by Dr. Rafael Medoff
During the Hitler era, only a handful of American writers used their pens to alert the public about the dangers of Nazism and the need for U.S. intervention to rescue Europe’s Jews. By an unusual coincidence, three of those writers have been in the news in recent days, each providing a reminder to our own generation of the need to speak out against injustice.
One is Kathrine Kressman, whose 1938 novel about the perils of Nazism, “Address Unknown,” has been adapted for the theater and has just opened on Broadway. Fictional but inspired by the author’s real-life experiences, it tells the story of two German-born friends living in California, one Jewish, one Christian. The latter returns to Germany after the rise of Hitler and, in a chilling depiction of the seductive power of totalitarianism, gradually embraces Nazism.
The New York Times called Address Unknown “the most effective indictment of Nazism to appear in fiction.” Kressman became known as “the woman who jolted America,” an ironic label since when it first appeared in Story Magazine, the editor considered it too explosive to appear with a woman’s byline, and insisted she use the name Kressman Taylor. In the afterword to the book, Kressman (who passed away in 1996) explained that she “wanted to show the American public what happens to real, living people swept up in a warped ideology.” Perhaps it is no surprise that Azar Nafisi, author of the expose of Islamic totalitarianism, Reading Lolita in Tehran, has mentioned Address Unknown as one of her favorite books.
Also in the news recently was Melvin J. Lasky, longtime editor of the influential liberal anticommunist journals Encounter and Der Monat, who passed away last month at age 84.
The obituaries noted Lasky’s role as a literary fighter against totalitarianism during the post World War II era. What is not widely remembered, however, is that during the war itself, Lasky was one of the few writers to publicly criticize the Roosevelt administration for its refusal to rescue Jews from Hitler. In the pages of The New Leader (of which he was literary editor) on October 23, 1943, Lasky authored an extraordinary J’Accuse, which he titled “The Shame of a World.” He condemned the Allies’ response to the Nazi genocide as “sympathetic mumbo-jumbo and do-nothingism.” Millions of Jews were being murdered, and the most they could expect was “obituary notices” from “eloquent and self-righteous” Allied political leaders, who were motivated “partly out of fear and ignorance, out of weary everyday conservatism, and out of a disgraceful moral emptiness.”
“The continent has become a vast cemetery for a whole people,” Lasky wrote. “Relatives and friends will cry and mourn and remember, [but] for the rest, the terrible shame of a world will be forgotten.” He was mistaken. It will not be forgotten–thanks to the courageous few who lifted their voices and tried to make a difference.
The third Holocaust-era writer whose name is back in the news is Ben Hecht (1894-1964), the journalist, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, and Academy Award-winning Hollywood screenwriter. Hecht set aside his lucrative career to devote himself to the cause of rescuing Jews from the Holocaust. Working closely with the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe (better known as the Bergson group), Hecht authored a dramatic pageant, We Will Never Die, to raise public awareness of the Nazi genocide. It was viewed by over 40,000 people in its opening performances at Madison Square Garden in March 1943, then was staged in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, D.C. –where the audience included First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and several hundred Members of Congress– and the Hollywood Bowl. Hecht also authored a series of stunning full-page newspaper ads to publicize the Nazi atrocities and press the Allies to intervene.
During the past year, Hecht’s ‘political theater’ has received some long overdue recognition. On Capitol Hill, an event commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of We Will Never Die was held in the House Judiciary Committee meeting room, with readings from the script by original cast members and Members of Congress. Meanwhile, the American Century Theater staged a re-creation of Hecht’s “A Flag is Born,” his powerful 1946 play about Holocaust survivors trying to reach Palestine.
Now Hecht’s rescue activity will be commemorated with a public ceremony in Chicago on June 29, at which part of Walton Street will be designated “Ben Hecht Way.” Appropriately, the street is located directly in front of the famed Newberry Library, where Hecht’s manuscripts and correspondence are housed.
Kressman. Lasky. Hecht. Three voices of courage in a time of terror. Three brave Americans who deserve to be remembered.