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A Child of the Century

by Ben Hecht

The Reader’s Digest Magazine broke the American silence attending the massacre of the Jews in February 1943. It printed my article called “Remember Us,” based on Dr. Greenberg’s data.

Reading it in the magazine, I thought of a larger idea and set out to test its practicality. Thirty famous writers (and one composer) were assembled at George Kaufman’s house by my friend, his wife Beatrice. All had written hit plays or successful novels. Put their names together and you had the box-office flower of American culture. In addition to success, wit and influence, they had in common the fact that they were all Jews.

I had said to Bea that thirty New York dinner guests might save the surviving four million Jews in Europe. The first massacre scores had come in: dead Jews –two million; anti-Germany butchery protests–none.

I looked eagerly at the thirty celebrities in Bea’s drawing room. Some were friends, some enemies. Some wrote like artists (almost), some like clodhoppers. Some were insufferably fatheaded, some psychotically shy. But such variation was unimportant. Bold, shy, Shakespeare or Boom McNutt–they had a great common virtue. They could command the press of the world.

What would happen if these brilliant Jews cried out with passion against the German butchers? If these socially and artistically celebrated Jews spoke up in rage at the murder of their people? How they could dramatize the German crime! How loudly they could represent the nightmare to America and the world!

When we sat with coffee cups, Bea said to me, “Why not talk to them now, before they start playing games or something?”

I recited all the facts I knew about the Jewish killings. I said I felt certain that if we banded together and let loose our talents and our moral passion against the Germans we might halt the massacre. The Germans now believed that the civilized world looked with indifference on their extermination of Europe’s Jews. How could they think anything else? Had anybody (but the biased kinsmen of the victims) protested? Had England’s great humanitarian, Churchill, spoken? Or our great keeper of the rights of man–Roosevelt? No, nary a word out of either of these politically haloed gentlemen. And out of that third champion of all underdogs–Stalin–no more hint of Jews than if they had all bowed out with Moses.

Consider (this was part of my speech to the thirty Jewish geniuses of New York City), consider what would happen to the Germans if they were to hear that their crime was sickening the world! If a roar of horror swept the civilized earth and echoed into the land that was once Goethe’s and Beethoven’s! Imagine the effect on the descendants of Schiller, Wagner, Kant, Hegel, etc., etc., were they to hear a universal shout go up! “You are not heroes. You are monsters.”

And to back up my theory I wheeled out my sole exhibit–the King of little Denmark. Peter Freuchen, the writer and explorer, had told me the story. He had been in Copenhagen at the time the Germans announced they were going to “clean” Denmark of Jews. The King of Denmark, with the German heel on his neck, had answered that the Danes would never stand for this crime against humanity. He had put the yellow armband identifying Jews on his own sleeve and requested his people to do the same. They did. The Jews of Denmark went on living, protected by the moral passion of an otherwise powerless king.

I concluded with another argument. I said that an outcry against the massacre would have an important effect on the British. The British were not a bloodthirsty, murderous people. If they heard that millions of Jews had already been murdered, and that the Germans planned to kill the four million still left breathing in Europe, and that most of these still-breathing Jews could be saved if the ports of Palestine were opened, the British, fine, decent people that they were, would certainly not continue to collaborate with the Germans on the extermination of the four million surviving Jews.

There was no applause when I stopped talking. Not that I expected any. The authors of hit plays and novels are more interested in receiving applause than in giving it. But the nature of the silence was revealed to me when a half-dozen of the guests stood up and without saying “Boo” walked out of the room.

“It looks like I struck out,” I said to my hostess as the silence kept up.
Edna Ferber’s voice rose sharply. “Who is paying you to do this wretched propaganda,” she demanded, “Mister Hitler? Or is it Mister Goebbels?” Her query started irritated and angry talk. The anger and irritation were against me.

In the vestibule, Beatrice said to me, “I’m sorry it turned out like this. But I didn’t expect anything much different. You asked them to throw away the most valuable thing they own–the fact that they are Americans.”

How argue with Beatrice, a fine woman with as bright a mind and as soft a heart as anyone I knew? How convince any of her high-faluting guests that they had not behaved like Americans but like scared Jews? And what in God’s name were they frightened of? Of people realizing they were Jews? But people knew that already. Of people hearing that they had Jewish hearts? What kind of hearts did they imagine people thought Jews had, non-Jewish hearts? Or did they think they would be mistaken for “real” Americans if they proved they had no hearts at all? Two of the thirty guests came into the vestibule to say good night to me.

