Dozens of ships attempted to bring Holocaust survivors past the British blockade of pre-state Israel in the 1940s, but only a few - including the S.S. Ben Hecht - managed to become entangled in controversies on three different continents. The 60th anniversary of the voyage of the Ben Hecht was recounted by historians and relatives of the boat’s captain at an event near Washington, D.C. earlier this week.
The commemoration of the voyage was sponsored by The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and took place at the Silver Spring Jewish Center, in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Barbara Randall of Florida, the daughter of Ben Hecht captain Bob Levitan, was one of the featured speakers. She 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."
Captain Levitan’s grand-nephew, David Miller of Silver Spring, also spoke. Miller recalled that as a child, he often heard stories from relatives about how when the Ben Hecht crew members were arrested and sent to Acre Prison, Levitan had a camera with him. “Because the crew were Americans, the British guards didn’t think of them as a security risk, so they didn’t carefully search them,” Miller said. That camera was used to make false identification papers that helped facilitate the May 1947 Acre Prison breakout. “Uncle Bob didn’t have to get involved in this dangerous mission,” Miller said. “At the end of the war, he could have just returned to his normal civilian life. Instead, he risked himself to try to crash the British blockade - just because it was the right thing to do.”
Levitan’s niece, Dr. Carol Rose, came from Pittsburgh to take part in the event.
The audience viewed a video interview with Captain Levitan, in which he recalled the voyage. “Many of the crew members were not even Jewish,” he remembered. “Two were Norwegian-Americans. One was black. Like me, they were just sick of the world kicking the Jews around, and they wanted to help.”
Washington, D.C. attorney Jeffrey Weiss spoke next. Weiss is the co-author of I Am My Brother’s Keeper, a study of American volunteers who took part in the fight for the creation of Israel. Weiss said that more than 1,000 Americans either manned “aliyah bet” refugee ships or fought for the Irgun Zvai Leumi (Etzel), the Palmach, or the Haganah. Weiss praised the volunteers as “unsung heroes who serve as a role model for us all.”
Dr. Rafael Medoff, director of the Wyman Institute, described the S. S. Ben Hecht as “the only refugee ship that started and ended its voyage on Broadway." He said the Bergson Group, a 1940s Jewish political action committee, organized a Broadway play, called A Flag is Born, to raise the funds to purchase the ship. The play, written by Ben Hecht, began with a twelve-week run at the Alvin Theater. It starred Paul Muni, Celia Adler, Stella Adler, and young Marlon Brando. In some of the out of town performances, Brando was replaced by another rising star, Sidney Lumet.
One of those performances played an unexpected role in the fight over racial segregation in America. Just before the opening at Baltimore’s Maryland Theater, the local NAACP alerted the Bergson Group that the theater restricted African-American patrons to a small section in the balcony. The Bergson activists demanded that the theater management end that policy, and threatened to personally escort several of their black supporters to the show. They also warned that the NAACP would picket the theater. The management gave in. “Not only was the Maryland Theater desegregated as a result,” Medoff recalled, “but the Baltimore NAACP was able to use the incident as a precedent to bring about the desegregation of other local theaters as well.”
After a month in prison, the British decided to release the crew members of the S.S. Ben Hecht, who returned to New York. There they were the guests of honor at a Bergson Group dinner featuring comedian Milton Berle. Dr. Medoff cited the involvement of celebrities such as Brando and Berle as evidence of the Bergson Group’s remarkable ability to attract support in Hollywood and on Broadway, in an era when entertainers typically avoided politics. He said that, unlike the Bergson Group, the major Jewish organizations generally failed to recognize the potential for support among celebrities and therefore seldom tried to recruit them.
Rabbi Herzl Kranz of the Silver Spring Jewish Center revealed for the first time his own involvement in illegal efforts to aid the Jewish fighters in Palestine. At age 18, in 1948, he was the volunteer driver of a mobile dental clinic that went from Cleveland to New York, picking up donated dental equipment bound for the Holy Land. Shortly before the truck was loaded on a ship at the New Jersey docks, he helped hollow out the walls of the truck and packed them with guns. "Truman’s embargo on guns for Israel almost kept the Jewish State from coming into being," he said. "We were just trying to do our little part to help."
The Wyman Institute this week unveiled an online photo exhibit chronicling the history and impact of the S.S. Ben Hecht. The exhibit, which can be seen at WymanInstitute.org, includes photos from A Flag is Born, the rebuilding of the ship prior to the voyage, the crew and passengers, and scenes related to the Acre Prison breakout.
The event and photo exhibit were supported in part by the Wyman Institute’s David Brodetzky Memorial Research Initiative.