On This Day in 1942: The Wannsee Konferenz Maps Out the Final Solution

An engagement with old-time radio need not be an escape from the world; it can be a return to the very realities we may have been desirous to avoid or void altogether. Listening to recordings of historical broadcasts can become a confrontation with the past, its representation, and, in the act of relating, with the present itself. Today, for instance, marks the anniversary of the Wannsee Conference at which, on 20 January 1942, the fate of eleven million European Jews was being debated and decided upon with the matter-of-factness and statistical precision known as the “final solution” (the minutes of which genocidal get-together can be found here). Few radio playwrights were as committed to representing the Jewish experience as Morton Wishengrad, whose 1942 play “The Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto” is as chilling and relentless as the calculated cruelty of the master(race)minding behind the massacre on which it comments.

Wishengrad, a prolific and politically engaged playwright whom noted radio actor Joseph Julian once called the only writer beside Corwin to have created a “body of radio literature that deserves a perennial life,” lets the record speak for itself in his chilling echo of fascist calculating and cataloguing—of a nation’s counting, counting down, and accounting of murder millionfold. In “The Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto,” first heard on NBC on the eve of Yom Kippur in 1943, the personal story of a holocaust victim, related from the grave, is reinforced by the sound of “black trucks” rolling out of the Ghetto to the concentration camps, by the three voices of fate (the three fates?) calling up the facts with a statistical precision that echoes the calculated ruthlessness of the acts planned and committed:

VOICE I. July 22, 1942.
VOICE II. Six thousand two hundred and eighty-nine.
VOICE III. Destination . . . Tremblinka.
VOICE I. July 23rd.
VOICE II. Seven thousand eight hundred and twenty.
VOICE III. Destination . . . Oswiantzem.
VOICE I. July 24th.
VOICE II. Seven thousand four hundred and forty-four.
VOICE III. Destination . . . Belzec. 

(Biz: Voices and truck sounds hold under narrator.) 

NARRATOR. Done with method, precise, efficient, recorded. To Tremblinka, Oswiantzem, Belzec, Sobibor, Majdany—a lethal gas chamber, an electric furnace, a poison pit, an execution field, a cemetery. And add also ten thousand brave, hopeless, tragic men who seized sticks and stones and knives and bare fists and charged the tanks and tried to halt the trucks. Add their bodies to the list for the ten days of June, 1942. Make your total and then add two precise, methodical, documented months in August and September, 1942. Reckon it. Do it carefully. You cannot do it on your fingers. No! Let me give you the sum. Listen, 275,954 fewer bread cards in the Ghetto! Swift, accurate, final. Quicker than typhus, surer than hunger.

The records of the Wannsee Konferenz became instrumental in the gathering of evidence for the Nuremberg Nazi trials, another somber occasion dramatized on 16 October 1946 by playwright Arnold Perl, whose docudrama “The Empty Noose” suggested that, while the masterminds of the Third Reich had been hanged, the thoughts behind their actions were still very much alive, both in America and abroad. The regularly scheduled whodunit The Adventures of Ellery Queen was not heard that night.

“The medium needs writers who have something to say about the culture,” Wishengrad remarked in his foreword to The Eternal Light, an anthology of scripts from the series. Old-time radio drama also deserves listeners who take in and respond with their ears and minds open.

3 Replies to “On This Day in 1942: The Wannsee Konferenz Maps Out the Final Solution”

  1. I got to see a production of \”The Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto\” a couple of years ago at a radio convention. It was done by the Gotham Radio Players which does some great adaptations of original radio material as well as previously broadcast material. I was totally floored by the play and agree strongly that this is one to hear first and failing that, read. Do you know if a copy of the broadcast exists? I haven\’t looked around for it, but would love to hear it.

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  2. I wrote about Wishengrad and his radio play on the Warsaw Ghetto in my book, WORDS AT WAR (Scarecrow Press, 2002) see http://www.HowardBlue.comI did most of my research for the above in the Wishengrad papers at the Jewish Theological Seminary.Howard Blue

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