“I thought I’d tell you that if I can do anything definite in the way of Jewish propaganda call on me,” said Moss Hart.

Kurt Weill, the lone composer present, looked at me with misty eyes. A radiance was in his strong face.

“Please count on me for everything,” Kurt said. (Hecht, Moss and Weill would cooperate in creating the pageant “We Shall Never Die” which was staged in Madison Square Garden. The three were joined by showman Billy Rose of whom Hecht writes “A third Jew soon joined us–Billy Rose. He needed no briefing. He came under his own steam, which was considerable.”)

I am likely to sound rather immodest in this chapter, but truth is truth, and a man should not be afraid to speak it even if it embarrasses him. My activities quickly produced a new Jewish battle cry. And not only in New York but in Chicago, Boston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, San Francisco and even in London. This new Jewish battle cry was “Down with Ben Hecht.” It came roaring from synagogue pulpits (reformed ones). It filled the Jewish press and the Jewish magazines. I can still see the headlines in the American Jewish Congress Monthly and other such periodicals. They identified me as the American Goebbels, as Hitler’s Hired Stooge, as the Broadway Racketeer Growing Rich on Jewish Misery, and this and that.

The first Jewish outbursts against me remained, actually, unknown to me. I was too busy getting the pageant ready….

I first became aware that there was annoyance with me among the Jews when Rabbi Stephen Wise, head of the Jews of New York, head of the Zionists and, as I knew from reading the papers, head of almost everything noble in American Jewry, telephoned me at the Algonquin Hotel where I had pitched my Hebrew tent.

Rabbi Wise said he would like to see me immediately in his rectory. His voice, which was sonorous and impressive, irritated me. I had never known a man with a sonorous and impressive voice who wasn’t either a con man or a bad actor. I explained I was very busy and unable to step out of my hotel.

“Then I shall tell you now, over the telephone, what I had hoped to tell you in my study,” said Rabbi Wise. “I have read your pageant script and I disapprove of it. I must ask you to cancel this pageant and discontinue all your further activities in behalf of the Jews. If you wish hereafter to work for the Jewish Cause, you will please consult me and let me advise you.”

At this point I hung up. When I informed Bergson of Rabbi Wise’s fatheadedness, he answered moodily, “We’ll have to get the spies out of our organization. There are obviously people among us carrying information and documents to the enemy.”

I was confused by the word enemy. I had up to that moment been thinking only of an enemy with a swastika.

Another hint of the new battle cry hatching among American Jews came to me during one of the pageant rehearsals.

“We are having a little trouble with the B’nai Brith,” Bergson said. “I think you ought to know about it.”

“Yes, indeed, Mr. Ben Hecht,” Merlin added, at his side.

I knew only of the B’nai Brith that my uncles belonged to it, when they were able to pay dues. And I remembered that my father had scorned it–preferring the Loyal Order of Moose, The Modern Redmen, The Knights of Pythias and the all-wise B.P.O.E.–the Elks.

“The B’nai Brith,” Peter said to my surprise, “demands that we do not place your latest propaganda advertisement in the newspaper–the one attacking the American State Department. They say that if we print such a full page ad in the Times, the American State Department will raise Hell with the Jews of America.”

The ad under discussion was in rhyme and was called, Ballad of the Doomed Jews of Europe.” Its refrain ran:

Hang and burn, but be quiet, Jews,
The world is busy with other news.

Some further lines stated that by Christmastime all the Christians could enjoy their peace on earth without the Jews, who would all be killed by that time.

“Judge Proskauer, who is president of the American Jewish Committee and a very educated gentleman,” said Peter, who had learned wisely never to take my knowledge of Jewish affairs for granted, “states that such an anti-Christian attitude could well bring on Jewish pogroms in the U.S.A.”

“What is your opinion of Justice Proskauer’s theory?” Merlin asked, puffing aloofly on his pipe.

“You can tell Judge Proskauer for me,” I answered, “to go gazump himself.”

“Very good,” said Merlin. “I think your approach is correct, Mr. Ben Hecht.”

“We will print the ad and not bother you about it any more,” said Peter Bergson.

Since the only reason for putting on our pageant, “We Will Never Die,” was to call attention to the massacre of the Jews by the Germans, I said to Peter Bergson one day, “We’re wasting time doing this pageant. It’s actually no more than playing house. What we should do is get President Roosevelt to inform the Germans that if they keep on killing Jews, they’ll be held responsible and treated as criminals after they’re licked in the war. Such a pronouncement from Roosevelt would be worth a thousand pageants.”

