Once upon a time, Hollywood told the story of a forgotten Jewish patriot


This article originally appeared at forward.com. Reposted with permission.

In the pantheon of name-brand Founding Fathers, Haym Salomon stands well back of the pack. His picture is not on our currency, his statue is not in the Capitol Rotunda, and his character is not on stage in “Hamilton.” Unless you’re a Revolutionary War buff or an alumna of Hebrew School during the Cold War, the name will probably not ring a bell.

In spring 1939, however, as Americans tried to ignore the sound of goosesteps in Europe, Salomon was given an honor bestowed on only a select few from the pageant of history — a Hollywood biopic. Admittedly, it was not a feature-length biopic on the order of the “Great Man” epics that thrived in the 1930s, a decade in dire need of larger-than-life heroes, when audiences flocked to well-mounted hagiographies like “The Story of Louis Pasteur” (1936), “The Life of Emile Zola” (1937), and “Young Mr. Lincoln” (1939).

Salomon’s time on the screen lasted a mere 20 minutes and his name was not even in the title: “Sons of Liberty.” What made the film noteworthy was the fact that the son of liberty in question was Jewish.

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Haym Salomon was born in Lissa, Poland, in 1740, the child of Jews chased out of Portugal. As a young man, he embraced the cause of Polish independence — he was a compatriot of the Polish sons of liberty Casimir Pulaski and Tadeusz Kościusko — and, when that revolution failed, he was forced to flee to England. In 1772, he emigrated to New York and lived the American dream before it became a thing. A gifted merchant and broker, he accumulated a fortune as an investor and ship builder.

In 1776, when the Revolutionary War broke out, Salomon knew which side he was on. He served as a spy for Washington, was arrested, sentenced to death, spared, arrested again, condemned again and escaped again.

By Getty Images
**A Scene from ‘Sons of Liberty’

Yet financing not espionage was Salomon’s decisive contribution to the American Revolution. As the strong right arm of Robert Morris, superintendent of finance for the nascent United States, he employed both his fundraising skills and his personal wealth to sustain the colonial forces, securing credit and funneling cash into the meager coffers of the Continental Congress. The likes of James Madison and James Monroe called on Salomon for personal loans and, wrote Madison, “he obstinately rejects all recompense.”

Perhaps he should not have been so generous. In 1785, at age 45, after nearly a decade of unstinting service and sacrifice, Salomon died in obscurity and poverty. A single line in the Philadelphia Journal and Weekly Advertiser marked his passing: “On Thursday died Haym Salomon, a broker.” The U.S. government never made good on the debt it owed to him and his heirs. To the extent he was remembered at all, it was as “the forgotten patriot of the Revolutionary war.”

Harry M. Warner, the second son in the Warner Bros. family business, determined that the forgotten patriot would be forgotten no more. Like Salomon, he was a behind-the-scenes businessman, working out of New York with the Wall Street bankers, whereas younger brother Jack L. was the hands-on supervisor at the studio plant in Burbank, a credit-hog whose name was imprinted in the company shield in the title credits: “Jack L. Warner Executive Producer.” (Tech geek brother Sam, who urged the brothers to gamble on the new sound technology, died in 1927, on the eve of their great triumph “The Jazz Singer” [1927]; Albert, the quiet one, worked unassumingly as studio treasurer.)

Though Harry and Jack disagreed on a lot, they shared a seething hatred for Nazism — and were willing to put the company resources where their politics were. They closed the studio’s branch office in Berlin in 1933, soon after Hitler took power; they helped fund surveillance of pro-Nazi domestic outfits such as the Silver Shirts and the German-American Bund; and they lent the house radio station, KFWB, to broadcasts by the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. Most audaciously, while “Sons of Liberty” was in development, the studio was also producing “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” (April 1939), the first explicitly anti-Nazi film by a major Hollywood studio.

Part of the studio’s anti-Nazi campaign was to remind American moviegoers of the best of their history — the foundational principles of freedom, tolerance and equality. To this end, Harry initiated a series of patriotic exhortations he called the “Americanism shorts,” a series of two-reel history lessons celebrating the great leaders and signature moments in American history. The titles give a fair indication of the flag-waving subject matter: “The Declaration of Independence” (November 1938), “Lincoln in the White House” (February 1939), and “The Bill of Rights” (August 1939).