Ben Hecht was not religious in any way, and ignored such Jewish organizations as the Anti-Defamation League and political causes in general. He was a nonjoiner, a skeptic, a man indifferent to the world’s suffering. But in 1937 and 1938, as the threats to the European Jews grew stronger, he put together a compilation of tales on Jewish themes (A Book of Miracles). In one of the fables, Americans open their newspapers and discover that “five hundred thousand Jews had been murdered in Germany, Italy, Rumania, and Poland. Another million or so had been driven from their homes and hunted into forests, deserts, mountains.” Hecht anticipated the Holocaust, as it was later called, and he was amazed a few years later when it was actually happening and few Americans wanted to hear about it. In November 1942, convincing reports emerged from the State Department of two million Jews murdered, and no end in sight; the Washington Post put the news on page six, the New York Times on page ten. The Times continued to downplay the Jewish catastrophe throughout the war. In 2001, Max Frankel, former executive editor of the paper, called the negligent coverage “the century’s bitterest journalistic failure.”
As a teenage picture thief, Hecht had made use of other people’s identity. In the war years, he became obsessed with preserving and asserting an identity of his own. He tells us that memories of the crowded family and street life of the Lower East Side came flooding back. He re-created himself as a Jew, spurred not so much by sympathy with the dying in Europe as by rage at their persecutors, the Germans, and fury, too, at the timid silence of his fellow Jews in New York and Los Angeles—people who were usually not in the least timid. But they were cowed by American anti-Semitism; they were afraid that American intervention in the European conflict would be known as “a Jewish war.”
He was seething, and ready for action. In the spring of 1941, Hecht was approached by the fierce Peter Bergson, the chief American representative of the anti-British terrorist group the Irgun. He records in Child his initial amused disdain, and then his half-interest, and finally his capitulation to Bergson. Serious as the issues are (saving the Jews of Europe, supporting the founding of a Jewish state), these passages in Child, though written with great vigor, are the most dated by circumstances. They are confusing, too: it may come as a surprise to learn that Bergson was at war not just with the Germans and the British (the colonial masters of Palestine) but with mainstream Zionists, led by Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, who wanted to move slowly toward a state, with British and Palestinian cooperation. (Hecht didn’t live long enough to see the Irgun leader Menachem Begin become prime minister of Israel, in 1977; it’s hard to imagine him liking what Begin became.)
In 1941, Hecht’s anger and derision, normally aimed at Hollywood producers, became unappeasable. Like anyone possessed of a truth that he can’t get others to recognize, he seemed half-mad. He issued blistering articles about the slaughter, wrote wounding newspaper ads accusing other Jews of complacency; he created kitschy but touching memorial pageants for the Jewish dead and for the Zionist cause, staged in Madison Square Garden, with music by Kurt Weill; he raised money for the Irgun, and became himself so pugnacious in his attacks on the British that his films were banned in the United Kingdom. In America, established Jewish groups and even friends, shocked by his anti-British tirades, turned against him. He may have said to Bergson, as he records, “If you want to start a country, go find Washington or Bolivar or Garibaldi. . . . There are no such characters in Nyack.” But the truth is he was proud of his ability actually to make a difference in the world. Suddenly, he was an actor, not just an observer. Becoming “a Jew” was the means of his self-realization, his delivery into the bliss of anger.
From A Child of the Century by Ben Hecht, with an introduction by David Denby. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.
Ben Hecht (1893–1964) was an American screenwriter (Scarface, The Front Page, Notorious), reporter, playwright, journalist, and novelist. According to Pauline Kael, he was “the greatest American screenwriter.” David Denby is the author of Great Books, American Sucker, Snark, and Do the Movies Have a Future? He has been a staff writer and film critic at The New Yorker since 1998.