Ben Hecht's "A Flag is Born":
A Play That Changed History
by Dr. Rafael Medoff
I. Palestine, the Allies, and the Jews in the Aftermath of World War II
In the aftermath of World War II, hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors crammed the Displaced Persons camps established by the victorious Allied forces in occupied Europe. The survivors could not return to Jewish communities that had been wiped out by the Nazis, nor to homes that had been destroyed or seized by hostile neighbors. Postwar antisemitic outbursts, especially a July 1946 pogrom in the Polish town of Kielce that left 47 Jews dead, increased the flow of survivors to the temporary shelter of the DP camps.
But if they would not or could not return to their native towns, where would the survivors go? The vast majority wanted to immigrate to Palestine. For more than fifty years, Zionist pioneers had been gradually rebuilding the ancient Jewish homeland to serve as a haven for persecuted Jews from around the world. For most DPs, the Holy Land was now their only home. The problem was England's policy of severely limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine.
The British had conquered Palestine from the Turks in 1917 and pledged, in a government decision known as the Balfour Declaration, to facilitate the reestablishment of a Jewish national home there. In 1922, the League of Nations, predecessor of the United Nations, granted Britain the Palestine Mandate, entrusting the country to the British temporarily, until its residents were ready for self-rule. The Mandate incorporated the Balfour Declaration's promise to permit Jewish immigration and build the Jewish homeland. But that promise soon gave way to political considerations. In response to anti-Jewish rioting by Palestinian Arabs during the 1920s and 1930s, the British sharply curtailed Jewish land purchases and began reducing the level of Jewish immigration. Worried that the Arab world might side with Germany in the looming world war, the British in May 1939 announced severe new restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine: a maximum of 15,000 per year for the next five years.
Despite confirmation, in 1942, of the ongoing mass murder of Europe's Jews, England would not open the doors to Palestine. The Palestine Jewish underground militia known as the Irgun Zvai Leumi (Hebrew for National Military Organization), which had set aside its fight against the British so as not to undermine the war against Hitler, changed its position as a result of the Nazi genocide. In early 1944, the Irgun launched an armed revolt against the British authorities in Palestine. A larger Jewish militia, the Haganah, at first declined to join the revolt, in the hope that the British would, at war's end, open Palestine to Jewish immigrants. But when the new Labor-led government declared, in mid-1945, that it would continue its predecessor's policies in the Holy Land, the Haganah joined forces with the Irgun and anti-British guerrilla attacks escalated sharply.
At the same time, Haganah emissaries in postwar Europe began smuggling shiploads of Holocaust survivors to Palestine, approaching the coastline late at night and bringing the refugees ashore under the cover of darkness. Most of the 64 ships sent between 1945 and 1948 were intercepted and their passengers interned in detention camps in Cyprus. But the clashes between British soldiers and distraught refugees, taking place in full view of the world media, gave London a public relations black eye and increased the pressure on the British to relent on Palestine. The most famous of these incidents was the July 1947 voyage of the S.S. Exodus, carrying 4,500 Holocaust survivors. Hoping to strike a decisive blow against unauthorized immigration, the British sent the Exodus back to France rather than detain the passengers in Cyprus, but the refugees refused to disembark. The three week-long standoff focused embarrassing attention on London's harsh policy toward Jewish immigrants, and climaxed with the British forcing the Exodus to sail to Germany, where the refugees were dragged ashore by truncheon-wielding British soldiers in a two-hour pitched battle.
The dramatic and intensifying struggle between the Jews and the British soon became a factor in U.S.-British relations. This was partly because of the American public's natural sympathy for the plight of the Jews in the wake of the Holocaust, and partly because of the American political calendar. With mid-term Congressional elections approaching (in November 1946), President Truman and his advisers were increasingly worried that Jewish voters would support Republican candidates if the administration failed to confront the British on thePalestine issue. In April 1946, a joint U.S.-British commission, the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, recommended the admission of 100,000 DPs to Palestine. The Truman administration's public endorsement of that proposal put it on a collision course with London, which adamantly rejected it. Later that year, Truman endorsed the idea of a sovereign Jewish state in part of Palestine, once again putting Washington at odds with London.
At the same time, the rising level of public and Congressional criticism of England's Palestine policy became a source of considerable anxiety in London, especially because of Britain's pending request for American loans to aid in postwar reconstruction. Some British officials added fuel to the fire with acerbic comments that ignited waves of condemnations and negative press attention in the United States. In November 1945, Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin infuriated the American Jewish community when he asserted that "if the Jews, with all their sufferings, want to get too much at the head of the queue, you have the danger of another anti-Semitic reaction through it all," and in June 1946, he sparked outrage when he remarked that American officials favored admission of Holocaust survivors to Palestine only because "They did not want too many Jews in New York."
Into this volatile mix leaped the irrepressible Ben Hecht with his unique blend of drama and politics. By presenting the Palestine conflict in simple, dramatic images that ordinary Americans could easily understand and remember, "A Flag is Born" deepened American public antagonism toward England and sympathy for the Jewish revolt. Hecht was aiming for England's Achilles heel. He understood that the Jewish battle for independence was as much psychological warfare as it was a military struggle--that it was being fought in the court of world opinion and in the halls of Congress, at the same time that it was waged in the hills and valleys of the Holy Land. While the British valued Palestine as a strategic Mediterranean outpost, there was a limit to how many casualties the war-weary British people were prepared to suffer, and how much humiliation, international criticism, and tension with the United States they were willing to endure, before they reached the conclusion that keeping Palestine was not worth the cost.
II. "A Flag is Born": The Broadway Play That Helped Create Israel
During the 1940s, American Jewish organizations used a variety of means to rally public opinion in support of creating a Jewish state in British-ruled Palestine. Many utilized familiar methods such as newspaper ads and demonstrations. But one took the unusual step of using the theater to communicate its message to the American public.
