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Arunansh B Goswami
An Indo-Israel friendship ambassador.

Warner Bros : A Jewish struggle

The Warner brothers: Albert, Jack, Harry and Sam. Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons.

“You may correctly charge me with being anti Nazi. But no one can charge me for being anti American.”

 – Harry Warner, President of Warner Brothers Production Inc.

Warner Bros water tower. Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons.

Happy Hanukkah readers! It would not be a hyperbole if stated that our entertainment around the world is still substantially catered to by Hollywood, even though in India Bollywood holds this pride of place, and quite so in some other countries, but still Hollywood hasn’t been dislodged from its status as the numero uno in the field of entertainment based on movies. Hollywood as an industry has Jewish roots, for long ago some enterprising immigrants to US who were Jews chasing their “ American Dream” laid it’s foundation.

Hollywood Sign – Los Angeles, CA – USA. Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons.

Hollywood’s founding giants included William Fox, Adolph Zukor (Paramount), Harry and Jack Warner (Warner Bros.), Carl Laemmle (Universal), Sam Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer (MGM) and Harry Cohn (Columbia) were all Jewish. It was a rags to riches saga for many Jews in Hollywood, their hard work paid and they laid the foundation of Hollywood, not just made it but improved it, over the years by their enterprise and art. In this article the readers shall get to know about one such Jewish family that made Hollywood Warner Bros, and their struggle because of their Jewish identity, which they chose not to leave. This is a saga of being Jewish and proud.

Polish Wonsals 

Jack Leonard Warner ( Before Wonsal ) a Polish Jewish immigrant to USA. Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons.

Family of Polish Jews, Warners emigrated from Poland to Canada and then finally settling down in Youngstown, Ohio, they dropped their Yiddish last name Wonsal and took on a Westernized version – Warner, the Warner Brothers were Harry, Sam, Albert, and Jack Warner. Being Jewish in America of those days was a liability, because of the prejudice associated with it in a predominantly Christian Nation, but the Warners were not to leave their Jewishness for the sake of assimilation, but they did diminish it’s overt appearance a bit, they changed their names, Wonsal became Warner, and Hirsch was changed to Harry, Abraham shortened to Abe or Albert, and Schmuel was altered to Sam all for the sake of the family avoiding more prejudice, also later Jack L. Warner, 11 years Harry’s junior, added the middle name Leonard to make his name sound “classy.” 

Jewish and Proud

Buchenwald survivors arrive in Haifa to be arrested by the British. Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons.

Benjamin Wonsal and Pearl Eichelbaum, were both born in 1857, married and lived together in Krasnosielc , a small village in Poland, just outside of  Warsaw.  As per the autobiography of Jack L. Warner “ My first hundred years in Hollywood ” in order for Benjamin Jack’s father and the other Jewish children to acquire an education without the Russians knowing, they gathered in stables where a Rabbi taught them about the realities of their religion and race. When in US, Jack had no interest in learning Hebrew growing up in Youngstown, but having endured many hardships as a Jewish child in Poland, Jack’s father Benjamin was determined to make sure his children appreciated the religion that he and Pearl worked so hard to continually practice. Benjamin got a Boston rabbi come to their house and teach their children the Hebrew language and the history of their people. Harry worked in his father’s shoe store and later opened a bike repair shop with his brother Abe. Like various other rags to riches sagas, the Warners had to go through tough time, where they worked very hard to sustain themselves. Jack delivered groceries and sang at weddings. His sister Rose played the piano for Jack’s gigs. Sam worked carnivals and other attractions—he was a natural-born hustler. The parents of Warner Brothers worked very hard, their efforts would be most effective if they pooled their collective talents. Soon, the Warner’s went from owning a bicycle shop in Youngstown to opening a theatre in Newcastle, Pennsylvania in 1903. Harry arranged the show and picture, Rose (their sister) played the piano, Sam ran the projector, Albert sold tickets, and finally Jack sang along in correlation with the slides. 

The Struggle

Warners’ Theatre. Image Credits Irving Browning via Wikimedia Commons.

That small theatre of ninety-nine seats eventually turned into Warner’s Feature Film Company where they became a significant presence on the whole east side of America and Canada as well. The launch of Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack’s production company began with the creation of My Four Years in Germany, released in 1918. The silent film was based on James W. Gerard’s experiences as the American ambassador who monitored British interests in Germany during the First World War. The Warner Brothers were repeatedly praised for their ability to produce pictures on current events that strove for accuracy in their portrayal. Fortune magazine claimed, “Warner pictures are hence as close to real life as Hollywood ever gets. In the early 1930’s the studio one of their employees working in Berlin had been killed by Nazis because he was Jewish. During the 1930s the Warners acquired the Stanley Company of America, which controlled 250 cinema buildings. This guaranteed them an outlet for all their films. 

