One of Urwand’s heroes is the prolific script-writer Ben Hecht, who was to put the finishing touches to the script of Gone with the Wind (1939). He wrote and published newspaper advertisements attacking US inaction over the fate of the European Jews. In December 1942 Roosevelt met US Jewish leaders — it was his only known meeting with them, and only lasted half an hour. The State Department had actually known that millions of European Jews were being murdered since at least the summer but had suppressed the news. It wasn’t until January 1944 that the US government finally took action. “By the end of the Second World War,” Urwand writes, “the War Refugee Board had helped save around 200,000 Jewish lives.”
Once the US entered the war in December 1941, Hollywood got onto a war footing. Casablanca, in which Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart subordinate their feelings for each other to the task of defeating fascism, was the top-grossing film of 1942. There were hundreds of anti-Nazi films made during the war, Urwand writes, but still almost no reference to the fate of Europe’s Jews. The author’s conclusion is a stark one — that the Hollywood studio heads had become so habituated to excising Jews from their movies to please the Nazi authorities that they remained unwilling to indulge in what they thought might be interpreted as special pleading.
The most interesting feature of this book is the way it moves from considering Hollywood’s attempts to keep its German markets to the broader issue of why many Jewish Americans didn’t try very hard to save their European brethren. Why was this? A cynic might say that they were largely rich and the Europeans largely poor, or that they feared arousing latent anti-Semitism at home. Certainly the government thought it had a war to win, and that helping “refugees” was a side-issue.
All in all, even the term “holocaust” didn’t enter the popular consciousness until the US TV series of 1978. And it was a long time before Hollywood was ready to make Schindler’s List in 1993.