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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

Charlotte Bonelli
September 12, 2013

A few days before Yom Kippur in 1943, NBC aired a radio play dramatizing the horrific events and tragic end of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising earlier that year. For half a minute, Americans from coast to coast, many of them Jews but most of them not, listened to a cantor chant el malei rachamim, the traditional Ashkenazi prayer for the dead. “Hear him with reverence,” the announcer instructed. “In the Ghetto, thirty-five thousand stood their ground against an army of the Third Reich—and twenty-five thousand fell. They sleep in their common graves but they have vindicated their birthright. Therefore, let him sing and hear him with reverence, for they have made an offering by fire and atonement unto the Lord and they have earned their sleep.”

This historic broadcast was the first mainstream dramatic representation of the uprising, detailed reports of which only began reaching New York in September 1943, five months after the battle and a few weeks before the High Holidays. The radio play detailed the horrific suffering of the ghetto inhabitants, the heroics of the fighters, and their inevitable deaths. The response was so overwhelming that the program was aired again for Hanukkah in December 1943.

“The Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto” wasn’t just a piece of timely wartime programming by NBC. It was the capstone of an American Jewish Committee program to combat anti-Semitism by promoting the idea that, with the world at war, anti-Jewish bigotry wasn’t just a problem for the Jews—it was also essentially un-American.

The initiative was the brainchild of Richard Rothschild, a philosopher-turned-advertising executive who was recruited in the late 1930s to craft AJC’s national strategy to combat anti-Semitism. Rothschild introduced the concept of “salting in,” whereby notable Jewish figures were folded into radio programs or print material. Their names alone, he felt, would identify them as Jews; there was to be no discussion of the character’s religion or ethnicity. The Jew was to be presented, quite simply, as a natural part of the landscape. At the same time, non-Jewish stars like James Cagney were recruited to perform AJC material. Meantime, millions of Americans saw full-page newspaper advertisements, school posters, and comic books prepared by AJC but distributed through partner organizations.

While the war itself laid the groundwork for shifting American perceptions about Jews, Rothschild and his colleagues were instrumental in casting anti-Semitism outside the realm of social acceptability. Rather than dignifying anti-Semitic attacks with a direct response, they simply presented an alternate reality in which Jews were portrayed in pop culture as Americans like anyone else—prefiguring by decades the rise of Judd Apatow’s nebbishy anti-heroes. The anti-Semites, Rothschild argued, had to be the “ones in the criminals’ dock” where their un-Americanism, indecency, and subversive activities could be exposed.

The story begins in the 1930s, a decade when American Jews were facing an unprecedented rise in anti-Semitism. According to Charles Herbert Stember’s Jews in the Mind of America, 31 percent of those surveyed at the time believed Jews were less patriotic than other Americans. Slightly more than 40 percent believed Jews had too much power in America. An estimated 30 million Americans regularly tuned in to hear the firebrand radio preacher Father Charles Coughlin inveigh against the menace of Jewish power, especially as the slow march toward war in Europe quickened. In bulletins, at rallies, and on street corners, organizations such as the Silver Shirts and the Christian Front warned of the Jewish threat. Some groups received encouragement from Nazi agents, while others received hard cash.

While Jewish organizations like the American Jewish Committee had always been alert to episodes of anti-Semitism, they were often handled on a case-by-case basis. Now, with anti-Semitism threatening to poison the American bloodstream, a broader, more vigorous approach was required. Benjamin Buttenwieser, a prominent AJC lay leader, believed the organization needed to reach Americans where they congregated—around the family radio. In 1936, he called NBC looking for a candidate to help AJC launch a radio department. “Have you got any Jewish fellows up there?” Buttenwieser asked. They had one, a man named Milton Krents. He had some radio experience, but only from his college days at New York University. At NBC, he had worked in the mail room and accounting department. No question, Krents’ résumé was thin, but he was going to have to do.

Krents seized the opportunity with both hands. When his girlfriend Irma—later his wife—visited the AJC office, he showed her a large U.S. map on the wall stuck full of color pins. “What is this?” she asked. “Those are all the places that are going to carry my radio programs,” he told her. In 1937, Krents’ first year at AJC, he assisted with or independently produced 23 programs. The next year, approximately 2,000 broadcasts carrying AJC messages went out over the airwaves.

When Richard Rothschild arrived in 1938, he brought an unusual amalgam of highbrow intellect and marketing savvy to Krents’ program. Rothschild had studied economics and philosophy at Yale, graduating in 1916, just as the country was seized with debate over entry into WWI. After serving in the U.S. Navy as an aviation ensign he made his way to New York’s nascent advertising industry, building an impressive record at two prominent firms: J. Walter Thompson, and Lord & Thomas. At the same time, he kept his hand in philosophy, writing a book, Paradoxy: The Destiny of Modern Thought. Published in 1931, the book caught the attention of Albert Einstein, who wrote Rothschild praising his skill in presenting philosophy without “unnecessary pedantry or technicality.”

This ability to go directly to the core of a problem, coupled with a talent for communication, would serve Rothschild well at AJC, where he became a member and then chairman of the Survey Committee, the division responsible for combating anti-Semitism. Firm in his belief that Americans were not concerned with the problems of the Jewish minority, he contended in his reports, “It would not be enough to show that anti-Semitism was bad for the Jews; we had to show that it was bad for America and Americans.” The “rabble rousing tyranny” of the anti-Semites threatened decent democratic values. By taking this tack, AJC could “enlist a host of allies, political leaders, newspaper and magazine editors, radio personalities, organization heads. And such public figures not only could reach millions … but could make anti-Semitism itself disreputable.”

Ironically, the effort required AJC to stay in the shadows. With the exception of Jewish holiday radio programs, the organization rarely attached its name to its programming. Internal memoranda reveal that both Rothschild and Krents were concerned that such action would convey defensiveness and self-interest. Yet, there was probably an additional unspoken reason—a persistent undercurrent of insecurity. American Jewry, with a substantial immigrant composition, was still not quite at home, even in the midst of a project aimed at cementing Jews’ place in the cultural fabric of America

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.

Charlotte Bonelli is the author of Exit Berlin.

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