The Bergson group, as it was known, was led by a dynamic Zionist emissary from Jerusalem named Hillel Kook, who used the pseudonym Peter Bergson during the 1940s as he led a series of political action committees focusing on Jewish concerns. Academy Award-winning screenwriter Ben Hecht, one of the most active members of Bergson's committees, including the American League for a Free Palestine (ALFP), created one of the ALFP's most memorable projects when, in 1946, he authored a one-act play called "A Flag is Born." The ALFP, which handled logistics and publicity for the show, minced no words in describing the play's purpose:
"'A Flag is Born' is not ordinary theatre. It was not written to amuse or beguile. 'A Flag is Born' was written to make money--to make money to provide ships to get Hebrews to Palestine ... and [to] arouse American public opinion to support the fight for freedom and independence now being waged by the resistance in Palestine."
Set in a European cemetery, "Flag" focuses on two elderly and ailing Holocaust survivors on their way to Palestine, Tevya and Zelda. They pause at the cemetery to rest there on the eve of the Sabbath. In the midst of his prayers, Tevya has a series of visions in which he encounters sages, heroes, and kings from the Jewish biblical past--the perfect platform for Hecht to demonstrate the Jewish people's ancient claim to the Holy Land, and to showcase experiences from Jewish history demonstrating the need for a Jewish state in modern times.
The bridge between past and future is provided by the character David, a distraught young survivor of the Treblinka death camp who stumbles into the cemetery during the final part of the play. Tevya and Zelda die, but David is inspired to join the Palestine Jewish underground in its war against the British. In the play's dramatic final moments, David delivers a stirring Zionist speech and marches off to fight for Jewish freedom in the Holy Land, holding a makeshift Zionist flag fashioned from Tevya's prayer shawl.
The Adlers, often called the first family of the Yiddish theater, were strong supporters of the Bergson group and figured prominently in "A Flag is Born."
Stella Adler, the actress and acting coach who brought the famous Stanislavski Method of acting to America, had performed in a previous Bergson group production, Ben Hecht's "We Will Never Die"(1943), which helped raise public awareness of the Nazi genocide. Stella used her many connections in Hollywood and on Broadway to recruit major figures from the world of entertainment to support Bergson's campaigns. The endorsements received from such luminaries as Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Carl Reiner, Groucho and Harpo Marx Paul Robeson, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and many others helped attract public attention to Bergson's cause--in part because in those days, it was unusual for celebrities to speak out on political and social issues. Stella would later recall her work for the Bergson group as "one of the most important experiences of my life. The people were men of value, aristocrats of the mind, with social responsibility and the force to do something about it."
Stella's brother Luther, a prominent actor and director, volunteered to direct "Flag." Kurt Weill composed an original score, arranged and conducted by Isaac Van Grove. Metropolitan Opera tenor Mario Berini volunteered for a scene involving the singing of liturgical music. Stella recruited their half-sister, Celia, to play Zelda, with another Yiddish theater veteran, Paul Muni, as Tevya. Journalist Quentin Reynolds, famous for his coverage of major World War II battles, was chosen to narrate. For the role of David, Hecht and Adler chose one of Stella's most promising students, an up and coming 22 year-old by the name of Marlon Brando. According to his memoirs, Brando's interest in "Flag" was kindled by "what we were beginning to learn about the true nature of the killing of the Jews and because of the empathy I felt for the Adlers and the other Jews who had become my friends and teachers and who told me of their dreams for a Jewish State."
Brando's motives were not entirely political. He was also attracted by the prospect of working with Paul Muni, whom he described as "the only actor who ever moved me to leave my dressing room to watch him from the wings." As a gesture of solidarity with the Zionist cause, Brando and the other cast members performed for the minimum actors' guild wage. Later, Brando appeared as the guest speaker at showings around the country of "Last Night We Attacked," an 18-minute film produced by the American League for a Free Palestine, which sympathetically portrayed the Jewish guerrilla war against the British.
The rehearsals, which began in a studio above Al & Dick's Restaurant on West 54th street in Manhattan, did not always proceed smoothly. Irritated that Brando did not speak his lines more rapidly, Muni once exploded, "Goddammit, you can drive trucks through the spaces in his cues!" and stormed off the set. Muni demanded that an artist from Palestine be hired to provide drawings of his character's face as his models, convinced that only an artist from the Holy Land could capture the essence of Tevya. Unhappy over a scene in which Tevya, now dead, has his face covered with a prayer shawl, Muni quietly instructed Brando to refrain from covering his face. To Muni's chagrin, on opening night, Brando stuck to the script and covered his face. In the second performance, Muni, although ostensibly a corpse, pulled the shawl down, little by little, until his face could be seen. These incidents did not shake Brando's admiration for Muni. "I was on stage with him and he gave *me" goose bumps," he wrote. His performance was magical and affected me deeply."
Between rehearsals for "Flag," Brando relaxed at Hecht's suburban Nyack, N.Y. home, where Zionist activists and sympathetic celebrities --among others-- regularly crossed paths. "Around me in Nyack the Palestinian underground crackled constantly," Hecht later recalled. "Russian and British spies pattered through the house and eavesdropped at the swimming pool where the Irgun captains were wont to gather for disputation." Hecht, Brando, and the other guests "eased the political tensions of the household" by squaring off in a rain-drenched celebrity baseball match.
