Hollywood & the Holocaust – Update 1

In the past week or so I have begun preliminary research for my paper. At this point I am primarily just searching databases and websites for organizations such as The United States Holocaust Museum.

The information that I have found so far divides into several categories:

  • Hollywood during World War 2
    • This is the majority of the information I have found.
    • These are sources that describe what Hollywood was like during this time, both in terms of film production and studios and in terms of its political views and stances on Nazism and Hitler.
    • They also highlight some possible motivations for the action/inaction of Hollywood executives leading up to and during the war.
    • Much of my research in this category will be focused on how Jewish studio heads, directors, and the like used their films to make an impact or shed light on the plight of Jews in Europe. However, I also plan to research the more direct ways that the Jews in Hollywood had the potential to help. For example, a Jewish refugee wrote to Harry Warner and asked him to loan her money for the passage from Europe.
  • Jewish experience in Hollywood (somewhat overlapping with the above)
    • Hollywood not only had the potential during the war to influence public opinion about the murder of Jews in Europe, but it was also the place where many American Jews made their livings.
    • These sources discuss the Jews, such as the Warner brothers and Carl Laemmle, who were “running” Hollywood and making films. They also discuss Jewish representation in films at that time. Some of my sources also suggest that there was some Jewish espionage and infiltration of Nazi groups in Los Angeles.
  • Specific films and productions
    • I am really interested not only in looking at the general history at this time but also delving into specific films that addressed the threat of Nazism and the Jewish experience during the war.
    • I am sure that I will find many more in the course of my research, but the ones that I am focusing on right now are:
      • Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) – considered the first explicitly anti-Nazi film from Hollywood
      • The Great Dictator (1940) – I am curious to examine the effectiveness of Charlie Chaplin’s comedy and obvious ridicule of Hitler.
      • Casablanca (1942) – another one of the first films made in response to the threat of Nazism. Additionally, it was produced by the Warner brothers and directed by Michael Curtiz, all of whom were Jewish.
      • The We Will Never Die Pageant (1943) – I was surprised that I had never heard of this fascinating pageant/performance held at Madison Square Garden, organized and written by the Hollywood screenwriter Ben Hecht, who was Jewish. The pageant depicted and raised awareness for the Nazi genocide of the Jewish people.
  • Censorship and propaganda
    • Hitler was rising to power at roughly the same time that the Production Code was being implemented in Hollywood. I think it is important and interesting to examine how these were interconnected and how Hollywood endeavored (or didn’t) to represent the Holocaust, the Jewish experience, and Nazism in their films in spite of the restrictions on what they were allowed to include.
  • Non-Hollywood Holocaust film
    • I don’t plan to do quite as much research in this area, as it is outside of the focus for my project. However, I came across some information about the DEFA (Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft), the film production company in post-war Germany, and their films that depicted Jewish persecution. I thought it could be interesting and enlightening to compare the response of the DEFA to the response of Hollywood.

The research I have conducted thus far excites me for the rest of my summer. I look forward to digging in deeper to the sources I have found. I also plan to use the resources close to me and visit The Library of Congress and/or The United States Holocaust Museum to conduct more research and to find hard copies of books that I think would be useful. Additionally, the Holocaust Museum has an exhibit on America and the Holocaust that I believe could be helpful for my research.


  1. slfuhrig says:

    This is a really cool project, and I like the different facets of Hollywood that you are exploring. I like how you have selected films to analyze, as that will be an exciting way of examining the themes you discover in other parts of your research. I have not seen any of the films or productions that you have selected, but I am curious as to if you expect to see certain trends in the films based on when they were produced. Do you think that there was a shift in how Hollywood films represented Jews over this period? I also like your idea of comparing Hollywood films to DEFA ones, and I am excited to see if you find any commonalities between them.

    Thank you!

  2. Thanks so much! Those are really interesting questions!
    I haven’t been able to watch as many of the films as I originally found just because I didn’t want to expand my project too much and I had other aspects of it that I wanted to focus more on. I definitely did find, though, that there was a shift in how Hollywood represented Jews in film. Before the war they were exceedingly hesitant to have any kind of representation for fear of seeming like they were producing propaganda or, at the very least, that they were self-interested. Some films that featured Jewish characters were changed and some were just written to never explicitly state that the character was Jewish. Even as the war progressed filmmakers felt much more comfortable making anti-Nazi movies that represented their American patriotism not their Jewish pride. Towards the end of the war some filmmakers began to stress the importance of making films to represent the Holocaust and the stories of the Jewish people. I think it was a gradual change in Jewish representation from this feeling that no one was interested in Jewish stories to the realization that these stories needed to be told, but by the end of the war filmmakers were still much more focused on being pro-American. (Sorry for this very long response)
    And unfortunately I’ve decided to no longer focus on the DEFA films just because very few of the sources I found focused on it and I think it would take my paper on too much of a tangent. But I think it would be really interesting and maybe I’ll research it later!