Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Displayed below is the Broadway Theatre Playbill from 1946 for “A Flag Is Born,” signed on the cover by Sidney Lumet, Celia and Luther Adler (“the first family of the Yiddish theater”) and George David Baxter.

The creation of “A Flag is Born” began in 1939 when leading screenwriter Ben Hecht used his newspaper column to challenge Jewish readers to become more openly Jewish. That article drew a response from “Peter Bergson” – who was actually Hillel Kook, an Irgun leader working undercover in America – and who, urging Hecht to take a leading role in spreading early news of the Holocaust and winning American support for militant Zionists, convinced him to write the play.

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The play – which one commentator appropriately characterized as “Holocaust nightmare meets Zionist dream” – opened on Broadway on September 4, 1946 with a cast including major stars Paul Muni and Celia Adler as Tevye and Zelda, elderly and ailing Treblinka survivors attempting to travel to Eretz Yisrael, and a young Marlon Brando as David, a troubled young Treblinka survivor who has stumbled into them in a European Jewish cemetery on Sabbath eve. Produced by the American League for a Free Palestine (“ALFP”), it was directed by Luther Adler and featured music by Kurt Weill.

 

 

After Zelda lights Shabbat candles upon a broken Jewish tombstone, Tevye experiences a series of visions during his Sabbath prayers in the cemetery. He dreams of the town where he was born before its obliteration by the Nazis, encounters a variety of leaders and leading personalities from Jewish biblical history, and imagines standing before the United Nations Security Council pleading for a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael as the world ignores his heartfelt pleas.

When he awakens, he finds that Zelda has died during the night and, after reciting Kaddish for her, he welcomes his own death and bids David/Brando farewell. David contemplates committing suicide until three Jewish soldiers – representing the Haganah, the Irgun, and Lehi – appear and beg him to join them:

Don’t you hear our guns, David? We battle the English, the sly and powerful English. We speak to them in a new Jewish language, the language of guns. We fling no more prayers or tears at the world. We fling bullets. We fling barrages… We promise to wrest our homeland out of the British claws.

In the play’s rousing finale, David challenges the complacency of the mostly Jewish audiences: “Where were you, Jews? Where were you when six million Jews were being burned to death in the ovens of Auschwitz?” He then gives a dazzling Zionist speech and, after crossing a bridge into Eretz Yisrael to the mixed background sounds of the Hatikvah and gunfire, he marches off to fight for Jewish freedom while holding a Zionist flag constructed out of Tevye’s tallit.

Not surprisingly, the British banned productions of “A Flag Is Born” in Britain and through all British-controlled territories, including “A Flag Is Born”. When the London Evening Standard bitterly criticized “A Flag Is Born” as “virulently anti-British,” Hecht responded with a brilliant rejoinder: “Britain may be able to patrol the Mediterranean [to prevent Jewish immigration to Eretz Yisrael], but it cannot patrol Broadway.”

“A Flag Is Born” generated $400,000, a huge sum at the time, but, more importantly, it generated millions of dollars in contributions, facilitating the ALFP’s ability to galvanize Jewish passion for Eretz Yisrael, marshal the worldwide effort in support of Jewish independence there, and bring Holocaust survivors to the Holy Land. It is also broadly credited with playing an important role in turning American public opinion against England and forcing the British to end the Palestine Mandate and to withdraw from Eretz Yisrael. As noted by the David Wyman Institute:

By presenting the Palestine conflict in simple, dramatic images that ordinary Americans could easily understand and remember, “A Flag Is Born” deepened American public antagonism toward England and sympathy for the Jewish revolt. Hecht was aiming for England’s Achilles heel. He understood that the Jewish battle for independence was as much psychological warfare as it was a military struggle – that it was being fought in the court of world opinion and in the halls of Congress, at the same time that it was waged in the hills and valleys of the Holy Land.