For Brando, one of the most memorable parts of the play was when his character, David, delivers an impassioned, heart-rending speech criticizing the American Jewish community for failing to pressure the Roosevelt administration to rescue Jewish refugees from Hitler. "Where were you, Jews? Where were you when six million Jews were being burned to death in the ovens? Where were you?," Brando demanded, beginning in a quiet voice and growing louder as he repeated the question. The accusation "sent chills through the audience," Brando recalled. At some performances, "Jewish girls got out of their seats and screamed and cried from the aisles in sadness, and at one, when I asked, 'Where were you when six million Jews were being burned to death in the ovens of Auschwitz?', a woman was so over come with anger and guilt that she rose and shouted back at me, 'Where were *you*?' ... At the time there was a great deal of soul-searching within the Jewish community over whether they had done enough to stop the slaughter of their people--some argued that they should have applied pressure on President Roosevelt to bomb Auschwitz, for example--so the speech touched a sensitive nerve." Despite his limited knowledge of Jewish affairs, Brando had hit the nail on the head. The postwar revelations of the full details of the Nazi atrocities, combined with remorse over the American Jewish community's failure to protest more vocally during the Holocaust, had intensified Jewish passions over Palestine. In this atmosphere, perhaps it was no surprise that Hecht elicited such an enthusiastic response when he stepped on stage to appeal for donations at the end of the opening night performance of A Flag is Born. "Give us your money," he said, "and we will turn it into history."
They gave, and Hecht kept his promise.
Bergson and Hecht originally planned a four-week run for "Flag" on Broadway before taking it to other cities, but the show's immense popularity persuaded them to extend its stay at the Alvin Theater on 52nd Street. They later extended it again, eventually running for a full ten weeks, a total of 120 performances. According to all accounts, audiences responded with enthusiasm at every show. An official of one Jewish organization reported that the public "leaves the theater excited and impatient with everything that is not based on Irish methods of national struggle."
The response that "Flag" evoked was due in part to the public's sympathy for the victims of Nazi genocide and the Holocaust survivors languishing in European Displaced Persons camp. But that was not the only reason. The Bergson group's public information efforts cleverly emphasized symbols, images, and phrases comparing the Jewish fighters in Palestine to the heroes of the American Revolution. Their newspaper ads, press releases, and leaflets portrayed Irgun fighters as "modern-day Nathan Hales," denounced London's policy of "taxation [in Palestine] without representation," quoted Thomas Jefferson's memorable phrase, "Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God," and used the motto, "It's 1776 in Palestine!" The analogy resonated. In "Flag," Tevya at one point addresses a council of representatives of England, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union, and justifies the Jewish armed revolt against the British by offering an extended analogy between Palestine in the 1940s and Colonial America in the 1770s. The program booklet for the show featured an illustration of three young Jews, one with a gun, one with a hoe, and one with a Zionist flag, and in the background the famous illustration of three figures from the American revolution playing drums and flute.
The 'Sponsoring Committee' for "Flag" that the ALFP assembled featured prominent names from the worlds of culture and politics, among them composer Leonard Bernstein, novelist Lion Feuchtwanger, New York City Mayor William O'Dwyer, and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The involvement of individuals of such renown was especially irksome to Jewish opponents of "Flag," such as Judah Magnes, president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who was part of a small group of Jewish intellectuals opposed to the creation of a Jewish state. Magnes's open letter to Mrs. Roosevelt, published prominently in the New York Times, denounced "A Flag is Born" for supporting violence and urged her to dissociate herself from the play. (She did not do so.) Two days later, the Times ran a lengthy response from former U.S. Senator Guy Gillette, president of the ALFP, defending the play by way of reference to the American Revolution. "Flag" embodied Thomas Jefferson's motto, "Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God," he argued.
Many, but not all, of the reviews were positive. Walter Winchell called it "a compelling blend of fact and fantasy... worth seeing, worth hearing, and worth remembering... it will wring your heart and eyes dry...bring at least eleven handkerchiefs." Time magazine described Flag as "colorful theatre and biting propaganda," while Life reported that it "serves, with wit and wisdom, an uninterrupted 105-minute mixture of bitter attacks on rich and powerful Jews, on world diplomats in the U.S., Russia and, with greatest malice, England." Hollywood Reporter's reviewer offered an unusual complaint: "Reviewing is costing us money. Ben Hecht has written so moving a pageant in "A Flag is Born' that we have been moved to pen not only a congratulatory critique--but to write a check to the American League for a Free Palestine in its repatriation program." Brooks Atkinson, in the New York Times, praised Muni for "giving one of the great performances of his career" and Adler for playing her role "with genuine inspiration," although he was less impressed by Hecht's script. Among the few who were especially critical was the New Yorker, which called Flag "a combination of dubious poetry and political oversimplification."
Not surprisingly, the British press had a different view. The London Evening Standard expressed horror that Americans were being exposed to what it called "the most virulent anti-British play ever staged in the United States." Officials of the British Consulate in New York reported back to their superiors in London with consternation about the large "crowds" that were "flocking" to Hecht's play. That, of course was part of the ALFP's strategy--to convince the British that their Palestine policy was alienating the American public and undermining U.S.-British relations.
After completing its Broadway run, Flag was staged in Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, and Boston. For some of the out of town performances, Stella Adler took over for Quentin Reynolds as narrator, and Luther Adler or Jacob Ben-Ami replaced Paul Muni as Tevya. Brando reportedly turned down a chance to star in the film version of Gentleman's Agreement in order to go on the road with "Flag" (although Sidney Lumet did substitute for him in the Chicago performances). "I want to keep doing what I'm doing," he explained. "These people are persecuted, and they need help." After six months in the United States, "Flag" had a successful tour of South America, and was even staged, in Hebrew, in a British detention camp in Cyprus for refugees who had been intercepted trying to enter Palestine without authorization. "Flag" was banned in Great Britain and British-controlled territories, including Palestine.
As the ALFP had hoped, "A Flag is Born" raised a considerable sum in ticket revenues and post-performance donations--close to $1-million, according to some estimates. A New York dinner in honor of Paul Muni in October 1946 raised an additional $74,000. Part of the money raised was used to purchase a ship to ferry Holocaust survivors to Palestine in defiance of British immigration restrictions.
