When Marlon Brando Taught the Holocaust

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Marlon Brando is a household name in America, thanks to his Oscar-winning roles in such films as On the Waterfront (1954) and The Godfather (1972). What is not widely known is that Brnado was one of the first public figures in post-World War II America to speak out about the failure of the Allies to aid Europe’s Jews during the Holocaust.

Brando’s platform was the Broadway stage. In the summer of 1946, barely a year after the liberation of the Nazi death camps, 22 year-old Brando co-starred in “A Flag Is Born,” an explosive play authored by Ben Hecht, the famed Hollywood screenwriter and Jewish activist. Set in a cemetery in postwar Europe, “Flag” focuses on two elderly Holocaust survivors, Tevya (Paul Muni) and Zelda (Celia Adler), who encounter Brando’s character, a distraught young Treblinka survivor named David who is on his way to British-ruled Palestine. Through the conversations between Tevya and David, Hecht articulates the Jewish right to the Holy Land and the need for a Jewish state.

The Allies’ failure to rescue Jews from Hitler is one of the play’s underlying themes. As the story begins, the narrator declares: “Out of his burning houses, out of his crematoriums and lime pits, the Jew of Europe looked on a murderer called the German. But beyond this murder face of the German were other nation-faces to be seen–dim and watchful faces whose silence was a brother of murder … When the six million were murdered in the furnaces and gas chambers of the German, these cries were in their throats: ‘Where is Humanity? Where is the goodness of man that we helped create? Where are my friends?’ ”

During the play, Brando’s character speaks of the world’s silence while the Nazis “made a garbage pile of my people.” He also raises pointed questions about the response of Jews in the Free World. One of the most memorable scenes has Brando’s character addressing the Jews of the United States and Great Britain. Beginning in a quiet voice and then growing louder, Brando demands: “Where were you, Jews? Where were you when the killing was going on?… Where was your voice crying out against the slaughter? We didn’t hear any voice. There was no voice. You Jews of America! You Jews of England! Strong Jews, rich Jews, high-up Jews; Jews of power and genius! Where was your cry of rage that could have filled the world and stopped the fires? Nowhere! Because you were ashamed to cry out as Jews.”

The accusation “sent chills through the audience,” Brando later 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.”

The words Brando spoke in the play were written by Hecht, but Brando shared the playwright’s assessment of how the world responded to the Holocaust. In his memoirs, Brando describes how he learned about Jewish issues from Hecht and especially from his acting coach, Stella Adler. He quickly developed a strong sympathy for their cause, and performed in “A Flag is Born” at the minimum actors’ guild wage as a gesture of solidarity.

And Brando championed the Jewish cause offstage, as well. Hecht and Adler were active in the American League for a Free Palestine, better known as the Bergson Group (after its leader, Peter Bergson), which sponsored the play and, after ten weeks on Broadway, staged it in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, and elsewhere. Brando not only performed in the play, but became, as he put it, “a kind of traveling salesman” for the Bergson Group, speaking at numerous rallies and meetings. In city after city, the young actor spoke to audiences about the international community’s silence during the Holocaust, the plight of Holocaust survivors languishing in Europe’s Displaced Persons camps, and the need for a Jewish state.

The American Century Theater of Arlington, Virginia, which recreates classic American plays, has just launched a new production of “A Flag is Born.” After more than fifty years, the powerful words that Marlon Brando first spoke are again being heard on the American stage. As we commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day this April 18, the echoes of Ben Hecht’s play remind us that there are many ways to teach about the Holocaust, and theatrical drama can serve as a powerful educational tool. Marlon Brando proved that in 1946, when he was one of the first to confront postwar America with the hard questions about the Holocaust that need to be asked again and again.

April 2004