60th Anniversary of a Ship That Changed Jewish History

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Middle-school curricula often include a sampling of classic dramas, whether Shakespeare or more modern works by the likes of Tennessee Williams. It’s not often that sixth-graders study a controversial Zionist play that was part of the fight over Israel’s creation.

But that’s what sixth-graders at the Akiva Hebrew Day School in Southfield began doing this week, thanks to the initiative of Elaine Kahn, a parent who persuaded the Akiva faculty to incorporate “Flag” into the English language arts curriculum.

“I wanted to find a way for the students to learn about Zionist history through innovative and creative ways,” says Mrs. Kahn. “Ben Hecht’s ‘A Flag is Born’ is an inspiring combination of theatrical drama and Zionist pride.”

“A Flag is Born,” which debuted in September 1946, was sponsored by the Jewish activists known as the Bergson Group. “Flag” featured Yiddish theater star Paul Muni and young Marlon Brando in the lead roles (performing for the Actors Guild minimum wage as a gesture of solidarity). Muni and his wife, elderly Holocaust refugees, are making their way across the ruins of postwar Europe. In a cemetery, they encounter Brando, a passionate young Zionist. In a series of emotional conversations, they dramatize the case for Jewish statehood–much to the dismay of British reviewers, who called it “the most virulent anti-British play ever staged in the United States.” (Hecht’s reply: “Britain may be able to patrol the Mediterranean, but she cannot patrol Broadway.”

After twelve weeks on Broadway, “Flag” hit the road and was performed in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, and Baltimore.

Belinda Salzberg remembers seeing “Flag” when it was performed at Detroit’s Masonic Temple, in early 1947. “It was extremely moving–and even though I was only eight years old, I still remember it vividly,” she says.

The Baltimore performance ended up playing an unexpected role in the battle over civil rights for African-Americans, something that will no doubt be included in the lesson plan at Akiva.

On the eve of the performance at Baltimore’s Maryland Theater, the local NAACP alerted the Bergson Group that the theater discriminated against blacks, forcing them to sit in a small balcony section. This extraordinary alliance of Zionists and civil rights activists swung into action. They warned the theater management that if African-Americans were not allowed to sit freely, Bergson Group officials would personally escort several of their black supporters to the theater, and the NAACP would set up pickets outside the building. The management gave in and, for the first time in Baltimore’s history, African-Americans were able sit anywhere in the theater. The shattering of the Maryland Theater’s segregation policy was used by the the NAACP as a precedent to help bring about the desegregation of other theaters in Baltimore during the years to follow.

The play’s nationwide tour raised almost one million dollars, much of which was used to purchase and refurbish a former yacht that was renamed in Hecht’s honor.

Sixty years ago this week, the S.S. Ben Hecht, filled with six hundred Holocaust survivors, set out to crash the British blockade of Palestine. Commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the voyage, The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies last week held an event near Washington, D.C. to honor the all-volunteer American crew that manned the ship.

One of the crew members was a young army veteran from Mount Clemens, Michigan, named Edward Styrak. Little is known about Styrak, who was 23 at the time, except that he was one of the many courageous young Americans, Jews and non-Jews alike, who risked arrest by smuggling Jewish refugees from Europe to Palestine in defiance of the British. Styrak later returned to Israel to fight in the 1948 War of Independence, serving in the Air Transport Command.

Veteran yachtsman Elliot Roosevelt, son of the late president, initially volunteered to be the ship’s captain, until he was talked out of it by his mother, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Brooklynite Bob Levitan, a former merchant marine, became captain.

At the commemorative event, Levitan’s daughter, Barbara Randall, said her father “simply recognized that it was his obligation to do what he could to help the survivors of the Holocaust–it was nothing more complicated than that.”

Anchoring in a small French port, the Ben Hecht took on six hundred Holocaust survivors and then headed across the Mediterranean. One week later, just nine miles from Tel Aviv, the ship was intercepted by three British destroyers. The refugees were transferred to a British ship and deported to Cyprus, where they would remain until the establishment of Israel fourteen months later.

Uncertain what to do with the crew –since they were Americans– the British authorities took them to the prison fortress at Acre but did not thoroughly search them, since they posed no apparent security risk. That was a fatal mistake. At the commemoration, David Miller, Captain Levitan’s grand-nephew, explained what happened next:

“Uncle Bob managed to sneak a camera into the prison with him. That was a godsend to the imprisoned members of the Irgun Zvai Leumi, Menachem Begin’s underground fighting force. They were planning a breakout, but didn’t have a way to manufacture the false identification papers they would need once they got out. Bob’s camera solved that problem.” A few weeks later, under U.S. pressure, the British shipped the crew members back to America. A few weeks after that, the Irgun staged the Acre Prison breakout.

The sixth-graders at Akiva Hebrew Day School are in for quite a treat. Broadway stars, civil rights battles, blockade-crashing, prison break-outs–even a talented novelist might have trouble making up a story with so many amazing twists and turns. But the most amazing thing is that it all really happened.

(As published in the Detroit Jewish News – March 9, 2007)

March 2007