The boat, a 400-ton former yacht known as the S.S.Abril, set sail for France on December 27, 1946, with a 21-man crew, most of them American volunteers, seven from Brooklyn. Six hundred Holocaust survivors came aboard at Port de Bouc, where the ship was renamed the S.S.Ben Hecht. The voyage came to an abrupt end on March 8, 1947, when the Ben Hecht was intercepted by the British just ten miles from the Palestine shore. The refugees were taken to a detention camp in Cyprus, while the crew members were jailed at the Acre Prison, south of Haifa. With the interception of the ship and the detention of its crew and passengers making international headlines, the British quickly announced they would deport the crew members to the United States, and the U.S. Attorney General announced he would not bring criminal charges against them. The last thing the British needed was a fight with Congress over the imprisonment of American citizens; the last thing the Truman administration needed, on the eve of an election year, was to prosecute a group of young men regarded as heroes by Jewish voters--and by a growing segment of non-Jews, as well.
The impact of "A Flag is Born" may be measured in several ways. Some of the proceeds made their way to Palestine to support the Jewish fight for independence. Some of the funds that the play raised were used to facilitate attempts to bring Holocaust survivors to Palestine which, even when unsuccessful, helped draw international attention to the plight of the Jewish refugees. "Flag" also had an impact on U.S. public opinion. It introduced the Palestine issue, in a dramatic and compelling way, to the American public and thereby helped rouse support for the Zionist cause. Perhaps most importantly, "Flag" contributed to the process of persuading the British to withdraw from Palestine. Reports from British diplomats in the United States back to their superiors in London bemoaned "Flag"'s effectiveness in turning American public opinion against England. This came at a time when the British government was anxious for U.S. support, including the provision of desperately-needed postwar loans for economic reconstruction. The damage that "Flag "and similar activities inflicted on England's image abroad, coming on top of the casualties inflicted on British forces in Palestine by the Jewish underground fighters, played a role in the process that brought about London's decision to withdraw from the Holy Land, paving the way for the creation of the State of Israel.
III. "A Flag is Born" and the Fight Against Racism
After completing its Broadway run, "A Flag is Born" was staged in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Boston. It was also scheduled for the National Theater in Washington, D.C. --until it unexpectedly became the focus of a controversy over racial discrimination.
During the 1940s, some privately-owned theaters refused to permit African-Americans to attend their shows. Others confined blacks to the balcony, which bigots nicknamed "nigger heaven." Such restricted seating was regarded by some in the civil rights movement as "more vicious than total exclusion," because --in the words of one activist-- "As the price of attending plays, the Negro is forced to acknowledge an inferior status by accepting segregation, which more than offsets, in degradation of morale, the cultural advantage of being able to attend."
Civil rights activists used a variety of tactics to oppose such discrimination, from lawsuits against theaters that refused to give refunds to black ticket-buyers, to picket lines outside the theaters. At the American Theater in St. Louis in February 1947, protesters were actually joined by four members of the "Hamlet" cast in the picketing of their own production. The famous African-American actor and singer Paul Robeson, after performing at the non-discriminatory St. Louis Auditorium, joined the picketers outside the American Theater. In Charlotte, North Carolina, Harry Golden, the editor of a local Jewish newspaper, made headlines with his "Rent-a-Child" scheme, which ridiculed the theaters by having white children accompany African-American women to the theater so that the ladies would be admitted on the assumption that they were the children's nannies.
In November 1946, 33 prominent playwrights and dramatists--including Tennessee Williams, Oscar Hammerstein, and Irving Berlin-- announced that they would not permit their works to be performed at the National Theatre and other Washington theaters that discriminated against African-Americans. National Theatre manager Edmund Plohn defended the exclusion of blacks on the grounds that violence might ensue if the theater failed to adhere to "the established custom of the community," prompting the Washington Post to editorialize that the National's "adherence to a 'community pattern' is a pretext which [it] has at least shared in shaping."
Ben Hecht was one of the 33 who signed the statement boycotting the National Theatre--just as the sponsor of "A Flag is Born," the American League for a Free Palestine (ALFP) was about to take it on a multi-city tour that included a performance at the National. The D.C. engagement was quickly withdrawn and re-scheduled for the Maryland Theater in nearby Baltimore. To accommodate Members of Congress whom the ALFP expected to attend the Washington performance, arrangements were made for a special train car to bring the Congressmen to Baltimore. Eighteen U.S. Senators and an assortment of foreign diplomats were scheduled to attend, according to an ALFP spokesman.
In making the switch from Washington to Baltimore, the ALFP activists struck an important symbolic blow against racial discrimination. But as it turned out, the controversy was far from over.
Baltimore's Maryland Theater did not bar African-Americans, as Washington's National Theater did--but, unbeknownst to the American League for a Free Palestine, it did restrict them to the balcony, which bigots nicknamed "nigger heaven." Consultations between local NAACP activists, national NAACP secretary Walter White, and the ALFP leadership produced a 'good cop-bad cop' strategy. Just hours before the first curtain, the ALFP went to the Maryland Theater management with a plea and a warning: rescind the seating discrimination, or face an angry NAACP picket line.
The date was February 12, Lincoln's Birthday; protesters invoking the memory of the Great Emancipator "would have a particular news value," the NAACP emphasized. While management was mulling over that demand, the ALFP added a threat of its own: Professor Fowler Harper, former deputy to Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, prominent legal expert, and ALFP activist, intended "to personally test this discriminatory ruling by taking two colored persons as his guests to tonight's performance"--Mrs. Dovey Roundtree (civil rights activist and former Women's Army Corps captain) and Miss Mary Johnson, a secretary at ALFP headquarters in New York.
The pressure succeeded.
The Maryland Theater management agreed to recognize the ALFP as the "lessee of the theatre" for the duration of the run, making its ticket agents employees of the ALFP and subject to whatever seating policy the League chose to adopt. At least ten African-Americans attended the opening night performance of "A Flag Is Born" in Baltimore and, in the words, of a black weekly newspaper, "were seated indiscriminately, some holding orchestra and box seats, without untoward results."
