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
So began the opening stanza of the Ballad of the Doomed Jews of Europe, published in the New York Times in September 1943. Its author was Ben Hecht, a self-proclaimed “un-Jewish Jew”.
Hecht was one of the best known scriptwriters during the interwar period. He wrote the scripts for iconic films such as Scarface, Barbary Coast and Wuthering Heights, contributed to
Gone with the Wind and was involved as a ghostwriter for Stagecoach, Roman Holiday and many more. As his recent biographer, Adina Hoffman, noted: “The list is ridiculous for its range and quality.” Jean-Luc Goddard, the film director, believed that Hecht was “a genius”, responsible for “80 per cent of what is used in Hollywood movies today”.
A drop-out from college, Hecht discovered the world of literature, Joyce, Eliot, Yeats and then went into writing popular material to fuel his high-maintenance lifestyle. He kept his distance from those whom he identified culturally with his Yiddish-speaking immi- grant family. He evolved into a “brash, cigar-chomping, wisecracking” self-promoting, all-American wordsmith.
He aligned himself with liberal causes, opposing the isolationism of Charles Lindburgh and advocating US entry into the war even before Pearl Harbour.
He was brought back to Jewishness by his second wife, Rose Caylor, originally from Vilna — someone who was able to recite entire chapters of Marx’s Das Kapital. Moving to Manhattan, Hecht discovered a different type of Jew, “without accent and not remotely connected to tailoring”. It was the rise of Nazism and the brutality meted out to German Jews which awoke him from his slumber — “I became a Jew in 1939, aged 46”.
Hecht wrote a regular column for the liberal New York daily, PM, which reflected his anguish at the unfolding of events in occupied Europe. In April 1941, he wrote an article entitled ‘My Tribe is Called Israel’, which aroused the ire of many assimilationist Jews. He received an accolade from Groucho Marx but, more importantly, from a young man, Peter H Bergson, a newly arrived Palestinian Jew and a follower of Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
Bergson was the name assumed by Hillel Kook — a scion of the famed rabbinical family — for American ears. It was this combination of Kook’s brilliance at public relations and his quick grasp of American politics with Hecht’s rising anger and acerbic phrasing that allowed them to embark on the remarkable project of awakening Americans — Jews and non-Jews — to the fate of Jewry in occupied Europe.
It set them at odds with the Jewish communal leadership who preferred formality, convention and quiet diplomacy. Hecht and Bergson were not squeamish about attacking the Roosevelt administration, senior figures in
Congress and Jews who looked away.
Towards the end of 1942, news began to trickle out of Europe that the kill- ing of Jews was not a random series of pogroms, but a mass extermination on a mechanised scale. Few could imagine the unimaginable. On 25 November 1942, the Washington Post reported that two million Jews had been slain. It occurred on page six alongside an advertisement for Kessler’s Blended Whiskey.
Hecht did not care whom he offended with his words. Joseph Kennedy, the US Ambassador in London and father of the future president, addressed a Warner Brothers lunch in late 1940 and warned them that any film that would decry “the horrors of Hitlerism” would have a boomerang effect on Hollywood Jewish moguls.
In London, Kennedy had a reputation as a defeatist and an antisemite. Hecht wrote that when Kennedy had “concluded his missionary work, most of the screen rajahs were convinced that the best course open to Jews was to make themselves small and walk gently as if they had venereal disease. This would keep people from noticing them and calling them warmongers”.
During 1943 the New York Times was replete with Bergson and Hecht’s advertisements. Their headlines screamed at their readers. ‘Action not Pity can save millions now!’ (February 8); ‘For Sale to Humanity: 70,000 Jews’ (February 16); ‘How Well are you Sleeping?’ (November 24); ‘Time Races Death: What are we waiting for?’ (December 17).
Hecht was uninterested in polite niceties. As Adina Hoffman records many times in her biography, he was a moral bruiser in his use of language. His Ballad of the Doomed Jews of Europe, published in the New York Times, concluded with the verse:
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.
Hecht’s comments were designed to shock and infuriate, but hopefully also to persuade. He targeted “the silence of the history makers” on the Jewish question which had made them “honorary members of the German posse”. Winston Churchill, “England’s great humanitarian”, was condemned for complacency.
Bergson and Hecht’s tactics were gradually understood by many American Jews — because the urgency of the times demanded it. In contrast, leaders such as Stephen Wise and Nahum Goldmann believed that such “in your face” assaults would simply wreck their diplomatic efforts to force the Roosevelt administration to adopt concrete measures.
Hecht’s weapon in this struggle for action as well as for the Jewish soul were assimilated Jews who peppered the shallow world of celebrity. Through his standing in Hollywood, he was able to enlist studio heads Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, David O. Selznick, the Warner Brothers; playwrights Moss Hart and George S Kaufman, the legendary Charlie Chaplin, the impresario Billy Rose, the Dessau-born composer Kurt Weill and many more.
In March 1943 Hecht and Bergson staged a pageant, “a mass memorial”, entitled We Will Never Die, at Madison Square Gardens in New York. Hecht’s script stated: “Let them who die helplessly make stronger the arm of all those who fight”.
Hundreds of rabbis recited prayers. Mass choirs chanted lamentations. The drama of Jewish history was recalled. Narratives on the long march of the Jews were read by household names — Jews such as Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni, non-Jews such as Frank Sinatra and Burgess Meredith. The audience of 40,000 was stunned into silence.
We Will Never Die became more than a show title. The pageant was staged in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington and at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.
Hecht’s opponents had staged their own event at Madison Square Gardens the week before. It boasted speeches from luminaries such as Stephen Wise and Chaim Weizmann, a resolution to Franklin D Roosevelt, messages from dignitaries such as the Archbishop of Canterbury. But this tired, uninspiring spectacle could not match the magic of Hollywood. It attracted only half the number of attendees. Even so, as Adina Hoffman notes, Wise managed to block We Will Never Die in Baltimore, Buffalo, Rochester and Kingston.
Never a Zionist, Hecht went on to support the military struggle of Menahem Begin’s Irgun. An Irgun ship, named after Hecht and carrying over 600 displaced persons, tried to run the British blockade of Palestine and was stopped. Its human cargo was interned in Cyprus until 1948.
Hecht died in April 1964 of a heart attack, slumped over a book that he had been reading. He never visited Israel, yet he participated — as a passionate interloper — in momentous events.
In 2003 a group of Irgun veterans presented prime minister Ariel Sharon with a request to move Hecht’s remains to Israel — but with no apparent outcome.
Hecht’s friend, Herman Mankiewicz, was asked in 1945 why he had become so outspoken, so brash, so radical. Mankiewicz responded: “You see, six years ago, Ben found out that he was a Jew — and now he behaves like a six year-old Jew.”
In 1943 Hecht’s words woke up America. If Hollywood then was the lion, then Ben Hecht was undoubtedly its roar.
‘Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures’ by Adina Hoffman has just been published by Yale University Press in its Jewish Lives series.
Jewish Chronicle 24 April 2019