A Zionist Play That Changed History

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

From his earliest days on the stage and screen, Marlon Brando was a heartthrob who was accustomed to young women responding emotionally to his performances. But the frenzy Brando stirred with his role in the 1946 play, “A Flag is Born,” was a different kind of emotion than the one to which he was accustomed.

Portraying a Holocaust survivor who criticizes American Jewry’s response to the Holocaust, Brando’s character shouts: “You Jews of America! Where was your cry of rage that could have filled the world and stopped the fires?” That 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 overcome 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,” Brando later wrote. “Some argued that they should have applied pressure on President Roosevelt to bomb Auschwitz, for example–so the speech touched a sensitive nerve.”

“A Flag is Born,” which premiered on Broadway sixty years ago today, was the creation of Academy Award winner Ben Hecht, perhaps the most celebrated screenwriter in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s. His credits included such blockbuster movies as “Gone With the Wind” and “Scarface.”

When news of Hitler’s intensified persecution of European Jewry began reaching the West in 1941-1942, Hecht joined the Bergson Group, a New York-based activist group that lobbied for the rescue of Jewish refugees and the creation of a Jewish state. The group made waves with its use of protest tactics that were unusual for that era, including full-page newspaper ads, theater productions, and a march by four hundred rabbis to the White House.

The group’s leader was 27 year-old Hillel Kook, a nephew of Palestine’s Chief Rabbi, Abraham Isaac Kook. As an Irgun Zvai Leumi activist, Kook helped defend Jerusalem against Palestinian Arab rioters in 1936, then spent several years in Poland, organizing Jewish immigration to Palestine in defiance of British restrictions. In 1940, Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky sent him to the U.S., where he adopted the pseudonym “Peter Bergson” to shield his family from the controversies generated by his political activity.

“My father had an amazing talent for thinking up new ways to get his message across,” said Bergson’s daughter, Dr. Rebecca Kook, a lecturer in political science at Ben-Gurion University. “He was able to think outside the box, at a time when too many Jewish leaders were mired in a business-as-usual mindset that was not at all suited for the crises the Jewish people faced.”

Hecht recruited numerous celebrities to join Bergson’s group, including the Adlers, the ‘first family’ of the Yiddish theater, and they were central to “A Flag is Born.” Luther Adler directed the play. His half-sister Celia and another Yiddish star, Paul Muni, costarred as elderly Holocaust survivors, making their way across postwar Europe. Their sister Stella, the statuesque actress and acting coach, alternated in the role of narrator with journalist Quentin Reynolds.

Stella’s most promising student, 22 year-old Marlon Brando, was cast in the role of David, a passionate young Zionist who encounters the elderly couple in a cemetery. “When my mother came home from the first rehearsal, she said of Brando, ‘I can’t remember his name, but boy, is he talented’,” recalled Celia Adler’s son, Selwyn Freed, a retired professor of urology.

“Brando, Muni, Adler –wow, what producer wouldn’t want a cast like that? It was a dream come true,” said former Broadway producer John Martello, a longtime Ben Hecht afficionado who is director of The Players, a theater-oriented club in Manhattan.

Prof. Freed, a self-described “backstage brat,” attended some of the rehearsals and was struck by the “emotional fervor” that the actors brought to their roles. “Clearly this was not just an acting job, but a cause in which they believed,” he pointed out. His mother Celia, unlike Luther and Stella, had not been active in Jewish causes, “but she too was captivated by the play’s powerful Zionist message, and she became much more active for Israel as a result,” he said.

Stella Adler’s daughter Ellen, then 17, was a particularly interested onlooker. Brando had been studying acting with Stella Adler since 1943, spending every weekend in their Manhattan apartment. Soon Ellen and Brando began dating, and Ellen was on hand for the “Flag” rehearsals. “Marlon was simply gorgeous, and his acting was astounding,” she said. “At one rehearsal, his performance was so intense that my uncle Luther was moved to tears. And it wasn’t just acting–Marlon really cared about the Jewish refugees, just as he later became active for black civil rights and the American Indians.”