Exuberant NAACP leaders hailed the "tradition-shattering victory" won by the alliance of black and Zionist activists against theater discrimination. They used that victory as a precedent to help pave the way for the desegregation of other Baltimore theaters in the months and years to follow. The Maryland theater battle of 1947 was a rare instance in which militant Zionism and the black civil rights struggle intersected, giving the Irgun's American supporters an opportunity to use their considerable talent on behalf of another cause that they supported.
"I am proud that it was my play which terminated one of the most disgraceful practices of our country's history," a beaming Ben Hecht declared after the opening performance in Baltimore. "For the first time in the history of the State of Maryland, Negroes were permitted to attend the legitimate theatre without discrimination. I am proud that it was 'A Flag is Born' which they attended without insult. Breaking down this vicious and indecent tradition in Maryland is worthy of the high purpose for which 'Flag' was conceived and written. The incident is forceful testimony to the proposition that to fight discrimination and injustice to one group of human beings affords protection to every other group."
IV. Ben Hecht's Fight for Jewish Rights
In the spring of 1941, Ben Hecht, the journalist, playwright, and Hollywood screenwriter, was, as he later described it, "an honest writer who was walking down the street one day when he bumped into history." What he bumped into was a cause, and Hecht embraced that cause with a righteous and sometimes furious passion that would make itself felt from the pages of the New York Times to the halls of power in Washington and London.
Hecht, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, was raised in Chicago and then Racine, Wisconsin, amidst what one pundit called "his large, extended, nutty Jewish family of wild uncles and half-mad aunts." Hecht was fond of recalling how, at age six, he accompanied his Aunt Chasha to a play in which a policeman wrongly accused one of the actors of theft, eliciting shouts of protest from young Bennie. When the theater manager demanded an apology for the child's behavior, Chasha struck him with her umbrella. "Remember what I tell you," she explained to the boy. "That's the way to apologize."
Hecht evidently remembered it well. Upon returning to Chicago at age sixteen, he soon landed a job as a cub reporter for the Chicago Daily Journal, where he developed a no-holds-barred style of journalism well suited for the rough and tumble life of the Windy City. By 1920, he had his own daily column, "One Thousand and One Afternoons," in the Chicago Daily News. As he branched out into the world of literary fiction, Hecht proved himself to be as productive as he was controversial. His 1922 novel, Fantazius Malzare, was censored for obscenity despite his ability to enlist Clarence Darrow as his attorney and H.L. Mencken as defense witness. The publicity was a boon for his career.
Hecht's first major success in the theater was The Front Page, a 1928 play about political and journalistic corruption that he coauthored with Charles MacArthur. It won a Pulitzer Prize. By the 1930s, Hecht was in Hollywood, writing screenplays for a string of hit films, including Underworld (1927), for which he was honored at the very first Academy Awards ceremony; the famous gangster movie Scarface (1932); the first 'screwball comedy,' Twentieth Century (1934); and Barbary Coast (1935). His reputation as a 'script doctor' brought Hecht to the set of Gone With the Wind (1939), where he rewrote large sections of the screenplay without having read the original novel. His voluminous film credits also include the classic Wuthering Heights (1939) and the Alfred Hitchcock thrillers Spellbound (1945) and Notorious (1946).
During the course of his career, Hecht would author twenty-five books, 20 plays, 65 film scripts, and hundreds of short stories and magazine articles. Film critic Judith Crist once dubbed him "the most prolific multimedia child of this century." None of Hecht's creations caused more of a sensation than those that he wrote about Jewish subjects.
As a young man, Hecht had shown no interest in Jewish communal life or Jewish religious traditions, and his first marriage (in 1915) was to a non-Jew. His first public foray into Jewish matters came in the form of his best-selling 1931 novel, A Jew in Love, which portrayed American Jews in unflattering terms and was strongly criticized in the Jewish community. Commenting on the denunciations, Hecht's second wife, Rose, once remarked that as a result of the book, prominent rabbis in Cleveland "declared Ben would never be allowed to be buried in Cleveland--an honor nobody I know has ever yearned for."
The rise of Hitler and the persecution of German Jewry transformed Hecht. "I turned into a Jew in 1939," Hecht wrote in his autobiography, A Child of the Century (1954). "I had before then been only related to Jews. In that year I became a Jew and looked on the world with Jewish eyes. The German mass murder of the Jews, recently begun, had brought my Jewishness to the surface." He joined the Fight for Freedom Committee, which advocated pre-emptive U.S. military action to oust Hitler, and authored a fundraising pageant for the group called "Fun to Be Free" [see page ____ ] He also began writing about Hitler and the Jews in his regular column for the New York daily newspaper P.M.
In one column in 1941, Hecht took aim at assimilated American Jews who tried to play down their Jewish identity: "I write of Jews today, I who never knew himself as one before, because that part of me which is Jewish is under a violent and apelike attack. My way of defending myself is to answer as a Jew .... My angry critics all write that they are proud of being Americans and of wearing carnations, and that they are sick to death of such efforts as mine to Judaize them and increase generally the Jew-consciousness of the world .... I don't advise you to take off your carnations. I only suggest that you don't hide behind them too much. They conceal very little."
That article caught the eye of Hillel Kook, a dynamic Zionist emissary from Jerusalem who had arrived in the United States the previous year to raise funds and political support for European Jewish refugees and the cause of creating a Jewish state. Kook, who used the nomme de guerre Peter Bergson, arranged to meet Hecht. That was how Hecht "bumped into history." Bergson and his colleagues impressed Hecht with their description of their latest project, which they called the Committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews. Behind the long and clumsy name stood an idea that captured Hecht's imagination: the Allies should organize an armed force, consisting of Jewish residents of Palestine and Jewish refugees from Europe, that would take part in the war against Germany. For Hecht, the idea of the "fighting Jew" proudly hearkened back to the image of the Jewish warrior-scholars of King David's era, and shattered the modern stereotype of Jewish weakness. "The fact that [Bergson and his colleagues] were possibly Mad Hatters was less important to me than that they were Jews of gallantry and good health," he later recalled.
