When Marlon Brando Taught the Holocaust
by Dr. Rafael Medoff
Marlon Brando is a household name in America, thanks to his Oscar-winning roles in such films as On the Waterfront (1954) and The Godfather (1972). What is not widely known is that Brando was one of the first public figures in post-World War II America to speak out about the failure of the Allies to aid Europe's Jews during the Holocaust.
Brando's platform was the Broadway stage. In the summer of 1946, barely a year after the liberation of the Nazi death camps, 22 year-old Brando co-starred in "A Flag Is Born," an explosive play authored by Ben Hecht, the famed Hollywood screenwriter and Jewish activist. Set in a cemetery in postwar Europe, "Flag" focuses on two elderly Holocaust survivors, Tevya (Paul Muni) and Zelda (Celia Adler), who encounter Brando's character, a distraught young Treblinka survivor named David who is on his way to British-ruled Palestine. Through the conversations between Tevya and David, Hecht articulates the Jewish right to the Holy Land and the need for a Jewish state.
The Allies' failure to rescue Jews from Hitler is one of the play's underlying themes. As the story begins, the narrator declares: "o later recalled. At some performances, "Jewish girls got out of their seats and screamed and cried from the aisles in sadness, and at one, when I asked, 'Where were you when six million Jews were being burned to death in the ovens of Auschwitz?', a woman was so over come with anger and guilt that she rose and shouted back at me, 'Where were YOU?' ... At the time there was a great deal of soul-searching within the Jewish community over whether they had done enough to stop the slaughter of their people--some argued that they should have applied pressure on President Roosevelt to bomb Auschwitz, for example--so the speech touched a sensitive nerve."
The words Brando spoke in the play were written by Hecht, but Brando shared the playwright's assessment of how the world responded to the Holocaust. In his memoirs, Brando describes how he learned about Jewish issues from Hecht and especially from his acting coach, Stella Adler. He quickly developed a strong sympathy for their cause, and performed in "A Flag is Born" at the minimum actors' guild wage as a gesture of solidarity.
And Brando championed the Jewish cause offstage, as well. Hecht and Adler were active in the American League for a Free Palestine, better known as the Bergson Group (after its leader, Peter Bergson), which sponsored the play and, after ten weeks on Broadway, staged it in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, and elsewhere. Brando not only performed in the play, but became, as he put it, "a kind of traveling salesman" for the Bergson Group, speaking at numerous rallies and meetings. In city after city, the young actor spoke to audiences about the international community's silence during the Holocaust, the plight of Holocaust survivors languishing in Europe's Displaced Persons camps, and the need for a Jewish state.
The American Century Theater of Arlington, Virginia, which recreates classic American plays, has just launched a new production of "A Flag is Born." After more than fifty years, the powerful words that Marlon Brando first spoke are again being heard on the American stage. As we commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day this April 18, the echoes of Ben Hecht's play remind us that there are many ways to teach about the Holocaust, and theatrical drama can serve as a powerful educational tool. Marlon Brando proved that in 1946, when he was one of the first to confront postwar America with the hard questions about the Holocaust that need to be asked again and again.