s idea of Divide and Conquer,” Krents recalled years later in an interview for AJC’s William E. Wiener Oral History Library. He recruited Stephen Vincent Benet, who in 1929 had won the Pulitzer Prize for his book-length poem John Brown’s Body, to write the letters: one from a farmer, soldier, housewife, factory worker, businessman, and a foreign-born American. The six-week program began broadcasting on NBC in June 1942, not long after the fall of Corregidor in the Philippines to the Japanese. The American public needed a morale boost, and some of the leading stars of the day—Cagney and Helen Hayes among them—stepped in to read the letters. The movie star William Holden took the part of an American soldier. “We don’t like being ordered around, though we’ll take it and like it in wartime,” he read. “We think one man’s as good as the next and maybe better… We’ll marry the girl we like—and the guy who makes a crack about her ancestry had better look out for his teeth.” Next came the sergeant’s blaring roll call: “Raconski, Rattray, Rourke, Saltonstall, Secepanowics,” the constant broadcast refrain, the reminder of the stark contrast between American pluralism and Hitler’s Aryan ideal. For those who missed it on the radio, the narration was also reprinted in Life magazine.

As the tide of war turned in the Allies’ favor, the flavor of AJC programming also shifted. The last major wartime radio production came a year after the Warsaw Ghetto broadcast, in October 1944. It featured neither famous actors nor playwrights. Instead, NBC, in cooperation with AJC, sponsored the first Jewish religious service broadcast from Germany since the rise of Hitler more than a decade earlier. Near Aachen, the first German city to fall to the Allies, Chaplain Sidney Lefkowitz led a group of Jewish GIs in a prayer service that was broadcast halfway around the world, for all Americans to hear.

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Moving Jews into the Mainstream

From the archives of the American Jewish Committee