Hecht brought all of his talents as a dramatist to the Jewish army campaign, and with great effect. He designed brash full-page newspaper advertisements with headlines like "Jews Fight for the Right to Fight," which Bergson placed in the New York Times and other major periodicals. This was an uncommon strategy for the 1940s, a time when Jewish organizations, fearing adverse public reaction, seldom trumpeted their political demands in the nation's daily newspapers.
Hecht also used his connections in Hollywood and on Broadway to win the endorsement of prominent entertainers for the Jewish army cause. The committee's supporters included producer David O. Selznick, director Ernst Lubitsch, actors Burgess Meredith and Melvyn Douglas, artist Arthur Szyk, singer Eddie Cantor, and composer Kurt Weill, among others. The combination of high-profile newspaper ads and celebrity endorsements catapulted the Jewish army issue to public prominence in 1941-1942. The Bergson group's public pressure, together with behind-the-scenes efforts by Jewish leaders, eventually persuaded the British government to establish the Jewish Brigade, which fought with distinction against the Germans in early 1945. After the war, its veterans helped smuggle Holocaust survivors to Palestine and played an important role in defending the newborn State of Israel against invading Arab armies in 1948.
When news of the Nazi genocide was confirmed in the United States in late 1942 and 1943, the Bergson group shifted its focus to raising public awareness of the slaughter and seeking U.S. government intervention to aid the refugees. The Committee for a Jewish Army transformed itself into the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe. But while the agenda changed, the tactics stayed the same. Hecht's powerful full-page advertisements revealed the plight of Europe's Jews at a time when newspaper editors preferred to downplay that news, and drew unflattering attention to the Allies' cruel refusal to offer the refugees any meaningful assistance. With eye-catching headlines such as "How Well Are You Sleeping? Is There Something You Could Have Done to Save Millions of Innocent People--Men, Women, and Children--from Torture and Death?" and "Time Races Death: What Are We Waiting For?," the ads, and the Bergson group's demands, were soon being discussed on op-ed pages and in the halls of Congress.
"Our mission in the United States would not have attained the scope and intensity it did if not for Hecht's gifted pen," senior Bergson group activist Yitshaq Ben-Ami later wrote. "He had a compassionate heart, covered up by a short temper, a brutal frankness and an acid tongue."
The ads were also noticed, evidently with considerable irritation, in the White House. An ad headline "My Uncle Abraham Reports" described the ghost of Hecht's "Uncle Abraham," a victim of the Nazis, "sitting on the window sill two feet away from Mr. Roosevelt" in the White House, waiting in vain for the president to take some steps to help save Europe's remaining Jews. "The Germans will think that when they kill Jews, Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill pretend nothing is happening," the ad asserted. According to Hecht, the financier Bernard Baruch, an adviser to the president, complained to Hecht that FDR was "very upset" about the ad and pleaded for a moratorium on such attacks. According to Bergson, Eleanor Roosevelt told him that the president, commenting on the Uncle Abraham ad, "said that this is hitting below the belt." Bergson said he told the First Lady "that I am very happy to hear that he is reading it and that it affects him."
One of Hecht's most acerbic ads almost didn't make it into print. After reading, in early 1943, that Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels vowed to finish the task of murdering all European Jews in time for Christmas, Hecht penned an advertisement headlined "Ballad of the Doomed Jews of Europe." Rumors about the ad, and the ballad it contained, reached some journalists even before it was published. The Independent Jewish Press Service reported that the ad "would have to be printed on asbestos, it was so hot," because the ballad "says that there's going to be a very happy Christmas this year because by December there just wouldn't be any Jews left for the Christian world to spit at."
That report was not far off the mark. Hecht's ballad began: "Four million Jews waiting for death / Oh hang and burn but--quiet, Jews! / Don't be bothersome; save your breath-- / The world is busy with other news." The second stanza challenged the Roosevelt administration: "Four million murders are quite a smear / Even our State Department views / The slaughter with much disfavor here / But then--it's busy with other news."
Such public Jewish criticism of the Roosevelt administration was quite unusual, given the high level of American Jewish support for FDR and the New Deal. Even those Jews who were privately troubled by Roosevelt's refusal to aid European Jewry were reluctant to speak out, fearing that any public disagreement with the president during wartime might provoke antisemitism. But Bergson and Hecht believed the desperate situation of Europe's Jews required them to speak out.
The last stanza of Hecht's "Ballad of the Doomed Jews" was the most jarring: "Oh World be patient--it will take / Some time before the murder crews / Are done. By Christmas you can make / Your Peace on Earth without the Jews."
The ad was scheduled to appear in the New York Times in early 1943, but was delayed because of the wartime paper shortage. In the meantime, someone at the Times leaked the text to officials of the American Jewish Committee, a mainstream Jewish organization that strongly opposed Bergson's outspoken approach. Bergson was urgently summoned to the office of AJCommittee president Joseph Proskauer, who warned him that "such an anti-Christian attitude [as implied in the ad] could well bring on pogroms in the USA."
Bergson agreed to hold back the ad, on condition that Proskauer organize Jewish leaders to to press for U.S. action to aid European Jewry. But when no such action was forthcoming, he decided to publish the ad. It appeared in the New York Times on September 14, 1943. Needless to say, the ad did not cause any pogroms. On the contrary: "Ballad of the Doomed Jews" and the other Hecht ads played a crucial role in the Bergson group's campaign for U.S. rescue action, by drawing attention to the plight of Europe's Jews and rousing public support for U.S. intervention.
Advertisements were not Hecht's only contribution to the Bergson group. In late 1942, Hecht conceived the idea of developing a dramatic pageant to raise public consciousness about the Holocaust.
"Ben Hecht's talent lay in his capacity to dramatize whatever it was that he touched," journalist, author and Bergson supporter Max Lerner recalled. "He could make a breakfast egg seem theatrical....And by some merciful gift of history, Ben Hecht's talents became available for a cause like ours."
