By Sharon Rosen Leib
I’m the great-granddaughter and namesake of pioneer Hollywood producer and 20th Century Fox executive Sol M. Wurtzel. A lesser known but incredibly prolific mogul, he churned out hundreds of movies with directors and stars that defined their times – Tom Mix, Shirley Temple, Will Rogers, John Ford and Marilyn Monroe – to name drop the biggest and brightest. His Jewish communal involvement also warrants admiration. In 1926, he co-founded and served as first president of Temple Israel of Hollywood. From 1934 on, he worked with a group of prominent Jewish film executives to combat the Los Angeles Nazi Bund’s rampant anti-Semitism.
So I hit the ceiling when I first read about a book titled “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler,” published in 2013 by Harvard University Press (HUP). Was the author Ben Urwand, a Harvard Junior Fellow, making the spurious claim that Hollywood moguls like my great-grandfather collaborated with Hitler?
I had to get my hands on a copy of this book and see for myself. But I wasn’t about to pay one cent to support HUP’s academic hucksterism. I requested and was granted a free review copy. While Urwand’s book doesn’t mention my great-grandfather by name it references movies he produced. As I read, I imagined Papa Sol raging around his travertine crypt in Culver City, Calif. How dare this young Australian Jewish academic (the grandson of Hungarian Holocaust survivors) make such slanderous accusations?
Much of Urwand’s book is so off base that I concluded he either lacked understanding of the moguls’ context or chose to ignore it. And lest you doubt biased me, please note that esteemed critics around the country, including The New Yorker’s David Denby, have discredited the book.
I know from family oral history and personal research that a compelling counter-narrative undermines Urwand’s ahistorical conclusions. The Hollywood moguls faced tremendous pressure from notorious domestic anti-Semites like Henry Ford and Father Coughlin who accused the “Jewish movie magnates” of polluting young American minds with their “filthy” movies. In 1934, Joseph Breen, the newly appointed head of Hollywood’s Production Code Administration, wrote a letter to a friend about his job: “These Jews seem to think of nothing but money-making and sexual indulgence … They are, probably, the scum of the scum of the earth.”
Such unabashed American anti-Semitism squeezed the Hollywood Jews in a vice as they struggled to hang on to the motion picture empire they created. Disturbingly, Urwand’s book perpetuates the anti-Semitic stereotype of Jewish businessmen as immoral money-grubbers willing to sell out – even to the Nazis.
So why do I care about this academic quackery? Because the legacies we leave matter. I’m not about to let some Harvard Junior Fellow hijack my family’s narrative. I don’t want my daughters or (hopefully future) grandchildren to believe for a split second that one of their ancestors collaborated with the Nazis.
A silver lining to Urwand’s book is that it motivates me to share long-archived family stories and speak truth to venerated Harvard power. For instance, 20th Century Fox quietly smuggled Jews like our beloved friends, brilliant Austrian lawyer Paul Koretz, his wife Andula and their two young daughters, out of Vienna after the 1938 Nazi Anschluss ensnared them. Fox’s London office secured English visas for the Koretzs and sent an employee to Vienna to escort them on a harrowing journey through Germany to England.
The intelligent, streetwise Jewish moguls knew how to run a complicated game. They did what they could to save lives behind enemy lines. Their movies also exposed Nazi Germany and the world at large to a diverse society where impoverished Jewish immigrants could achieve the American dream through sheer will and the power of storytelling. That’s a proud legacy worthy of protection.