‘They were Jews with guns! Understand that…’ declares Raymond Massey, chillingly, in the final scene of The Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto, first heard across America on Sunday, 12 December 1943. Notice that date: 1943. Not 1953, or even 1945. Just six months after the Jews who had been herded into the Polish capital by the Nazis lost their battle to escape certain death, American radio fans heard the rich and unmistakable voice of Massey (Oscar-winning star of a Hollywood biopic on the life of Abraham Lincoln), playing the role not just of a dead man, which was shocking enough, but of a Jewish dead man, a rabbi who had lost his life at Warsaw.
After hearing the drama there would have been no excuse for not knowing, and fully understanding, what was happening in Europe. ‘My name was Isaac Davidson,’ intones Massey, ‘and I lived in the Polish city of Lublin with my wife, Dvora, and Samuel, our son. When Poland fell, they herded us into a cattle car and transported us to the Ghetto of Warsaw. It was a place in Purgatory and around that Purgatory they had built a brick wall and another wall of barbed wire and beyond the wire stood a third wall of soldiers armed with bayonets.’ The drama, commissioned for radio (from the writer Morton Wishengrad) by the American Jewish Committee, told the story of what had happened in Warsaw in all its horrific detail.
The AJC had been set up in 1906 to protect Jewish immigrants from anti-Semitism. By the 1930s it was using radio to spread its message that Jews were also true Americans, which meant also that all Americans shared in the fate of the Jews in Europe. Saturday’s edition of Archive on 4 gave us snatches from some of the AJC’s productions for radio. These astonishing programmes were a revelation of how radical and innovative American radio once was. ‘Give me grace. Give me dignity. And leave me to die,’ sounds a bit clichéd if read from the page, but on air, in the voice of Massey, these lines sent shivers through the soul. Especially if you remember that Massey was speaking these lines just as the ovens of the death camps were at full throttle.
American radio still produces unusual programmes but they’re difficult to find amid the endless music or evangelical-mission stations, and one of the best things about returning to the UK after a fortnight there is to stumble across such oddball listens as Round Britain Quiz (in a surprising revamp with our own Marcus Berkmann) or highlights from London’s Darbar festival while getting ready for bed. The US is a wireless desert with occasional oases mainly because it’s so reliant on commercial funding or voluntary donations made online. Yet it was once the creative heart of radio
Over on the World Service, a new weekly magazine programme Boston Calling has been launched by a collaboration between Boston’s WGBH station, the American-based Public Radio International and the BBC. Four or five ‘compelling’ stories from the American news are threaded together each week to give us ‘different perspectives’ on how America sees the world. In the first programme we heard a profile of Chris Stephens, the US ambassador to Libya who was murdered in the attack on the Benghazi ‘diplomatic facility’. This week there was a story on the US military’s reliance on drones, or unmanned rocket attacks. They made for strange listening when heard together back-on-back via the iPlayer because everything sounded the same. There was no challenge, no bite, no back story.
Stephens, we discovered, first went to the Middle East as a Peace Corps volunteer, teaching English in Morocco. While there he learnt Arabic, Berber, and the skills which led him to become Ambassador. This was all fair enough in a profile of a man who had been so brutally slaughtered. But what we needed as well was a view from Libya, or perhaps from one of Stephens’s Moroccan pupils. How did they regard his abilities ‘to meet people where they are’? Instead, what followed was an item on Mitt Romney’s inability to speak Spanish in spite of his need to win the Hispanic vote, and an item about Kosovans’ love of American gas-guzzlers.
On the drones, we heard nothing from north-west Pakistan, where most of these ‘unmanned aerial vehicles’ are targeted. We heard nothing, too, from the CIA, which is refusing to admit publicly that it is organising drone raids. Instead the report moved quickly on to a drone operator who uses drones to film daring mountain climbs in the Karakoram range of the Himalayas. What began as a military/political report became a travel item, with the drone operator claiming that his best picture was the one he got from the summit as the three guys waved from the top of the mountain. It was a long, long way from Warsaw.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 6 October 2012