“It’s a sound philosophic idea,” said Peter, “but it isn’t practical.”

I argued angrily. My friend waited till I was done and then, as if he were addressing the House of Lords in London (once his favorite visiting place), said, “The United States has a secret pact with Great Britain concerning the future of Palestine. It is intended to belong to the British. President Roosevelt will do nothing to violate that pact. He will not speak of Jews being massacred because that might excite popular opinion to rescue them–and result in their being sent to Palestine as a haven, which would be a violation of this pact.”

“Pact, my eye,” I answered. “I’m sick of our theorizing. A single practical gesture can blow theories to hell in a moment”…..

“You have never understood the White Paper. The British White Paper closed the ports of Palestine, openly and officially, to the Jews. All the Jews of the world protested–even the Zionists. When the British refused utterly to listen, every important Jew there was appealed to Roosevelt. He turned them all down worse than the British had done. They were told that President Roosevelt was too busy being the head of a nation to be bothered with saving Jews from a mythical pogrom.”

“Roosevelt can’t call it mythical any more,” I said. “Don’t tell me that a man who is the leader of the world’s humanitarians is going to turn his nose up at the slaughter of an innocent race.”

“I’ll check with Washington,” said Peter, “and see if Mr. Roosevelt’s point of view has altered. I know his chief secretary, David Niles. He’s a fine fellow and also a Jew. But don’t call off the pageant yet.”

Two days later, I was informed by David Niles that President Roosevelt would not make a speech or issue a statement denouncing the Germans for the massacre of the Jews.

“Let’s forget about Roosevelt and devote ourselves to your pageant,” said Peter.

The next morning, Billy Rose called up Albany and spoke to Governor Dewey. He asked the governor to declare the day of our pageant an official day of mourning for the State of New York, in memory of the Jews killed by the Germans. Mr. Dewey agreed and said he would issue such a proclamation to the press.

At noon, the next day, Governor Dewey’s secretary called up and said that Rabbi Stephen Wise had brought a delegation of twelve important Jews to Albany and obtained an audience with the governor. At this audience, Rabbi Wise tried to induce Dewey to cancel his “Day of Mourning” proclamation. He had stated, said the secretary, that Governor Dewey was likely to lose most of his Jewish vote in New York City if he did not break with the “dangerous and irresponsible racketeers who are bringing terrible disgrace on our already harassed people.” The secretary concluded that we could no longer be certain of the governor’s promised action, and hung up.

Billy and I discussed how best to win the governor back to our side. We decided to do nothing and let Dewey wrestle himself out of his dilemma.

Two days later, Governor Dewey issued the proclamation declaring the day of our pageant an official day of mourning for the State of New York in memory of the massacred Jews of Europe.

“We Will Never Die” played two performances in its one night in Madison Square Garden. Some forty thousand people squeezed in to witness it. Another twenty -thousand crossed the streets outside and listened to the performance and Kurt Weill’s great music piped over loud speakers.

A few weeks later, the pageant played Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, St. Louis and Los Angeles. Our victory was more than weeping and cheering audiences. The news and pictures of our pageant in the press were the first American newspaper reports on the Jewish massacre in Europe.

The Jews who came out to battle the hundred thousand British soldiers encamped in Palestine consisted of two groups, the Irgun and an outfit called, sneeringly, “The Stern Gang.” Jointly the two groups numbered less than three thousand men and women, almost as primitively armed as had been the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto.

If I discontinue reference here to the Sternists and write now only of the Irgun, it is not because there was anything less deserving about the Sternists. They were as valorous and nobly inspired a group of human beings as I have ever met in history.

But it is the Irgun I know. News of every gun it fired, every barrel of dynamite it exploded, of every arsenal it looted and railroad train it tipped over was brought to me in secret communiques, some of them hidden in cigarette packages. I never read news with a more pounding heart. I had had no interest in Palestine ever becoming a homeland for Jews. Now I had, suddenly, interest in little else.

Here were Jews finally fighting for their own honor and not someone else’s–usually their enemy’s. You could ask for nothing more novel than that as a piece of Jewish news.

But the fact that they were willing to fight and die for the liberation of a land they called their own was not the great fact to me. Valor had not been missing in the long tale of the Jews. They had stood up often in alien parts of the earth and died memorably.

The great fact was that here were Jews with a new soul, or possibly, an old one returned. They did not dream of victory as a thing to be won by a tearful parade of their virtues. (Good God, how tired the goyim of Europe must have become of hearing how good their victim was!)….

