Ben Hecht: One man’s failed attempts to warn America about Nazi Germany
Ben Hecht, an Oscar-winning American screenwriter whose unflinching newspaper accounts of the horrors of Hitler made him one of best-known American bylines, describes himself as almost an accidental journalist and a reluctant Zionist. Yet that accomplished resume omits an unsettling reality: Hecht encountered stiff opposition for his commitment to the Jewish cause, including boycotts and smear campaigns that sought to blunt his advocacy for the voiceless.
Hecht was steadfast in his worldview. He believed that Jews with access to wealth and power were not doing enough to raise awareness of the Holocaust; and it infuriated him to the point of action. By the late 1920s and early 1930s, Hecht had already become a successful newspaper writer in Chicago and a screenwriter in Hollywood, authoring successful plays and screenplays. But with this reputation came risk, and Hecht was willing to jeopardize his access to prestigious publications for fighting for what he believed was right.
In 1941, Hecht was among the public intellectuals who signed a statement calling for countries, including the US, to increase its aid to the Allied forces. One year later, Hecht wrote a famous newspaper article for Reader’s Digest that included chilling details about the Nazi horrors. Later, he wrote a play with a Zionist message that was performed in Madison Square Garden. At an elite New York City cocktail party, Hecht ranted about Germany’s war crimes, shocking some of the guests who complained about the etiquette faux pas to the tabloid press. Hecht is credited with being one of the first people to quantify the Jewish genocide as a slaughter of six million human beings, which is a number that is still generally accepted today.
In his autobiography, Hecht trained his rage on members of his own community whom he believed failed in their response to the atrocities.
“The unassimilated Jews-the Yiddish Jews-were speaking their horror in the Jewish newspapers. In the synagogues the Jews were weeping and praying. In thousands of homes where Yiddish was spoken the German murderers and their deeds were cursed. But these were the locked-away Jews who had only the useless ear of other Jews and, possibly, of God.
“The Americanized Jews who ran newspapers and movie studios, who wrote plays and novels, who were high in government and powerful in the financial, industrial and even social life of the nation, were silent.”
Born in New York and raised in the backrooms of Chicago’s slums, Hecht became a celebrated screenwriter in his mid-30s and ended his career as one of the most awarded film writers of his time. In addition to his commercial success, Hecht ghostwrote Marilyn Monroe’s autobiography, “My Story,” which was published nearly a decade after her death.
But more importantly to him, Hecht died as “the most effective propagandist the Jewish state ever had,” according to biographical descriptions published after his death.
He became famous for his ability to empathize with the downtrodden, which infiltrated his writing for television, newspapers, and film. According to those who knew his work in Chicago newspapers especially, many said he had profound influence, carefully wielded to be an advocate for those who were not being heard.
“Of these 6,000,000 Jews of Europe, almost a third have already been massacred by Germans, Romanians, and Hungarians,” Hecht wrote in Reader’s Digest in 1942. “The most conservative of scorekeepers estimate that before the war ends at least another third will have been done to death.”
At another point, he wrote, “Prejudice is a raft onto which the shipwrecked mind clambers and paddles to safety.”
Although history remembers him kindly, he was not afraid to shed the journalistic standard of objectivity, which upset some of his contemporaries. He advocated for the Jewish cause, was a vocal Zionist, and even helped fund and organize paramilitary efforts against British troops in Palestine after the war concluded.
This afforded him some fame (there was an Israeli ship named the SS Ben Hecht), but the Untied Kingdom issued a boycott of Hecht’s Hollywood works. Still, Hecht continued his activism, criticizing the Allied inaction to stem the genocide.
An example of this perseverance is an ad Hecht took out in the New York Times.
Its headline read: “For sale: 70,000 Jews to 50 dollars the piece. Guaranteed human beings.”
Astead W. Herndon