Hollywood Heavyweights Use Hitler's Words to Fight Hate

Photographed by Christopher Patey
Holocaust survivor Betty Cohen, holding Hitler’s historic letter, was photographed Aug. 15 with (from left) Ron Meyer, Ted Sarandos, Rabbi Marvin Hier, Jim Gianopulos and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

One hundred years after the future Führer first declared “the final goal" to eradicate Jews, four top executives join the Museum of Tolerance’s Rabbi Marvin Hier to highlight the memory and lessons of the Holocaust.

At a time when hate speech and hate crimes are surging all around the world, West L.A.'s Museum of Tolerance is warning that every display of hate must be taken seriously, lest it grow into something powerful and deadly. That's what happened 100 years ago — on Sept. 16, 1919 — when a 30-year-old Adolf Hitler, just out of World War I service and into a German Army propaganda unit, penned a missive that's now the most historically significant item in the museum's archive.

Six years before the publication of Mein Kampf, Hitler's superior asked him to reply to an inquiry from soldier Adolf Gemlich about the Army's position on "the Jewish question." Hitler put into writing — for the first time — his hatred for Jews ("pure materialists in thought and aspirations" and a "racial tuberculosis on the nation") and desire to eradicate them ("The final goal must be the uncompromised removal of Jews altogether"). Fourteen years later, he became Germany's chancellor; 12 years after that, 6 million Jews were dead.

To mark the document's centenary, four entertainment moguls and supporters of the museum and its sibling, the Simon Wiesenthal Center — Paramount's Jim Gianopulos, Quibi's Jeffrey Katzenberg, NBCUniversal's Ron Meyer and Netflix's Ted Sarandos — visited the museum on an August morning to examine the letter with Rabbi Marvin Hier, SWC's founder (and a two-time Oscar winner). They were joined by Betty Cohen, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor from Amsterdam who has lived in West L.A. since 1949 and often speaks at the museum about her experience in hiding from 1942 through 1944, and in several camps — Birkenau, Auschwitz and Ravensbrück — from 1944 through 1945.

"This would be published on 8chan today," says Sarandos of the letter. "The similarities of the darkest part of the human condition are quite striking." Adds Gianopulos, "The level of discourse has gotten so low and reflected things that are so despicable." And Meyer, a son of Holocaust survivors, says of the recent resurgence of hate, "Frankly, it probably never went away. People just feel more comfortable showing their feelings, unfortunately." For Katzenberg, the document is a stark reminder: "When you actually see this in writing in front of you with that signature on it, it takes a hypothetical and makes it shockingly real," he says. "When you have undeniable evidence of this hate and intolerance, it reminds you how easily things can go awry."

The letter also is a warning to "never disregard people that you think are crackpots," says Hier. "It just takes one. It took Hitler and his country 22 years [from the time of his letter until systematic mass killings began]. Today we have social media, and it’s not going to take 22 years for a maniac in possession of a weapon to do something like that, so we have to be very vigilant."

Can Hollywood help? "Those who are privileged to be making popular culture have an obligation to reflect our best values," says Gianopulos. "My daughters studied the Holocaust in school, but nothing had the impact of when I screened Schindler's List for them," he adds. "Hollywood can … reflect our best values, reflect the best of our society and also reflect the consequences of the alternative."

Cohen, whose prisoner tattoos are still visible on her arm, says she was subjected to sterilization experiments by Josef Mengele — but reunited with her fiance and married after the war, she became a mother of two and now has eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. She has come to enjoy sharing her story, even with its most painful turns. "I get so much love from the people I talk to that every time I speak, it's just wonderful," she says. 

"To be with this 98-year-old woman who's lived that horrible experience and is able to tell the story and hold the letter is very special," says Meyer. Adds Sarandos, "It gives you hope that the better part of the human condition always wins."

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.