As the deeds of the Irgun increased, a drama of dual courage came out of Palestine. It was the courage of a handful of young Jews hurling themselves onto the bayonets and gallows of the British. And it was also the courage of standing up against the roar of invective set up by the Jews of all the lands–including the one for whose liberation they were battling. Here, fanned by the Socialist Ben-Gurion and the Zionist Weizmann, the Jewish bitterness against the Irgunists sounded its fiercest snorts.

The astonishing cry of all these Jews was that the Irgun was shaming and disgracing Jewry. What curious things cowardice always figures out as shameful and disgraceful! Organized Jewry had felt no shame in failing to send a dollar’s worth of help to the thirty thousand Jews who fought and died for the honor of all Jews in the Warsaw ghetto. But here in the Holy Land where young Jews were bravely standing up to a mighty enemy–here was disgrace!

In Tel Aviv, the Socialist Jews led by Ben-Gurion, the Zionists and Jewish Agency-ites, all scampered eagerly to British headquarters to protest their own innocence, and to prove it by betraying Irgun hiding places to British Intelligence. British troops with names and addresses in hand, supplied by these Jewish organizations, arrived at secret stores of Irgun bullets and seized them, marched straight to the hideaways of the bravest and cleverest of the Irgun warriors, and arrested them.

The men betrayed by Ben-Gurion’s Socialists and the Zionists were sent off to desert concentration camps or hanged on Palestinian gallows….

Betraying Jewish fighters to the British was not enough for the Ben-Gurion-Weizmann contingent. The fighters must also be betrayed to the world, before the world took to looking on them as Jewish heroes, and took to looking on the other, non-fighting, back-pedaling Jews as something else. Ben-Gurion launched a rear-guard action at the Irgun. He was the first to denounce the Jewish fighters as a gang of terrorists. They were, he said, a small criminal element that must be stamped out by Jews as well as by the British–or no Jew would ever be able to hold his head up again among decent people. Thus spoke the political boss of Palestine.
The name Terrorists became overnight the favorite epithet that all the Jews of the world took to hurling at the fighting Jewish troops. American and Jewish newspapers alike chronicled the Irgun’s deeds of valor as the scurvy antics of hoodlums and gangsters. At last the complications of Jewish thought and argument became quite clear to me. In this year, 1947, their hundreds of arguing schools had dwindled to two simple sects –the Terrorists and the Terrified. Alas, how more numerous and popular the latter lot was!

The British propagandists needed hardly to bestir themselves. The press of the world–Christian, Jewish and Moslem–hailed the Goliath of the hundred thousand British soldiers as the forces of peace and order. The handful of Jewish patriots who moved against the British Giant with hardly more than David’s slingshot in their hands were the Terrorists.

I sat in the garden at the summer’s end reading letters that had accumulated while I was in the hospital. There were barrels of them, and they were from Jews….The love in all of them was a tonic that made my sawed-up insides feel firm again….

Peter Bergson was walking down the path. He always had a springy step and a cheery look as if he had just inherited something. He usually had–trouble. But he was bringing me no troubles this time.

Behind him walked a tall man with bulging shoulders, heavy hands, bushy brows and a smile. I had never seen his picture but I knew who he was.

“This is Abrasha Stavsky,” said Peter.

Stavsky, the Rescuer, stood smiling in my garden. Like all heroes he looked shy in a peaceful place. He remained standing and silent as Peter sat down and talked.

Peter had interesting news, but Stavsky was more interesting. His adventures sounded around him like the echo of horns on a hill. The Pirate of the Mediterranean! But no pirate had ever looked like this. His face was a shade brighter than most men’s faces, as if his soul were nearer its surface….

Stavsky waited until we both had stopped talking and then modestly handed me the front page of a Jewish newspaper. It was a page almost coming apart at its creases.

“I can’t read Yiddish,” I said.

“It’s a foolish old story,” said Peter, “but Abrasha insists you ought to know it, so that if you mention his name sometime and somebody says, ‘Oh, Stavsky! That’s the murderer who was sentenced to be hanged in Palestine,’ you’ll not be surprised.”

“Is this the story of his trial?” I asked.

“No,” said Peter. “It’s the full account of his final acquittal. But you must have heard the story. It tore all Palestine apart fifteen years ago.”

I shook my head. It seemed that however informed I became about Jews, there were always vital matters still strange to me. I write the story now of Stavsky’s march to the gallows and down again because I shall have to refer to it, briefly, after Stavsky’s return to Palestine.

