Meet Ben Hecht, Wisecracking Jewish Hero
February 28th marks the 119th birthday of Ben Hecht, the wisecracking genius who invented the screwball comedy and gangster movie, and who raucously upheld the honor of American Jews in WWII.
Blasted into history from a more colorful age, Hecht began his career as a circus acrobat and virtuoso violinist, then seamlessly morphed into Chicago's star crime reporter and the most successful screenwriter in Hollywood history.
I love Hecht for the feast of intelligent entertainment he seemed to effortlessly concoct, from Hitchcock masterpieces like Notorious and Spellbound to Scarface, The Front Page, and the uncredited script of Gone With the Wind.
But I adore Ben Hecht for the incorruptible courage with which he championed the dying Jews of Europe, appalling his fancy Hollywood and New York Jewish friends with his outré chutzpah.
Hecht throbbed with fury at the Germans' murder of "a whole continent" of Jews. His heart, he wrote, "has not wept at all. It has felt only outrage. I doubt if any man has ever felt more."
Passionately, Hecht applied his whirlwind mind to pleading for the rescue of Europe's last Jews, a task he likened to sticking his head into the mouth of a lion. The American Jewish establishment, personified by the self-satisfied Rabbi Stephen Wise, battled him at every turn.
Ben Hecht's fearless antics for his own people would be unusual in any age, but Rabbi Stephen Wise is a familiar contemporary character. Rabbi Wise deeply relished his personal relationship with Franklin Roosevelt. And he refused to jeopardize it by anything so unsporting as asking the president to take action on behalf of his murdered brethren. To speak as a Jew for Jews would render him un-American, Wise feared.
I can see Hecht grinning at this week's pathetic headline, so redolent of Rabbi Wise's cringing: Jewish leaders called to stop opposition to Hagel for Secretary of Defense.
"I was called by major Jewish leaders, personally called, and [they] told me to stop our campaign against Hagel," Morton Klein, president of Zionist Organization of America, told the Jerusalem Post. Klein explained that the Jewish organizations are "frightened of making an issue seem more important to Jews than others," because making it a "Jewish issue" is "bad for the Jews."
Chuck Hagel is a dim-witted, vicious anti-Semite who rails against the "Israel lobby," accuses Israel of keeping "Palestinians caged up like animals," gives anti-Semitic speeches sponsored by Iranian-controlled front groups, and refuses to disclose his ties to Arab organizations. Hecht would have had his number and that of John Brennan, Obama's CIA Chief nominee, who insists on referring to Jerusalem by its Arabic name Al-Quds.
"The long practiced murder of Jews en masse...has not served to alarm our humanists," wrote Hecht in 1943's Guide for the Bedeviled. "To them the murderers of Jews are never murderers. They are misguided patriots, misinformed economists, misdirected pietists...The murder of Jews is like the stealing of nickels. It does not fix a criminal record on its perpetrators."
Hecht was allergic to the political correctness of his day, blasting his accusations at Germans, not Nazis, refusing to acknowledge a difference between the two. I doubt he would have much patience for today's Jewish leaders who tremble behind convoluted locutions of "terrorists" and "radical extremists," instead of clearly calling out Muslims for centuries of violence against Jews.
What did Hecht accomplish with his flaming wartime editorials, screaming full-page newspaper ads, and sold-out, star-studded 1943 Madison Square Garden "pageant," We Will Never Die, which commemorated two million murdered Jews?
If in the words of a famous Jewish teaching, "He who saves a single life, it as if he saved a whole world," then Hecht helped to save 200,000 worlds. Hecht worked closely with Peter Bergson (pseudonym of Hillel Kook), a Zionist activist who came to the US to whip up political support for rescuing Europe's Jews. Many historians credit their partnership with creating the public pressure that finally convinced Roosevelt to establish the War Refugee Board in 1944.
Although the Board's director acknowledged its activities were "little and late," the WRB offered crucial aid to Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg's rescue of thousands of Hungarian Jews. All in all, historians estimate the War Refugee Board saved as many as 200,000 lives.
After the war, Ben Hecht, once again, proved himself the indispensable man. Ignoring the timid tut-tutting of the Jewish establishment, Hecht threw himself into rescuing Holocaust survivors from displacement camps in Europe and sneaking them into British-controlled Palestine. His pageant, A Flag is Born, stirred American sympathy for the creation of Israel. Peter Bergson's Committee used the funds raised by Hecht's pageant to buy a ship that brought Jewish refugees to Palestine. The British captured it, but the S.S. Ben Hecht was eventually reborn as the first ship of the brand-new Israeli Navy.
Whenever I ponder the mystery of Ben Hecht's unique effrontery, I return to his off-hand comment that he was somehow born without the fear of what other people think of him. Even the British boycott of his films failed to deter him. "An empire hitting at a single man and passing sanctions against him!" wrote Hecht. "There was something to swell a writer's bosom and add a notch to his hat size."
Ben Hecht died in New York City in 1964 at age 70. We need his spirit with us now, as our world darkens with violence, anti-Semitism, and threats of nuclear genocide.
And here he is, calling to us from his 1940 Hitchcock film, Foreign Correspondent: "Keep those lights burning, cover them with steel, build them in with guns, build a canopy of battleships and bombing planes around them and, hello, America, hang on to your lights, they're the only lights in the world."