Hecht called it "We Will Never Die." To be performed on a stage featuring forty foot-high tablets of the Ten Commandments, the pageant would survey Jewish contributions to civilization throughout history and describe the Nazi slaughter of the Jews, culminating in a stirring recitation of "Kaddish," the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead, by a group of elderly refugee rabbis.
The White House was less than enthusiastic about the project. The pageant's producer, Billy Rose, wrote to a senior White House adviser, David Niles, to request a message from President Roosevelt to be read aloud at the opening night performance. FDR's advisers urged him to refrain from sending the message because it might "raise a political question." They feared "We Will Never Die" would increase pressure to admit Jewish refugees to the United States or to British-controlled Palestine. The President declined Rose's request.
"We Will Never Die" opened at Madison Square Garden in March 1943, with Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni in the starring roles, and played two shows to audiences totaling more than 40,000. "We Will Never Die" was subsequently staged in Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, and Washington D.C., where the audience included First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, six Supreme Court justices, numerous members of the international diplomatic corps, and an estimated 300 Members of Congress. The performances received substantial media coverage, and the First Lady devoted part of one of her syndicated columns to it, thus carrying its message to audiences well beyond those who actually attended the pageant. Shattering the wall of silence surrounding the Holocaust was the first crucial step in the process of mobilizing an American campaign against the slaughter.
The Bergson rescue campaign, in which Hecht's newspaper ads and pageant played a central role, culminated, in October 1943, in the introduction of a Congressional resolution urging the creation of a U.S. government agency to rescue Jewish refugees. The public controversy caused by Congressional hearings on the resolution, combined with behind-the-scenes pressure from Treasury Department officials, convinced Roosevelt to establish the War Refugee Board in January 1944. The Board's activities, which included financing the rescue work of Raoul Wallenberg, helped save the lives of over 200,000 people during the final fifteen months of the war.
As World War II drew to a close, the Bergson group reinvented itself again, this time as the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation and the American League for a Free Palestine, which sought to rally American public sympathy for the unauthorized immigration of Holocaust survivors to the Holy Land, and for the Jewish underground militias that were fighting the British administration in Palestine, particularly the Irgun Zvai Leumi led by Menachem Begin, a future prime minister of Israel.
Once again, Hecht used his unique talents to elevate Bergson's small political action committee to center stage. His play, "A Flag is Born," exposed British cruelty in Palestine and made the case for Jewish statehood. His Hollywood and Broadway connections helped bring numerous prominent entertainers to endorse the American League for a Free Palestine, including comedians Harpo Marx and Carl Reiner; actors Vincent Price, Jimmy Durante, Charles Bickford, Sidney Blackmer, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and Canada Lee; producer David O. Selznick; Edward Buzzell of MGM Studios; singer Frank Sinatra; and conductor Leonard Bernstein. His fiery newspaper ads raised eyebrows and kept the Bergson group's demands on the public agenda.
Hecht's post war ads were particularly bold in their open support for breaking British laws and the use of violence against the British military authorities in Palestine. An ad headlined "Give Us the Money ... We'll Get Them There!" explicitly appealed for money to smuggle Jews on the "underground railway" from Europe to Palestine in defiance of the British. Another proclaimed, almost threateningly, "There Will Be MORE Violence," warning that "the explosion of grenades and mines in Jerusalem this week are but a prelude to what is ahead" unless the British immediately withdrew from Palestine.
The most controversial was titled "Letter to the Terrorists of Palestine." Mocking the British description of the Jewish fighters as "terrorists," Hecht praised them as heroes, compared them to George Washington, and declared that there was widespread support for the Jewish militias among grassroots American Jews. "In the past 1500 years every nation of Europe has taken a crack at the Jews, " Hecht wrote. "This time the British are at bat. You are the first answer that makes sense--to the New World. Every time you blowup a British arsenal, or wreck a British jail, or send a British railroad train sky high, or rob a British bank or let go with your guns and bombs at the British betrayers and invaders of your homeland, the Jews of America make a little holiday in their hearts."
Hecht's assertion caused such a stir that it was quoted on the front page of the New York Times, as well as in many other publications. The British government delivered a formal protest to the Truman administration against what it called Hecht's "incitement to murder British officials and soldiers." London also pressed Washington to find a way to revoke the Bergson group's tax-exempt status. After exploring the issue, U.S. officials informed their disappointed British counterparts that "no legal means" were available to withdraw Bergson's tax-exemption and, in any event, such action might provoke American Zionists to lobby Congress against U.S. economic assistance to England.
While the Bergson group was not penalized for Hecht's words, Hecht himself paid dearly. The Cinematograph Exhibitors Association, representing more than three thousand British movie theater owners, declared a boycott of films written by Hecht. Even the screen credits for three films in which Hecht had been involved and had recently been released in England were altered to remove his name.
"I felt perked up when word of the boycott first came out England," Hecht later recalled. "I beamed on it as the best press notice I had ever received--a solid acknowledgment of the work I had been doing with all my might ....An empire hitting at a single man and passing sanctions against him! There was something to swell a writer's bosom and add a notch to his hat size. I could recall in history no other case of a nation's declaring war on a lone individual. I was impressed."
But the boycott did hurt. "My exuberance waned when I arrived in Hollywood a few months later," Hecht wrote. Suddenly he found that "there were no jobs (or parties) for me." Producers were "nervous of answering my hellos, let alone hiring me." Taking on Hecht meant "jeopardizing their English markets." Eventually, some of Hecht's former employers agreed to take him on-- "if I would cut my price in half and forego the 'thrill' of seeing my name on the finished product." He had no choice but to submit to the humiliating new arrangements. Still, Hecht took it in stride, neither complaining nor apologizing. He stood for a principle and he paid the price. His conscience could rest easy, forever knowing that he had answered the call when his people needed him most.
V. Ben Hecht's First "Political" Show
Should the United States use military force to oust potentially dangerous foreign dictators?