It was 1933. A Labor Zionist leader named Arlosoroff was strolling along the beach in Tel Aviv with his wife. He was a man little liked in the land, except by labor leader Ben-Gurion. Arlosoroff, representing the Jewish Agency, had signed a deal with the Nazis. (This was before the massacre.) Jews would be allowed to take their fortunes out of Germany in the form of manufactured German goods. Thus Palestine was to become the biggest outlet in the world for Nazi industry. The young Palestinians called Revisionists did not approve of this.

Arlosoroff was shot and killed while strolling on the beach. Madam Arlosoroff ran to the police with the news that a group of Arabs had attacked and murdered her husband.

Abrasha Stavsky was immediately arrested. He was no group of Arabs, but he was a man feared and hated by politician Ben-Gurion.

At the trial, Madam Arlosoroff falteringly changed her story and introduced a tall man as her husband’s assassin. The four judges voted a three-to-one verdict. The one Arab and two Englishmen judges were for hanging Stavsky. The one Jewish judge voted that Stavsky was an innocent man. Under British rule, a three-to-one decision of the court was considered unanimous. How else could justice ever have been served in Palestine, with the fourth judge always a Jew?

“Abrasha waited for several months to be hanged,” said Peter. “But the case went to a court of appeal, and he was acquitted. I think the angriest man in the whole Near East on the day of Abrasha’s acquittal was David Ben-Gurion.”

“Did you kill Arlosoroff?” I asked my tall guest.

“No,” said Stavsky. “I have never killed a Jew.”

It was growing dark and we went into the house. Stavsky walked up and down in my room, making it look small. I had looked forward for years to hearing Stavsky’s stories, but I was not disappointed when he failed to start on a single one of them. You didn’t need to hear Stavsky talk. The twenty thousand Jews he had somehow pulled out of the German ovens and taken to Palestine seemed to speak for him–from the crowded decks of the Stavsky fleet. What a fleet it had been! Limping tubs, discarded “bottoms,” riffraff hulls with engine rooms steaming like Turkish baths. I had read some of their fine names, for all ships however foolish cling to proud names–Artemis, Star of Panama, Parita, Columbia, Naomi, Sakarya.

For fifteen years, Stavsky had worked like some Jewish Saint Christopher, ferrying the unexterminated Jews to Palestine–on boats, on rafts, on his broad back. Look at him closely now and you could still feel his passengers watching him. Not the tempest roaring around them, or the British warship firing on them, or the shadows moving in the water that might be mines–but always Stavsky. One frown on Stavsky’s face meant that the last hope was gone. I knew where Stavsky had grown his smile.

“I hear Peter’s buying a new ocean liner,” I said, “and calling it the Altalena.”

“It was one of Jabotinsky’s pen names,” said Peter, “We plan to use it for the Hebrew navy.”

At the name Altalena, Stavsky stopped being a guest. He became a happy man. He poured himself a full tumbler of whisky and drank it thirstily, as if it were pop.

“The Altalena will carry a thousand soldiers to Palestine,” said Peter, “and millions of dollars’ worth of armament.”

“For the Irgun?” I asked.

“No,” said Peter. “For the combined Hebrew armies of the Haganah and the Irgun.” And then Peter uttered the fateful words, “With this cargo the Jews can win a nation—a real Hebrew state. They won’t have to stop when they’ve chopped out a little desert ghetto for themselves.”

Peter and I spent the evening in talk. But I watched Stavsky as he stood looking in silence at the moon over the Hudson. He was easier to understand than words. Abrasha Stavsky was dreaming on his feet, as he had dreamed most of his life on slippery decks packed with white-faced Jewish refugees. He was dreaming of a Jewish land, strong and proud as himself….

But, alas, for dreams. For a child of man to look back on them is like looking back on a dog run over on a highway.

We were three bright lads in this room, full of varied information about Jews, past and future. But none of us knew that Stavsky’s dream had already been run over on its road. We did not know that the pre-battle surrender had been determined. As the Weizmann-Ben Gurion government had bowed to the British tyrant, so they knelt now to their new master–the United Nations.

The Jewish government had called for the Irgun to help it stay alive against five enemy armies. But they would never dare welcome an Altalena loaded with enough arms to rescue beleaguered Jerusalem or to enable an army of victorious young Hebrews to sweep through Eretz-Israel and win the land on both sides of the Jordan! There would be no Hebrew nation, no room for cattle and grain, no cities, no freight yards, no ancient capital revived, no space for industry or destiny. There would be a beachhead called Israel, to which the Jews could cling, as they had always clung, like castaways.

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