No Business With the Nazis

Warner Bros. was the first studio to stop doing business with Nazi Germany, years before any other Hollywood studio followed suit. The brothers also pledged their allegiance by supporting the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, hosting fundraisers, and even requesting earnestly employees for “donations” to the cause. The Warner brothers also tried to make a film called Concentration Camp that same year. It was prevented from being made due to the Hollywood Production Code and fear that the studio would offend foreign governments or interest groups. During the process of making Nazi Spy, a Hollywood executive confronted the youngest brother, ““Look, Jack… a lot of us are still booking pictures in Germany, and taking money out of there. We’re not at war with Germany, and you’re going to hurt some of our own people here.’ ‘Hurt what?’ Jack Warner said angrily. ‘Their picketbooks? Listen, these murdering bastards killed our own man in Germany because he wouldn’t heil Hitler… I’m going to finish this picture, and Hitler and Goebbels can scream all they want. And so can guys like you!’. In 1938, at an informal gathering of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, Groucho Marx hailed the happy news that a film daring to use a forbidden four-letter word was finally in the production pipeline:  Confessions of a Nazi Spy, the first shot at the Third Reich from a major Hollywood studio.  “Here’s to Warner Brothers,” said Groucho, raising his glass high, “the only studio with any guts.”

The Other Jewish Giants of Hollywood

In the front row, left to right: Barney Balaban, Paramount; Harry Cohn, Columbia Pictures; Nicholas M. Schenck, Lowe’s; Will H. Hays, and Leo Spitz, RKO. In the back row, artists; Sidney Kent, 20th Century Fox; Nathan J. Blumberg, Universal; and Albert Warner, Warner Bros. Image Credits: Harris & Ewing, photographer via Wikimedia Commons.

Being a successful, Jewish movie giant in this era was not unique in Hollywood, the Warner family was just one of many different Hollywood executives who practiced Judaism, in fact reiterating what has been stated before Hollywood is a Jewish invention. Samuel Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayor who made up two out of the three heads of the MGM studio were also Jewish while Adolph Zukor, the president of Paramount Pictures, was also of the Jewish faith. There were many Jewish pioneers who fled from Germany, Austria and other European countries to the US in the 1930s and 1940s to flee Nazi persecution, who  made it big in Hollywood, for example directors Fritz Lang, Fred Zinnemann and Otto Preminger, actors including Hedy Lammr, Peter Lorre and Paul Henreid, producers Eric Pleskow and Sam Spiegel, screenwriters Vicki Baum, Gina Kaus and Salka Viertel and Erich von Stroheim as well as composers Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Ernest Gold, Max Steiner, Miklos Rozsa and Franz Wachsmann.

Success of Warner Bros 

The Making of Harry Potter, Warner Bros Studio Tour. Image Credits: Karen Roe via Wikimedia Commons.

Today, the Warner Bros. film library is the world’s largest cinematic treasury with 6,800 films, of which over 2,000 are available on DVD. The library includes the Metro, Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer Productions and M-G-M films made between 1915 and 1985, the RKO-Radio Pictures feature film library from 1929-1959 and part of the Monogram Pictures library. By now the Warner Bros. company has produced 7000 films and television programs amounting to 5000. The company is a member of the Motion Pictures Association and is often regarded as one of the “Big Five” American movie studios. Its film studio division, Warner Bros. Pictures Group, includes notable subsidiaries such as DC Films, Castle Rock Entertainment, and New Line Cinema. Among the movies produced by them Includes, Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Batman series, Aquaman, Elvis, Man of Steel, The Hobbit Trilogy, Happy Feet etc.  To all the Jews out there being concerned about the anti-Semitism on the rise may it be the Black Hebrew Israelite movement or the fringe White supremacists, remember one thing there were many Jews before you who struggled in far vicious and troubling circumstances and made it big so can you, light the Menorah and celebrate Hanukkah, Bharuch Hashem you shall succeed too. 

About the Author
Mr. Arunansh B. Goswami is an advocate, historian and popular author based in India. He studied history at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi, read law at Campus Law Centre, University of Delhi, completed a diploma in International Environmental Law, and later joined the Bar Council of Delhi and Supreme Court Bar Association in India. Mr. Goswami has written around 200 articles for different prestigious publications, newspapers, magazines and journals around the world. He works as a consultant with Union Minister of Steel and Civil Aviation of India, Mr. J. M. Scindia and Mrs. Priyadarshini Raje Scindia titular Queen of the erstwhile princely state of Gwalior. Mr. Goswami has studied Israeli and Jewish History deeply and travelled extensively in Israel, and other parts of the world, to explore and research about sites associated with Jews.
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