As such, in play promotions, the ALFP cleverly emphasized parallels between the American and Jewish struggles for independence, and compared Jewish fighters in Israel to the patriots of the American Revolution. Ads used the motto, “It’s 1776 in Palestine!”; portrayed Irgun fighters as “modern-day Nathan Hales”; denounced Great Britain’s policy of “taxation [in Eretz Yisrael] without representation”; and quoted Jefferson’s expression “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to G-d.”

The original program cover had three young Jews with gun, hoe, and Zionist flag alongside the famous illustration of three American Revolution figures playing drums and flute. The ALFP was entirely open about its motivations for producing the play; its publicity materials read: “‘A Flag Is Born’ is not ordinary theatre. It was not written to amuse or beguile… It was to make money to provide ships to get Hebrews to Palestine…and [to] arouse American public opinion to support the fight for freedom and independence now being waged by the resistance in Palestine.”

Proving extremely popular, “A Flag Is Born”’s Broadway run was extended and a tour was arranged. However, the ALFP, outraged by the policy of the National Theater prohibiting black attendance at its Washington, D.C. venue, determined to act. In one of the first great victories for the nascent civil rights movement in the United States, the ALFP moved the play to Baltimore after successfully pressing its moral authority to force the management of the Maryland Theater to rescind its segregation policy (pursuant to which African Americans were restricted to the balcony) and arranged for a special train to bring members of Congress to Baltimore for a performance.

* * * * *

Brando explained that he believed passionately that Holocaust survivors deserved their own land where they could live free of oppression and free from the anti-Semitic tyranny of the outside world, and he accepted only the Actors’ Equity minimum payment, enabling the play’s proceeds to go toward helping to create the State of Israel. He also appeared as a frequent guest speaker across the country in support of “Last Night We Attacked,” an ALFP-produced 18-minute film which celebrated the Irgun and supported violent Jewish guerrilla warfare against the British.

In his memoir written years later, Songs My Mother Taught Me, Brando, noting that “[e]veryone in A Flag Is Born was Jewish except me,” describes his warmth for his friends in “a world of Jews.” He writes, “[They] introduced me to a world of books and ideas that I didn’t know existed. I stayed up all night with them – asking questions, arguing, probing.” In an April 5, 1996 interview on CNN, he told Larry King:

Oh, the Jews are amazing people. They are truly amazing…people generally don’t realize that per capita that Jews have contributed more to American – the best of American culture than any other single group. If it weren’t for the Jews we wouldn’t have art, we wouldn’t have much theater.

We wouldn’t have, oddly enough, Broadway – and Tin Pan Alley – and all the standards that were written by Jews, all the songs that you love to sing…the secret of the Jews is their worship for the word sechel. That doesn’t mean that they are superior people; it just means that they are culturally advantaged….

You have to understand that the people who hate Jews are carrying around in their bodies, and have had visited on their children, this extraordinary magic that was created by a Jew – called the Salk vaccine – which prevents polio.

Brando sent his children to a Jewish school because the Jewish schools are “the safest and the best.” But, notwithstanding his repeated and fervent support of Jews and admiration for them, he did have one scandalous lapse when he gave expression to what can only be described as the old anti-Semitic canard regarding Jewish “control” of Hollywood:

I am very angry at some of the Jews who have known – who have suffered terribly at the hands of the Russians, of the Germans and the Poles and all of the anti-Semitic elements in Europe and it was a godsend to come to America where they could be free – and they could do whatever they wanted…

And then Sam Goldwyn and all of the rest of them. Metro Goldwyn Mayer, they – Hollywood is run by Jews. It is owned by Jews, and they should have a greater sensitivity about the issue of people who are suffering. …we’ve seen everything, but we never saw the kike. Because they knew perfectly well, that that is where you draw the wagons around….

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, one of the foremost Jewish human rights organizations in the world, met with Brando shortly after his appalling statement. According to Hier, the actor broke down and cried and could not compose himself while issuing what the rabbi characterized as a heartfelt apology.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at saul.singer@verizon.net.
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