Remembering two forgotten heroes: Ben Hecht and Peter Bergson

The news of the Jewish genocide in Europe was mostly ignored, except by two men whose lives are largely forgotten: an acclaimed American-Jewish playwright and an underground fighter in pre-state Israel.

Ben Hecht. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Ben Hecht. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Steve Frank
Steve Frank
Steve Frank is an attorney, retired after a 30-year career as an appellate lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. His writings on Israel, the law and architecture have appeared in numerous publications, including “The Washington Post,” “The Chicago Tribune,” “The Jerusalem Post,” “The Times of Israel” and “Moment” magazine.

On Nov. 25, 1942, a five-paragraph article, buried on page 10 of The New York Times, confirmed the deaths at that time of 2 million Jews in Nazi-controlled Europe and warned of the perilous plight of the remaining 4 million. The final solution was no longer a secret, if it ever had been.

The news was, for the most part, ignored, except by two men whose lives are largely forgotten now: Ben Hecht, an acclaimed American-Jewish playwright, and Peter Bergson, an underground fighter in pre-state Israel. They joined forces to produce a pageant in Madison Square Garden in March 1943 designed to save the 4 million Jews still alive under Nazi occupation.

It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on who they were and what they tried to do.

The dreadful fate of the Jews of Europe was hardly hidden. Adolf Hitler’s genocidal plans for the Jews were foreshadowed in his autobiography Mein Kamp as early as 1925. Once he became chancellor of Germany in 1933, he implemented his plan in stages.

The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 stripped Jews of their citizenship and all civil rights. Jewish businesses were ransacked and set on fire during Kristallnacht (the “Night of Broken Glass”) in November 1938. Ghettos and labor camps were created across German-occupied Europe to facilitate the deportations to the death camps to come. The extermination of Jews, the “Final Solution,” was approved by senior Nazi officials at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin in January 1942.

Although it had long been suspected, news of the final solution was officially confirmed to the outside world via a telegram sent on Aug. 8, 1942 by Gerhard Riegner, the World Jewish Congress representative in Geneva, to the U.S. government. The cable confirmed the deaths of 2 million Jews in Europe thus far and revealed the existence of a comprehensive German plan to murder the remaining 4 million Jews of Europe.

The reaction to this momentous news in the United States was general indifference. The U.S. State Department initially sought to block the news and prevailed upon Rabbi Stephen Wise, a prominent Jewish leader—who had also received a copy of the cable—to remain quiet.

When the news finally was made public 78 years ago this week, it was relegated to back pages of major newspapers, and the Roosevelt administration abandoned the remaining Jews to their gruesome fate. The appalling apathy of the American government, the media and American-Jewish leaders towards the plight of the Jews in Europe has been well documented in such books as While Six Million Died, The Abandonment of the Jews, Buried by the Times and, most recently, The Jews Should be Quiet.

When the world ignored the dire warning of the Riegner cable, the stage was set for the execution of the final solution.

Enter Hecht and Bergson.

Peter Bergson. Credit: Wikipedia.

At the time, Hecht was an acclaimed American screenwriter, director, producer, playwright, journalist and novelist. He wrote 35 books (including his celebrated autobiography, A Child of the Century) and well more than 70 of the most entertaining screenplays and plays in America. These included: “Front Page,” “Scarface,” “It’s a Wonderful World,” Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” and “Notorious,” “The Shop Around the Corner,” “Foreign Correspondent,” “The Sun Also Rises,” “Mutiny on the Bounty,” “Casino Royale,” “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “Gone With the Wind.”

He was nominated for six Academy Awards and won twice. The Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Screenwriters calls him “one of the most successful screenwriters in the history of motion pictures.”

A secular Jew, born of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Hecht joked that he “became a Jew” only in 1939. This was when he met Bergson, a leader of the Irgun underground militia determined to recreate a Jewish state in the ancient homeland of Israel.

Bergson, a charismatic 25-year-old and nephew of Israel’s first chief rabbi, had come to America to promote the muscular Revisionist Zionism of Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky and to raise awareness about the plight of Jews during the Holocaust. He sensed a potential ally in Hecht and reached out and arranged a meeting at the 21 Club, Hecht’s favorite Manhattan hangout. A “force of nature” with a “small blonde mustache, an English accent and a voice inclined to squeak under excitement” was Hecht’s impression of Bergson after that first encounter. They were an odd couple, but a perfect match, the screenwriter and the promoter.

On March 9, 1943, just months after the Riegner telegram had warned the world of the imminent threat to the remaining Jews of Europe, the Bergson Group produced the lavish afore-mentioned pageant in Madison Square Garden, written by Ben Hecht, titled “We Will Never Die,” memorializing the Jews who had already been murdered.

The show was directed by Moss Hart and featured a full orchestra, a choir, lavish scenery and a gigantic cast of more than 1,000 performers, including Paul Muni, Edgar G. Robinson, Frank Sinatra and Sylvia Sidney. Music was provided by noted German composer Kurt Weil. Demand for tickets was so high that they put on an extra performance and broadcast it through loudspeakers to a crowd of 20,000 that gathered outside the sold-out venue.

Forty thousand people saw the pageant that first night, and it went on to play in five other major cities, including Washington, D.C., where First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, six Supreme Court justices and some 300 members of Congress watched it.

In spite of the momentary popularity of their pageant, Hecht and Bergson were disappointed in the results. As composer Weill noted afterwards: “The pageant has accomplished nothing. Actually, all we have done is make a lot of Jews cry, which is not a unique accomplishment.”

Hecht later wrote in A Child of the Century: “The Americanized Jews who ran newspapers and movie studios, who wrote plays and novels, who were high in government and powerful in the financial, industrial and even social life of the nation, were silent.”

Towards the end of the war, the Roosevelt administration even refused to bomb the railroad tracks leading to the gas chambers. The remnants of Europe’s Jews were lost to history.

Following the war, Hecht’s 1946 play, “A Flag is Born,” featuring Paul Muni and an unknown Marlon Brando, who played a Treblinka survivor, helped finance the purchase of a ship, renamed the SS Ben Hecht, which made a 1947 voyage to Israel with 800 survivors. The ship was intercepted on the way to Palestine by the British, and the passengers were interned on the island of Cyprus.

Hecht, whose career in Manhattan and Hollywood had climbed to new heights of success in the 1930s, sabotaged his professional life by castigating the United States for failing to stop the Holocaust. In 1964, he died suddenly of a heart attack at age 70 in New York and was eulogized by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who said: “Ben Hecht wielded his pen like a drawn sword.”

Bergson served in Israel’s first Knesset (parliament) but eventually grew disillusioned with politics. He was especially disappointed with Israel’s failure to write a constitution to protect the rights of all Israeli citizens, Arabs and Jews. Until his death at age 86 outside Tel Aviv in 2001, he continued his campaign for an Israeli constitution built on a strong division between synagogue and state.

Since the end of the Holocaust, the slogan “never again” has been popular. And yet, twice in our lifetime, millions of Jews have been threatened with extinction—during the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War—while the world stood idly by as it did during the Shoah. Even today, the anti-Semitic regime in Iran repeatedly threatens to annihilate Israel and its now 6.8 million Jews. And the incoming Biden administration promises to reengage with Iran.

Where are the Ben Hechts and Peter Bergsons of today?

Steve Frank is an attorney, retired after a 30-year career as an appellate lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. His writings on Israel, the law and architecture have appeared in numerous publications, including “The Washington Post,” “The Chicago Tribune,” “The Jerusalem Post,” “The Times of Israel” and “Moment” magazine.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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