by Rafael Medoff
(Dr. Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, www.WymanInstitute.org)
For many in the American Jewish community, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is an occasion to recall the important role Jews played in the civil rights movement. But black-Jewish relations have not always been a one-way street. During the 1940s, a number of African-Americans campaigned for rescue of Jews from the Holocaust or helped smuggle Holocaust survivors from Europe to British-controlled Palestine.
Walter R. Cushenberry was one of those noble black volunteers in this 1940s Jewish version of the Underground Railroad.
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At the end of World War II, hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors languished in Displaced Persons camps in Europe. Most wanted to emigrate to Palestine, but the British authorities, in deference to Arab opposition, prevented all but a handful from entering.
Some Americans decided to crash the gates. In late 1946, the American League for a Free Palestine (ALFP), better known as the Bergson Group, purchased a 400-ton former yacht and refurbished it in Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal. Designed to hold fifteen passengers, it was rebuilt to carry six hundred. They named it the S.S. Ben Hecht, after the famed playwright and screenwriter who had assumed a prominent role in the ALFP’s fight for Jewish freedom.
Yitshaq Ben-Ami, a Bergson Group leader, interviewed prospective members of the all-volunteer crew. “We had to weed through fiery idealists and adventurers, crooks, informers, and all other sorts,” he later wrote.
The ones they chose were quite a colorful group. “We had twenty men, with twenty different reasons for joining up,” Captain H. Robert Levitan recalled. Walter “Heavy” Greaves, for example: a beefy, tattooed sailor who survived three torpedo attacks in World War II, Greaves signed up for the Ben Hecht after meeting DP camp inmates face to face in Germany at the end of his service.
Elliott Roosevelt, son of the late president and himself an experienced yachtsman, initially offered to captain the ship, but withdrew after objections from his mother, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
“We had a crew member who was Irish Catholic and hated the British,” Geno Berkovits, who served as a Messman on the ship, told me in an interview last year. “We had a Jewish crewman who was religious and put on tefillin every day, and there were others, like me, who weren’t so religious but just wanted to help the Jewish cause.” There were also two young Norwegians, Haakom Lilliby and Erling Sorensen. “They didn’t speak much English and nobody knew quite why they were there,” Berkovits said, “but when the engines broke down, they worked 24 hours straight to get us going again.”
And there was Walter Cushenberry. Tall, 33 years old, originally from Mayfield, Kentucky, he was living in Brooklyn at the time he volunteered for the voyage. Berkovits, who became particularly friendly with Cushenberry, remembered: “As a black man, he knew what it was like to be kicked around, and he didn’t like seeing the Jews get kicked around.” Captain Levitan described him as “one of the gentlest men you could ever meet, and he just liked helping out the underdog.”
The S.S. Ben Hecht took on 600 Jewish refugees at Port de Buc, France, and then set sail for the Holy Land. On March 8, 1947, just ten miles from the Tel Aviv shore, three British destroyers intercepted the ship. The passengers were hauled off to a detention camp in Cyprus, where they would be held until after Israel’s creation the following year.
Dealing with the American crewmen, however, was more complicated. While the British government pondered their fate, Cushenberry and his the rest of the crew were taken to the Acre Prison fortress, where they were jailed alongside members of the Irgun Zvai Leumi underground militia. The British would soon regret that. The Irgun was planning a breakout, but one obstacle remained: how to photograph the would-be escapees in order to make false identity cards so they could get past British roadblocks. Captain Levitan solved that problem: he had smuggled a small camera into the prison. On May 4, the Irgun blew open the fortress’s southern wall, in what the international media described as the most spectacular prison break of modern times. The operation was later immortalized in the film “Exodus.”
By the time of the breakout, the crew of the Ben Hecht were long gone. To London’s dismay, the detention of the Americans had become a lightning rod for criticism from members of Congress, the media, and the U.S. Jewish community. After holding the seamen for a month, the British decided they were more trouble than they were worth, and put them on a ship bound for New York. Arriving home on April 16, Cushenberry and his colleagues were honored at a City Hall reception hosted by the mayor, and then feted at a gala dinner hosted by a very proud Ben Hecht.
The crew of the S.S. Ben Hecht represented the very noblest of the human spirit. Americans and Europeans, Jews and Christians, whites and African-Americans, they acted on the principle that –as Hecht put it– “to fight injustice to one group of human beings affords protection to every other group.” On the occasion of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, that is a principle worth remembering.