That question, which has been so much on the minds of Americans in recent years, was hotly debated during the years before Pearl Harbor--and became the focus of Ben Hecht's first attempt to mix art and politics.
In late 1939, as the America First movement and other isolationist groups campaigned against U.S. involvement in the war against Nazi Germany, a number of concerned Americans established the Fight for Freedom Committee, which advocated U.S. military action against Adolf Hitler as the only way to preserve world peace. Hecht soon joined.
"The German mass murder of the Jews, recently begun, had brought my Jewishness to the surface," Hecht later recalled. "I was too old to enlist in the battle in Europe. But I was not too old for anger. I went through the days holding my anger like a hot stove in my arms ... The anger led me to join an organization for the first time in my life. It was called 'Fight for Freedom'..."
The Fight for Freedom activists lobbied for war against Hitler despite the tide of American public opinion against such military action. Most Americans found Hitler's totalitarian ways distasteful, but they did not see any compelling reason to go to war against Nazi Germany, which seemed to be just one among many unsavory regimes. Gallup polls during 1940-41 found only about one-tenth of Americans willing to go to war for any other reason than to fend off an invasion of the United States itself. Polls also found 71% of Americans thought the U.S. was wrong to have entered World War I; many believed America had been tricked into the conflict by greedy weapons manufacturers. The hardships of the Great Depression further intensified the view that domestic concerns required America's full attention, and that the country could not spare any resources for overseas matters.
Hollywood strongly disagreed. Fight for Freedom attracted so many celebrities to its campaign against "the evils of dictatorship" that it created a special "Stage, Screen, Radio and Arts Division." In the autumn of 1941, these Hollywood figures pooled their many talents to undertake a dramatic pageant at Madison Square Garden called "Fun to Be Free." Authored by Ben Hecht and his longtime screenwriting partner Charles MacArthur, "Fun to Be Free" featured the most prominent stars of that era in a dramatic attempt to convince public opinion of the necessity for war.
An audience of over 17,000 packed Madison Square Garden on October 5, 1941, for the three-hour "Mammoth Revue" of patriotic songs, skits mocking Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo, and dramatic readings emphasizing the need for quick American military intervention. The audience "came close to having the wits scared out of them" at the beginning of the show, the New York Times reported, when the darkened auditorium was rocked by a soundtrack of a bombing raid and criss-crossing searchlights that showed thousands of eight-inch cardboard soldiers drifting down from the ceiling in tiny parachutes. That was followed by Bill "Bojangles" Robinson tap-dancing on a coffin labeled Hitler, accompanied by what the Times called "a Negro chorus of sixteen voices singing 'When That Man Is Dead and Gone'." Carmen Miranda "sang in her well-known South American style," and "Eddie Cantor, in a hoopskirt, and Jack Benny put on an Easter Parade act."
Even Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher took part. Earlier that day, in one of the most famous World Series games ever played, the New York Yankees had taken a three-to-one lead over Durocher's Dodgers, after Dodgers catcher Mickey Owen dropped the third strike that would have won the game, thus opening the door to a Yankees rally and victory. According to the Times, Durocher, in his appearance at "Fun to Be Free," "made a little speech to this effect: 'We don't want Hitlerism, we want Americanism. And the Yankees are a great ball club. Even if we lose, we'll be losing in a free country."
The roster of those who appeared on stage that evening reads like a Who's Who of pre-WWII Hollywood: Tallulah Bankhead, Melvyn Douglas, Morton Downey, Helen Hayes, Burgess Meredith, George Jessel, Ethel Merman, Sophie Tucker, and many others. It was produced by Oscar Hammerstein (of Rodgers & Hammerstein fame), Moss Hart, and George Kaufman, with music and lyrics by, among others, Irving Berlin and Kurt Weill. The Radio City Ballet performed, as did the lesser-known but no less enthusiastic International Ladies Garment Workers Union Chorus. The costs were underwritten by private donors, among them Alfred Bloomingdale, Harry Guggenheim, and Mrs. Marshall Field.
Other Hollywood figures who publicly endorsed Fight for Freedom included Ethel Barrymore, Jack Benny, Kitty Carlisle, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Lynn Fontanne, and Betty Grable.
The political theme of "Fun to Be Free" was made unmistakably clear by Fight for Freedom leader Herbert Agar, editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal: "Today is a time for war, because peace is impossible ... Peace is not what you have when there doesn't happen to be a war in your neighborhood; peace is what you have when the world around you is growing more fair, more full of hope and opportunity ... Tomorrow can be a time for peace if all good men stand together today and fight for freedom."
VI. For Further Reading
On "A Flag is Born":
Citron, Atay. "Pageantry and Theater in the Service of Jewish Nationalism in the United States, 1933-1946," Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1989.
Nahshon, Edna. "From Geopathology to Redemption: 'A Flag is Born' on the Broadway Stage," Kurt Weill Newsletter 20:1, 5-11.
Whitfeld, Stephen J. "The Politics of Pageantry, 136-1946," American Jewish History 84:3, 221-251.
On Ben Hecht:
Fetherling, Doug. The Five Lives of Ben Hecht. (New York: Zoetrope, 1977)
Hecht, Ben. A Child of the Century (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1954)
MacAdams, William. Ben Hecht: The Man Behind the Legend. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1990)
On the Bergson Group:
Ben-Ami, Yitshaq. Years of Wrath, Days of Glory: Memoirs from the Irgun. (New York: Shengold, 1983)
Medoff, Rafael. Militant Zionism in America: The Rise and Impact of the Jabotinsky Movement in the United States, 1926-1948. (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2002)
Wyman, David S. and Medoff, Rafael. A Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America, and the Holocaust (New York: The New Press, 2002)
On America's Response to the Holocaust:
Penkower, Monty Noam. The Jews Were Expendable: Free World Diplomacy and the Holocaust. (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1983)
Wyman, David S. The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945. (New York: Pantheon, 1984)
(April 2004 | Return to top)
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