Stella was not only Brando’s acting coach, but also his political mentor. She introduced him to the Bergson Group’s campaigns for Jewish refugee immigration and statehood. Soon Brando was deeply committed to the cause. As a gesture of solidarity, he and the other actors performed in “A Flag is Born” for the minimum Actors’ Guild wage.

Brando championed the Jewish cause offstage as well, becoming, as he put it, “a kind of traveling salesman” for the Bergson group, giving speeches around the country about the international community’s abandonment of the Jews during the Holocaust and the need for a Jewish state.

On September 5, 1946, “Flag” debuted at Manhattan’s Alvin Theater, today known as the Neil Simon Theater. Due to popular demand, the four-week opening run was extended to ten weeks.

The characters’ sharp criticism of British rule in Palestine irked many in England. The London Evening Standard called it “the most virulent anti-British play ever staged in the United States.” American reviewers were kinder. Walter Winchell said Flag was “worth seeing, worth hearing, and worth remembering … it will wring your heart and eyes dry … bring at least eleven handkerchiefs.”

The play is set entirely in the cemetery. Through a series of emotion-laden conversations, primarily between Brando’s character, David, and Muni’s Tevya, Hecht recounts the travails of Jewish history, culminating in the Holocaust, and makes the case for Jewish statehood. At the end, Tevya dies. David takes the talis covering the body and fashions it into a Zionist flag, symbolizing the rebirth of Jewish nationhood after the the Shoah.

“When the Zionist flag was raised in the final scene, with Kurt Weill’s music in the background, it sent a chill through the audience,” said Miriam Chaikin, a children’s book author who worked for the Bergson Group. “It sounded a note of hope, it stirred feelings of pride and strength that had lain dormant in Jewish hearts for too long.”

Chaikin notes that her ten year-old brother Joseph, later the founder of New York City’s famous Open Theater, was inspired to go into acting and directing after accompanying her to a performance of “Flag.”

Victor Navasky, publisher emeritus of the political weekly The Nation, was also inspired by “Flag.” Navasky was one of the teenage ushers who collected contributions in buckets after each performance. “The buckets were always full,” he recalled. “The audiences were extremely enthusiastic about the play’s message. For me, too, it was a political awakening about the right of the Jews to have their own state.”

After its successful run in New York City, “Flag” was staged in Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and Baltimore. Brando had other acting commitments, so he was replaced in some of the out-of-town performances by young Sidney Lumet, who later became an Academy Award winning director. “This is the only romantic thing left in the world,” Lumet told reporters before one performance. “The homecoming to Palestine, the conquest of a new frontier, against all obstacles.”

The Baltimore engagement was the most controversial. A planned performance at the National Theater in Washington, D.C. was relocated to Baltimore’s Maryland Theater because Hecht would not permit his works to be staged at theaters, such as the National, which barred African-Americans. But Hecht discovered, just before the Baltimore showing, that the Maryland Theater restricted blacks to the balcony, which bigots nicknamed “nigger heaven.” The Bergson Group and the NAACP then teamed up against the theater management, with the NAACP threatening to picket and a Bergson official announcing he would bring two black friends to sit with him at the play. The management gave in, and African-Americans attending the opening night performance on February 12, 1947 –Lincoln’s Birthday– sat wherever they chose. Exuberant NAACP leaders hailed the “tradition-shattering victory” and used it facilitate the desegregation of other Baltimore theaters in the years to follow.

“A Flag is Born” was a triumph. It influenced American public opinion by reaching large audiences with an inspiring message about the plight of Holocaust survivors and the need for a Jewish state. It raised enough funds to purchase a ship –renamed the S.S. Ben Hecht– that tried to bring six hundred survivors to Palestine, and focused international attention on the refugees when it was intercepted by the British. And Flag scored an important victory over racial segregation in Baltimore, demonstrating that, as Hecht put it, “to fight injustice to one group of human beings affords protection to every other group.” For the Jewish activists who organized “A Flag is Born,” the fight for justice in the Middle East was inseparable from the fight for justice at home.

(As published in the Jerusalem Post – September 5, 2006)

September 2006