Weeks after 1945’s liberation, Jack Warner and Harry Cohn were invited by the State Department to Europe to see the camps, presumably to make films about the Nazi destruction. A generation of silence followed: “It was as if Jews couldn’t make films about their own people’s suffering.”
As most Hollywood observers now know, American film executives, a disproportionate number of whom were Jewish, reacted to the rise of the Nazis during the 1930s with surprisingly little alacrity. The want of concern was summarized by MGM wunderkind Irving Thalberg’s sanguine prediction that “a lot of Jews will lose their lives” but that “Hitler would eventually disappear; the Jews would remain.”
But whatever caution Hollywood moguls might have exercised in attacking the Nazis before the war, one might have thought that after the war, when the atrocities against the Jews had been exposed, caution would give way to anger and then action. Indeed, just weeks after the German surrender, the State Department enlisted a delegation of Hollywood executives, including such Jews as Warner Bros. production head Jack Warner, Paramount president Barney Balaban and Columbia president and production director Harry Cohn, to see the devastation firsthand and visit the concentration camps to bear witness. Presumably these horrified men, then, would return to America and make films about the destruction the Nazis had wrought.
It didn’t turn out that way. Horrified, they were. Balaban’s daughter, Judith, told me that her father was so shaken, he couldn’t even speak about the trip. But horrified into action they weren’t. Plenty of reasons have been adduced for why Hollywood failed to act. Just as some recent historians have ascribed the industry’s prewar gutlessness to the Jews’ desire to protect their place in the German market, some have ascribed the Jews’ postwar neglect of the Holocaust to a desire to rebuild the German market. These are nasty accusations, nearly anti-Semitic, and, in any case, there is a far more plausible reason: The story of the reticence of the Hollywood Jews to address the Holocaust in the decade and a half after the end of the war is one of fear. And the story of the industry coming out of its stupor in the 1980s and ’90s is one of fear purged.
The fear was entirely justified. Hollywood — Jews and non-Jews alike — was not unmoved by the deaths of 6 million Jews. It was grief that impelled RKO production head Dore Schary to put into production in 1947 Crossfire, a film about anti-Semitism (the novel on which the film was based actually had dealt with homophobia), and the same impulse prompted Fox production head Darryl Zanuck, a gentile, to put Laura Hobson’s bestselling novel Gentlemen’s Agreement, also about anti-Semitism, into development at the same time. That led to a dispute between the two moguls, with Zanuck protesting that Schary was trying to co-opt him. To which Schary replied that it would take more than two films to eradicate the problem.
The reason that Hollywood treaded lightly when it came to Jews — the reason that Jews failed to make films about the Holocaust itself in the immediate postwar period — is that the Jews were surrounded by a nimbus of doubt. For decades, those Hollywood Jews had been targeted by right-wing, nativist, anti Semitic Christian groups that questioned the Jews’ loyalty to America and felt that they might undermine American values through their films. Despite the fact that nearly all the Jewish executives were conservative and Republican, the liberalism of many writers and actors stripped away that protection and made the industry suspect. To the American right, all Jews were leftists, even the right-wing ones.
All of this was intensified by the political earthquakes of the postwar world: the adventurism of Stalin, the division of Europe, the domestic fears of communist infiltration. With the Nazi threat vanquished, the communist threat became paramount. The House Un-American Activities Committee’s hearings late in 1947, which accused a group of writers, directors and producers of being communists, signaled the skeptical mood toward Hollywood. And the institution of a blacklist by the studios themselves against leftists signaled how fearful the moguls were of being stigmatized.
It seems absurd now that anyone making films about the Nazis’ crimes against humanity could possibly be viewed as un-American, but, then, the term “premature antifascist” had been attached to any Hollywood artist who protested the rise of the Nazis before the war, which only shows how dangerous it was to lean left. Moreover, with the advent of the blacklist, many of the artists most likely to make films about the Holocaust — those political artists — were effectively debarred from doing so.
That is how the politics played out. Depicting the horrors of the Holocaust, especially as they pertained to Jews, somehow became a liberal issue. At a time of deep conservatism, that made making those sorts of films out of bounds. When those horrors did get alluded to, the allusions had to include all victims, not just Jews. Jews played by these rules because they didn’t dare risk the anger they feared would be directed at them if they prioritized their losses over those of other groups, even though their genocidal losses nearly wiped the Jews off the face of the Earth. From 1945 to 1959, the only American films that addressed the Nazis’ mass murders were about Jews who survived, not ones who were killed — films like Fred Zinnemann’s The Search and Edward Dmytryk’s The Juggler. Not incidentally, Dmytryk was one of the Hollywood Ten who refused to testify before HUAC and then recanted, allowing him to make films again.
And it also is relevant that when Hollywood finally did get around to making movies about the Holocaust itself in the late 1950s and early ’60s — The Diary of Anne Frank, The Young Lions, Judgment at Nuremberg, to name three — the directors, George Stevens, Dmytryk again and Stanley Kramer, respectively, were all non-Jews. It was as if Jews couldn’t make films about their own people’s suffering.
And then, after all those years, the fear suddenly was purged. They were years, ironically, during which the memories of the Holocaust itself had largely faded as many survivors died. But they were also years in which a new generation of filmmakers — Steven Spielberg (Schindler’s List), Alan Pakula (Sophie’s Choice) and Edward Zwick (Defiance), among them — arose with a sharp Jewish consciousness.
There are many possible reasons why these Jews felt emboldened to make Holocaust films. There was declining anxiety over the communist threat, which loosened the conservative noose around Hollywood. There was Hollywood’s concomitant reintegration of older political artists, like blacklistee Dalton Trumbo, who wrote Exodus, and its embrace of younger artists who had been politicized by the tumult of the 1960s. There was the larger cultural phenomenon of multiculturalism and ethnic and religious pride that filmmakers of all nationalities, races and religions sought to exercise now that they could. And finally, in some respects, there was the matter of cause and effect — the cause of not having made films about the Holocaust and the effect of now wanting to make them. It is possible that younger Jewish filmmakers and executives felt the pangs of Hollywood’s guilt over its retreat in the face of right-wing pressure in the late-’40s and ’50s and sought to rectify it as a form of religious penance. In any case, for nearly 40 years, Hollywood Jews, out of fear, couldn’t show the terrors of the Holocaust. Now, finally, they could, and did, and still do.
Neal Gabler is the author of An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood.