Updated: Jul 11
In April 1990 Peter Wyden, father of Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, organized a reunion of members of the 2nd and 3rd Mobile Radio Broadcasting Companies, or MRBCs, that had conducted psychological warfare against German forces in Europe during World War II. These army veterans, sometimes referred to as “paragraph troopers” or “psycho boys,” came to the gathering at Harvey’s Chelsea Restaurant “as old men, shoulders stooped, smiling through wrinkles. They exchanged hugs, sipped drinks and recalled that ancient and glorious time when they were brash young comrades-in-arms.” Two enormous photographs hung over the cash bar. One was of Hans Habe, who had been the men’s instructor at Camp Sharpe in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and then led them in radio and newspaper initiatives throughout the war. The other was of the “patron saint of psych warriors”—Benno Frank. He was shown “sprawled on an overstuffed couch, perchance dreaming in one of five languages—all said to sound remarkably the same when he spoke them.”1
A soldier “sprawled on an oversized couch,” a man whose knowledge of languages was dimmed by an inability to pronounce them correctly, and a “patron saint”—such comments reveal the strong combination of affection and respect that the vets felt for this most unmilitary of men.
He was also one of the older soldiers in his company.
He was born Benno Fraenkel in Mannheim, Germany, on December 23, 1905.2 His parents, Abraham and Liba (Lossman) Fraenkel, had been living in Odessa, but moved to Germany shortly before Benno’s birth so that Abraham could escape military service in Russia. Abraham set up a business as a tobacco merchant, first in Mannheim, then in Wiesbaden. It was in Wiesbaden that Benno went to grade school. He also attended schools in Strassburg, Baden-Baden, and Berlin before graduating with his Abitur (diploma) in Wiesbaden. His father, in the meantime, had been given the post of Vice Consul of the Polish Republic.
Following his graduation Benno followed two paths at the same time: on one, he worked as intern on property belonging to a religious kibbutz movement in Betzenrod and in Rodges, two towns located in Hessen; on the other he studied philosophy at the University of Marburg while also taking courses there in theater history.
It was in theater that he found himself; he broke off his university study, and completed training in theater direction at the Hessian State Theater in Wiesbaden. This theater was one of the largest of Germany’s state theaters: it had four stages, of various sizes, on which were produced ballet works, operas and operettas, and traditional and contemporary dramas. Here it was possible to train in directing works by such disparate figures as Verdi, Lehar, Schiller and Brecht — a broad training which made it possible for Benno to adapt to the widest possible variety of works and stage conditions. In addition to this study he broadened his perspective even more by taking lessons in stage German with countess Villeneuve in Wiesbaden, participating in a month-long theater seminar in Moscow with Konstantin Stanislawski, and then spending time in Paris, where he studied rehearsal techniques and stage direction at the Comëdie Française and at the Théâtre de l’Odéon.
This intense—and extensive—study earned him an engagement in the 1929-1930 season as director and actor at the city theater in Harburg-Wilhelmsburg. This united town was a Prussian construct created as a seaport rival to Hamburg. From the very beginning, Benno was allowed to work independently at the theater there. Between 1929 and 1931 he directed five dramas (including works by Schiller and Shaw) and four operas (including Gluck and Puccini).
In 1932 Benno was given the post of principal stage director of the new Schiller Opera, that was located in Altona (St. Pauli), a working class suburb of Hamburg. This theater, like the City Theater in Harburg-Wilhelmsburg, was operated by Hanns Walther Sattler.3 The building had originally been constructed as a huge, circular performance center for the Busch Circus. Then, for several decades, it had had a rather fragile existence as a theater before being completely renovated and reopened for the 1932-1933 theater season. It was Sattler’s vision to continue to appeal to its audience of workers and sailors by providing popular but quality folk entertainment. The Schiller Opera’s premiere work was von Weber’s opera Der Freischütz.
1932 interior of the newly renovated Schiller Opera House, in St. Pauli, Hamburg. It was here that Benno first experienced the threat of Nazi anti-semitism.
Sattler also determined that the theater would offer performances every day of the year except on Christmas Eve, when the theater would be closed for rehearsals. Benno was pleased to be preparing productions in a brand new theater for working class audiences. But things soon turned ugly, when, on January 30, 1933 Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. The neighborhood around the Schiller Opera was the scene of shootings between Nazi storm troopers and local members of the Red Front, and Jewish actors on stage began to be booed by audience members. The theater’s program changed accordingly. In October 1932 Benno had directed two works by Bertolt Brecht (Die kleine Mahagonny and Der Lindberghflug), with music by Kurt Weill. Both artists were socialists and both soon fled Germany. Increasingly, pressure was being put upon the theater to become a tool of Nazi propaganda. This pressure reached its apex when, in May 1933, the theater featured a guest performance of “Der Wanderer,” a piece that was written by Hitler’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels.
But in May 1933, Benno was already on his way out of Germany. He offered as impetus for his flight the fact that a crowd of SS men were seated in the audience of the April premiere of his production of “U-Boot 116,” a patriotic piece set during World War I. After the performance Karl Kauffmann, the fanatically anti-semitic district leader of Hamburg and a SS superior officer, said pointedly to Benno that he “needn’t raise his hand for the Hitler greeting.” Benno recognized this at once as an anti-semitic threat, and he reacted quickly. He quit his job at the theater, left Hamburg by train for Italy, and, bordered a ship to Haifa, in Palestine.
Benno now tried, from scratch, to create a new life in Palestine. He was fortunate in teaming up almost immediately with Mordecai Golinkin (1875-1963), a Ukrainian who had been a pioneering force in creating a Palestine opera company that presented operas in Hebrew with local and guest singers. Already in October 1933, Benno was stage director of a production of Rigoletto and was praised by the local press for “his indefatigable efforts, great stage experience, fine artistic sense, and the richness of his ideas, which render him a most valuable asset to the Company.” The press declared that Benno stood “for all that is new and promising in our youthful opera.”4
The opera was located in Tel Aviv, but had, unfortunately, neither state nor city backing. Golinkin had founded the company in 1923, and had struggled intermittently since then to bring quality productions to the stage. Unfortunately, as the press reported, “Grand Opera is one of the costliest forms of entertainment that has ever been devised, and […] attempts to produce it parsimoniously are unsatisfying.” To help alleviate the problem, Benno teamed up with conductor Karl Salomon to create the Palestine Chamber Opera. Salomon, a German conductor and singer, had, like Benno, emigrated to Israel in 1933. The two men made the decision to stage light operas that did “not require elaborate scenery or full orchestra or a chorus,” but were still “full of charm, wit or gaiety” with “music of great beauty.”
Karl Salomon arranged his opera scores for a reduced orchestra of nine or ten players, and the press noted that “the team spirit and co-operation of the players was excellent, and they brought a verve and buoyancy to their performance which is often lacking in grand opera.”5 Between 1934 and 1938 Benno mounted operatic works by Gluck, Mozart, Offenbach, Adolphe Adams, and Pergolesi—all in Hebrew. But, even though the chamber opera did radio performances and went on tour around the country, it still could not meet its modest bills. Monetary difficulties were, in fact, so great, that its members all had to take on construction jobs in order to meet their own personal expenses. As a New York paper noted in 1936, one German tenor made his living as a brick carrier, while another worked on an irrigation project. As for Benno: “On coming to the country he became a road laborer, and he still pursues that vocation during the off-season.”6 And Benno also organized some of his singers to ply a secondary trade as hot dog vendors. These artists dressed as chefs, sold their hot dogs to crowds gathering for cinema and theater performances, and sometimes even provided vocal entertainment along with their sausages.7
Benno himself was in much need of an income, since he now had a family. In 1935 he had married Kitty Friedländer, a native of Poland, and they had a son, Danny, who was born in 1936. He began to piece together a manageable income by staging productions at a theater in Haifa, working for the political cabaret “Mataté” [“Broom”] in Tel Aviv, and directing annual drama festivals in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa. He served as advisor for the Jewish Agency for the BBC’s “Hebrew Hour” in Jerusalem. And he became director of the theater department at the Palestine Conservatory in Jerusalem.
Then, in 1938, Benno again changed countries. He also changed his name, reducing “Fraenkel” to “Frank.” At first it appeared that his visit to America would be brief one, since he was sent to the States under contract by the Jewish Agency only to direct the Balfour Players in a performance at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. This was a theatrical group funded by the Zionist Organization of America, and it was scheduled to perform at the Palestine Pavilion—a pavilion often referred to as the Jewish Palestine Pavilion, since it was espousing Zionist aims at a fair dedicated to the “World of Tomorrow.” The play chosen for this purpose was “The Trial” by Shulamit Bat Dori; it was a political piece that was critical of the British and called for resolution and peace between Jews and Arabs. The play had been banned by the British, but was very much in line with the aims of the Palestine Pavilion: namely, to assert the promise—and reality—of a Jewish homeland and to highlight the Jewish achievements there in agriculture, urban development, medicine, and the arts. It was a touchy time for making this assertion, since the British had, in February 1939, stopped all further Jewish immigration into Palestine, and, in June, the United States had refused entry to the 908 desperate Jewish passengers on board the German liner St. Louis, as it lay within sight of the lights of Miami.
Even before directing the Shulamit Bat Dori play, Benno directed the Balfour Players in another Zionist drama, “Soil”, by Martin Rost. This drama “revealed the heroic struggles of the young Jewish pioneers in overcoming numerous psychological difficulties in the rebuilding of the ancestral home and in hewing out a future for themselves and their people.”8 Benno was committed to the Histadruth Ivrith of America, a movement dedicated to reviving and promoting the use of Hebrew in contemporary works of literature.
But he was not involved in only Zionist projects; in fact, his chief interest remained work in opera. Already, by the fall of 1939, he had two contracts. One was an appointment as head of the dramatic department of the New York College of Music. Another was to serve as the Stage Director for the American League for Opera in New York City in the production of three operas— in English— during the 1939-1940 season. These operas were performed in Scranton, Pennsylvania, under the auspices of the University of Scranton, where the opera conductor, Felix Gatz, served as head of the music department and Benno was hired as visiting professor of dramatic art.
Felix Gatz, standing, left, and Benno Frank, right discuss their opera plans with Rev. Brother Denis Edward at the University of Scranton, 1939
It was now obvious that Benno had more professional opportunities in America than in the fledgling state of Palestine, and he quickly took full advantage of them. In the fall of 1940 he left the University of Scranton to serve as Director of the Opera School at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts. He held this post right up until he entered the Army. He developed a unique educational program there that was designed to incorporate his young soloists fully into operatic productions. Instead of focusing on the role of each singer, they were taught the relationship between their assigned roles and the other parts of the opera. “Heretofore,” Benno said, “there has seemed no opportunity to develop total art, the co-ordination between singing and acting. After all, the voice is only one part of opera, and there has been too much concentration upon the voice, […] neglecting the other things which go to make up an operatic personality.”9 Benno also enlarged the operatic repertoire of his singers, with new monthly operatic performances. These included both new and overlooked operas, especially one-act pieces and chamber operas: Douglas Moore’s White Wings, for example, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s Secret of Suzanne, Jacques Offenbach’s The Maid of Elizondo, Paul Nordoff’s The Masterpiece, Haydn’s The Apothecary, and Pergolesi’s The Maid Turned Mistress. He exported his training program to the New School in New York, and led his performers to guest performances at Bryn Mawr College and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont.
Then, on February 5, 1943, Benno was enrolled in the American army and sent to Camp Ritchie. He was 37 years old, which made him one of the older soldiers there. He was, in fact, older than many of the commissioned officers and made a most unsoldierly impression. One of his classmates, George Bailey, has provided a physical description of him:
‘He was a German Jew with a huge head, a hook nose, a massive jaw, and a Schmiss (scar). His physical structure would have been an absurdity in any uniform: one shoulder was considerably higher than the other, a peculiarity that gave him a list of at least ten degrees to the left. Moreover, he was of barely average height and of a girth which even the most sustained and strenuous physical exercise could not diminish. He was, of a truth, a first-class trencherman.”10
Benno completed the 9th class at Ritchie (June 21 - August 18, 1943). He quickly made a name for himself in the way he addressed the officers who trained him. He refused to refer to their rank, but called them, instead, by their first name.
His class participation often reduced his classmates to laughter. George Bailey has preserved several examples of Benno’s exchanges with his professors. When Lieutenant Fasola, for example, gave one of his morning pep talks to the troops, he said, “Now I want you men to get on the ball—understand? Get on the ball! Any Questions?” Benno’s hand shot up, and he asked, “Ver iss ziss ball you keep talking about, sir? Are ve to consider zat all ziss iss chust a game?”11 Part of Benno’s behavior reflected his refusal to recognize—and bow to— authority. His manner of teaching and directing was through teamwork, and it would be, as part of a team, that he became a master propagandist in the war.
In Camp Ritchie’s interrogation exercises, Benno drove one interrogator to despair. This man, a captain with three years of college German, asked his practice subject—Benno—, how he got along with his commanding officer. “Splendidly,” Benno responded. “Why he’s more like a brother than a commanding officer—only last week he said to me ‘Frank—du bist eine Kanone!” [German idiom for you are a great guy]. The captain latched on to the word Kanone [cannon], and, since his assignment was to establish weaponry locations, he pursued the matter. “Where is the cannon?” he asked. Benno tapped his chest and said “I am a cannon!” “You are a cannon?” the captain asked incredulously. “And he is a cannon,” Benno added, pointing at the class instructor. “We are cannons.” “You [plural] are cannons?” the baffled captain inquired. “They are cannons,” Benno said, gesturing to the class. “We have successfully conjugated the verb ‘to be.’ That is the end of the lesson.” The poor captain was transferred the next day to a class that required only a reading knowledge of German.12
Benno excelled at role-playing, and not just on stage. He had created his own persona upon his arrival in the States by changing his name from Fraenkel to Frank and by falsely declaring that he had a doctoral degree in theater arts from the University of Marburg. Since his wife and son had to be left behind in Palestine, Dr. Benno D. Frank had described himself in his enlistment papers as “separated” and “without dependents.” Benno’s subterfuges, along with his proven successes in the theater, probably made him an appealing candidate for work in psychological warfare. In any case, he was personally chosen by Lt. Hans Habe to go to Camp Sharpe, a brand new Ritchie sub-camp in Gettysburg, for training in this area.
In 1930 Hans Habe had, like Benno, also created a new persona, in order to distance himself from his father’s unscrupulous journalism. He changed his name from János Bekéssy to Hans Habe. Habe had made a name for himself as the youngest editor of a major European newspaper, as a prolific investigative journalist, and as a widely-read novelist. Habe had left Camp Ritchie to serve in North Africa, where he had distinguished himself for his interrogation skills and his propaganda pamphlets. The army brought him back to the States with the assignment of training four “mobile radio broadcast companies,” or MRBCs, in psychological warfare at Camp Sharpe. Habe’s incredible dedication to this task and the breadth of the training he gave the men earned him their grudging respect, despite their mockery of his vanity and foppishness.
Habe’s classes covered radio monitoring and composing news reports, learning the names and tendencies of all the Axis magazines and newspapers, memorizing place names and the names of all Axis men of influence, creating effective propaganda pamphlets, and giving appeals by radio and microphone as to how to surrender. All the men had the same rigorous training, but Habe assigned them to various specialties. Benno was assigned to radio work, in part because of his theatrical work, in part because he had a Rhenish accent, which would lend his work credibility—and more relatability than a Prussian one—whether doing “white” or “black” broadcasting. For white broadcasting, German audiences would know that the station was an Allied one; for black broadcasting, Americans would pretend that the station was German.
Benno would excel in both kinds of broadcasting.
He departed from Ritchie with his classmates, and crossed the Atlantic on the Queen Elizabeth—a ship that had been refitted from passenger ship to an army troop ship capable of carrying 15,000 troops per crossing. He landed in Glasgow on April 5 and crossed the Channel immediately after D-Day.
Bomb damage to Colombieres Castle, 1944
The first days in Normandy were hectic ones, with the members of Benno’s MRBC company filling in wherever there was a need. Although Benno was assigned to be a radio producer, he was sent out at one point to round up German prisoners. Eventually, though, he was sent with the main body of his company to Colombières to join the 12th US Army Group, under the command of General Omar Bradley. The 14th-century castle in Colombières had been badly bombed by the Germans, and reconstruction had just started: the roofs and attics were unfinished, and there was only one sit-down toilet. This castle was used as housing for civilians, officers, and journalists, while the enlisted men were forced to sleep in foxholes outside the castle moat.
Colombiéres provided Benno’s company the first prolonged stay under combat conditions. The men were three miles from the front and they were subjected to regular nightly air raids. Eventually, some of the company, Benno among them, snuck into the unfinished attic of the chateau at night, to sleep on the beams there. One of the men in Benno’s company, Otto Schoeppler, recalled an incident there when the alarm went out of an imminent gas attack:
“We had settled down for the night—the attic was pitch black—and the construction was such that only a part of it had a floor, the rest was heavy beams. The ceilings below were fixed to these beams. The ‘three gas shots’ were fired—we reached for our gas masks. Benno could not find his and in his fright he ran into the NO floor part. Result—he crashed through the ceiling below and was dangling up to his armpits on two of the beams. Bert and I went to rescue him. When we got there we saw there were British officers in the room below, and one of them (typically British) said, ‘Stay up there old chap, we can’t use you down here.’
“There was no gas and Benno survived to be, in my opinion, one of the most productive members of the 2nd MRB.”13
Soon Benno was demonstrating his productive value when he was assigned to a team of nine radio men to work under the auspices of SHAEF’s Psychological Warfare Division in Lorient. Lorient, on the coast of Brittany, was the site of Germany’s largest U-boat base, with a complex of bomb-proof submarine pens. 28,000 Germans were stationed in the underground barracks, and there were also thousands of soldiers from the routed German 7th Army living in less comfortable quarters and therefore presumably more vulnerable to Allied propaganda. Prior to D-Day, the Allies had dropped 4,000 tons of bombs on the base, but they’d been unable to damage it. They had then destroyed the town, in order to prevent the base’s access to workers and resources. Benno and his men were told that they were to lay “radio siege” to the base prior to an all-out Allied attack on the garrison. In reality, no Allied attack ever came, and the only attack was that leveled by the radio crew. Lorient therefore became a laboratory for testing the skills of the broadcasters, since the men had free rein to develop their sustained propaganda attacks against the Germans entrenched there.
Three of the team served as broadcasters; Benno was the radio producer and speaker, the Viennese actor and fellow MRBC man Fred Lorenz [Manfred Inger] performed a wide variety of character roles on air, and Hollywood screenwriter David Hertz—an OSS man—served as principal writer. In reality these three men shared duties. And together they created an unbeatable team. Hertz remembered that the team took advantage of living in close quarters with German prisoners, eating, sleeping, and drinking with them, and that therefore “we could measure more accurately the results of our broadcasts than perhaps any other radio station used in the war.”14
Because these prisoners gave the broadcasters detailed information about specific figures in the garrison, Benno came up with the idea of creating a program feature called “Erlauschtes aus Lorient” (Things Heard in Lorient). Fred Lorenz worked with the prisoners to capture the exact tone and nuance of various disliked officers in the garrison, and Hertz wrote dialogue characteristic to each individual so that he could be satirized on the air. In one case, for example, one of these “characters” remarked “The Russians are fleeing from Russia—to Hungary, to Finland, To Germany. They don’t like it in Russia. Well, who does?”15
The Lorient broadcast team. Left to right: Fred Lorenz, David Hertz, Benno Frank
Benno adopted the fictitious persona of a Captain Angers, ostensibly a man who had served in the German army and was now an American army captain. Hertz said, admiringly, “Benno was dynamically original in his attack on the enemy. He could sell anyone anything.”16
Benno’s MRBC commander stated that the success of the Lorient operation was “due largely to the imagination and resources of T/3 [Benno] Frank.”17 His greatest strength “was his almost complete lack of orthodoxy. He had little time for the amenities of warfare that were prescribed by those who were tradition bound.”18
In one case, he defied Army regulations by going on the air with a remarkable announcement, saying to the Germans, “Come over. If you don’t like it here after a 30-hour trial period, you will be free to go back. On my honor, I will see to it that you are sent back! Ask for Captain Angers.”19 It seemed to be a safe promise, since it was highly unlikely that any man who voluntarily deserted would want to return to the besieged garrison. However, the day came when an ardent Nazi named Fridolin Hopf was captured, and at the end of his 30-hour imprisonment, he asked to be sent back to the German lines. Benno saw to it that the prisoner was loaded down with candy bars, cigarettes, gum, and canned food, and sent back to his unit. He then made the most of this in the broadcasts that followed. “He said that Hopf had not liked it in the American lines, but he had been the only dissatisfied customer among several hundred and his release was true evidence that he, Captain Angers, was a man who kept his word. Thereafter, Hopf was referred to as a sort of travel agent in Lorient […]. ‘Ask Hopf!’ [Benno said], You’ll find him in Bunker No. 6, Barracks Four.”20
During the time the three men served in Lorient—from early August until October 14, 1944—approximately 2,000 Germans surrendered, even though the radio broadcasts were unsupported by any military action. It was one of the most remarkable efforts of the war, “the sole example of a small transmitter in tactical radio propaganda” during the entire European conflict.21 Memory magnified the men’s achievements; when the veterans of Benno’s company assembled in New York at Harvey’s Chelsea Restaurant in 1990, they declared that, in fact, Benno had, “in a memorably mellow broadcast persuaded all 30,000 Germans in a submarine base to come over.”22
The Operation Annie team at Radio Luxembourg. Seated in the second row: Fred Lorenz, David Hertz, and Benno Frank
But there was more to come. In October the Lorient team was called to the recently captured radio station in Luxembourg. Luxembourg boasted the largest radio transmitter in the world and was one of the most powerful radio stations in Europe. Hans Habe was put in charge of the German-language programming for the new “Radio Free Luxembourg,” and he called in many of the MRBC men to serve here as writers and broadcasters who, with their “white” programming, drew a large German audience simply by telling the truth about the progress of the war.
Benno was not part of this programming. Instead, he and the rest of the 9-man Lorient staff were assigned to “black” programming that the station aired at night. With its call numbers 1212 and its nickname “Operation Annie,” it began airing for several hours every night after midnight. It purported to come from a German station in the Rhineland that was in the immediate path of the Allied advance. Benno served as main announcer.
The whole pretense of the broadcasters was that they were a group of SS dissidents who believed that the Fuehrer needed protection from his corrupt subordinates. For the first weeks of their broadcasting, the Annie team gave only accurate, detailed news reports of the war, always from the German perspective; this gave them credibility and guaranteed an audience. In order to do this, the men studied photographs of the latest Allied bombings in the Rhineland, compared these with earlier photographs, and studied city maps and telephone books, so that when they went on air they were not only able to list businesses and homes that had been destroyed, but in many cases the owners of these structures.
They also provided entertainment programs and music from the Rhineland.
Once Radio 1212 had gained the trust of its listeners, especially after the Allied breakthrough into the Moselle region, it began inserting “false reports, evacuation and mobilization orders, rumors, and exaggerated information,” in order to create chaos and to lure men and equipment into capture.23
Benno took on a new persona in these broadcasts: he now cast himself as a German army officer retired from active service because of wounds, and he addressed himself to both enemy soldiers and Rhineland civilians. As one of his colleagues put it: “Benno was really the voice of 1212. It was full, rasping, mature and it spoke with an unmistakable Rhine-Hessian accent. As many interrogations with military and civilian prisoners later revealed, ‘You had to believe what he was saying.’ Benno held the program together, whetted the audience’s appetite for coming attractions, gave the musical program unity and took over all those special features which needed the authority of a man of experience and integrity.”24
As the Allies gained more and more territory in Germany, the voices of Operation Annie grew sadder and more desperate. On one of the last days of broadcasting, Benno gave a speech that moved many to tears. “Germany, our fatherland, bleeds from a thousand wounds, and for Germany bleed our hearts,” he intoned. “Our lines of defense are shattered. Without pity or hindrance, enemy planes destroy our homes and our factories. The final crisis is upon us.” He appealed to the Germans to come together and fight for immediate peace. Brewster Morgan, the OWI’s chief of broadcasting, remarked that Benno’s appeal that night was, in style and delivery, “the finest radio performance I have ever heard.” The Annie staff was “stunned into silence,” and, weeks later captured Germans “wept as they spoke of it.”25 As larger parts of the Rhineland were taken by the Allies, Operation Annie had to give up its pretense of being a viable local German radio station. On its final day of operation, April 25, 1945, the broadcasters staged a false on-air attack upon the transmitter and Operation Annie disappeared from the airwaves.
When the war ended, Benno, like many of his colleagues, stayed on in Germany to aid in the process of denazification. He was very aware of what they were up against. During Advent, 1945, he took George Bailey with him to visit a family living near Frankfurt am Main. The parents, amateur musicians, had four children; the six of them played a Schubert sextet for their guests. The women were wearing dirndls, and they were all “neat as pins and scrubbed till they shone.” The room “was full of glancing light and sinuous sound,” Bailey said. “I was enchanted.” Benno, however, said to him “These are the ‘other Germans.’ Can you imagine their having had anything to do with the gas chambers and the cremation ovens of the SS? Well, they did: they had their part to play.” As a native American, Bailey put his statement down to the “rhetoric of the time and place. Naturally enough, everybody suspected everybody.”26 Benno knew better.
America was already moving into the Cold War, although the MRBC German émigrés were concerned with programs of denazification and reeducation of the defeated Germans. Benno, like Habe, was sent to Berlin to carry out these projects for the American Military Government. Habe was sent to found and manage a new national newspaper for the Office of Military Government, United States (OMGUS), Benno to serve as the Deputy Chief of Theater and Music under the immediate oversight of Brig. General Robert McClure, head of the Allies’ Information Control Division (ICD). It was Benno’s task to carry out the Allies’ evaluation and judgments on German performers applying to return to the concert and theatrical stage.
Benno was aptly suited to the task, given his faith in the arts as buffer against the fascist values that had been blasted over the air waves for the past two decades. “Mozart and Shakespeare did not let [the Germans] down,” Benno argued. He deeply believed that great art, especially music, was free of racial discrimination, since “we are not educated to discriminate by ear, only by eye.” Certainly one of the most compelling examples of reeducation success through music occurred when Benno arranged for Berlin’s top intellectuals to hear a concert by Marian Anderson. As he had in Lorient, Benno succeeded by breaking the rules—this time, rules against Americans performing before a German audience. “Marian Anderson [sang] only in German,” Benno remembered, and, since she had studied in Germany, “this American Negro spoke as good German as they. When she finished singing there was no applause. They were so absolutely stunned they couldn’t applaud. And right there all the myth of Mr. Goebbels fell apart.”27
Still, Benno’s assignment of finding non-Nazi performers in Germany was a difficult one. As in the case of Benno’s Advent visit to the home of “other Germans,” it was hard to find any Germans who were not tainted by Nazism during Hitler’s rule. Even those performers who had resisted Hitler were tainted by their service under his reign. As Benno noted: “Only a few people outside of Germany were familiar with political leaders like Hess, Ley, Ribbentrop, etc., but artists like Richard Strauss, Gerhard Hauptmann, and Wilhelm Furtwängler were internationally known and recognized. Today it may be said that Hitler’s success in using these prominent cultural figures has decisively contributed to the prestige of the Nazi regime.”28
In the realm of music, for example, Wilhelm Furtwaengler, the principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, could easily prove his distaste for the Nazi Party and his active, open opposition to its policy of anti-semitism, but, because of his association with the Hitler regime, he was not cleared until April 1947. And, while Allied authorities dithered over the Furtwängler case, Otto Klemperer, the German-Jewish former conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was not allowed into Germany, because, in Benno’s words, of “the state department ruling forbidding American citizens [!] to entertain or amuse Germans.”29
Benno Frank, ca. 1948
There were similar conflicts regarding the denazification of actors. Hermann Göring’s wife, Emmy Sonnemann, applied to resume her career as an actress, but was, Frank said, “naturally rejected”—and would continue to be so.30 But what about other, seemingly “unpolitical” performers? Gustav Gründgens, one of the powerhouses of the German stage and director of the Prussian State Theater, was homosexual, but he had been tolerated by the Nazis because of the support of—Hermann Göring. During the Nazi reign, he was known to have saved several actors from being sent to the gas chambers. But he was imprisoned immediately after the war by the Soviets, until the German Communist actor Ernst Busch intervened on his behalf. He was allowed by the Allies to return in triumph to the German stage.
One problem in dealing with the greatest musicians and actors was the natural desire of the public — including the Allied occupiers—to witness their performances. The young, genial conductor Herbert von Karajan, who had for good measure joined the Nazi Party twice, was reinstated in part because “every person who had heard Karajan once make music knew that if one did not allow such a person to make music, one would be punishing oneself and not him.”31
Eventually America’s concerns about Russia—and its commitment to rescuing the western sectors of Berlin during the Berlin airlift—caused denazification to fade as a policy issue, and ex-Nazi actors and musicians were again tolerated on German stages.
A problem remained, however, with the selection of plays allowed to be performed on these same stages. It was Benno’s task to assure the quality of the “new” German theater by introducing to Germany the best in American drama as well as plays written by German émigrés. He soon found that to be a task similar to walking on eggshells. Despite his efforts to cooperate with his East German counterpart, the Cold War played itself out in the makeshift and renovated theaters of East and West Germany. In the West, Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth was a huge hit throughout the country, while it was banned in the East because Wilder had portrayed war as a “natural catastrophe” rather than as “a tool of capitalism.”32 Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, on the other hand, triumphed in the East while being banned in the West as “communist propaganda.”33 Benno found himself in the unenviable position of having to jerk away performance rights to dramas he’d already approved for the American zone. By 1947, works by Lillian Hellman and Clifford Odets could no longer be performed there. And, in spite of all his efforts to bring Bertolt Brecht to the American zone, the House Un-American Activities Committee drove Brecht to flee the States for a lucrative position in East Berlin. Benno’s colleague John Evarts commented that by censoring American stage works with “an element of criticism of life in America” as well as all authors “considered to be either communist, or communist-sympathizers,” America was banning a good portion of the best serious drama written in America.34 As Benno wrote to his superiors in October 1947, “A very unfortunate instability would be thrown in the [Allied theater] program if certain material were to be thrown out every time an author is charged by the Committee.”35 Benno’s situation became less and less tenable, and, in May 1948, he was recalled to the States. As the Soviet East German newspaper, Tägliche Rundschau reported, Benno had been recalled to the States because of “his initiative”: “In Berlin artistic circles it has long been known that his work has been hindered by the systematic troublemaking and frequent and varied, attempts at intimidation by the secret service [CIA] officer [Michael] Josselson.”36 Ironically, Josselson was also an MRBC veteran.
Twelve years later, however, West Germany’s federal president, Heinrich Lübke, would honor Benno’s contributions to rebuilding the German theater by presenting him with the country’s highest civilian award: the Federal Cross of Merit.
Benno must have felt a great relief to return to the States and to practice the profession that he loved. He was hired in 1948 as director of the Cleveland (Ohio) Playhouse, and remained there for 20 years. He, his wife Kitty, and son Danny made Cleveland their permanent home for that same time period. Here he directed plays and musicals. Perhaps his most notable achievement came in December 1958 when he directed the American premiere of Bertolt Brecht’s powerful anti-war play Mother Courage at Cleveland’s Drury Theatre. He had not been able to bring Brecht to West Germany, but he could, in this manner, bring his now deceased friend to the American stage.
Benno acquired a second position in 1949 when he was hired to serve as musical director of the lyric theater at the newly rebuilt Karamu House in Cleveland. Karamu House had established the oldest African American theater in the United States, drawing many of its mostly amateur performers from the local community. “Karamu” means “a place of joyful gathering” in Swahili, and many of the great Black singer-actors of their day performed here under Benno’s direction: Clayton Corzatte in Antigone, Norman Matlock in Othello, Clayton Corbin in Emperor Jones, and Shirley Verrett in The Rape of Lucretia. Benno also took some of his Karamu actors with him when he directed at other venues: The Group 20 Players (Wellesley MA), The Boston (MA) Arts Festival, Shakespeare under the Stars (Yellow Springs and Toledo OH), and, of course, the Cleveland Playhouse.
At Karamu, Benno was able to return to the production principles he had first espoused at his Palestine Chamber Opera: producing short, one-act operas, as well as lesser known full-length operas by great composers, and incorporating cooperative acting skills into musical productions. He was unapologetic about his approach, saying “My belief is that opera in this country has to gain a place in the over-all theatre project.” Adherence to the standard repertoire and production methods before a select audience, was too restrictive. Opera “cannot exist on exclusive appeal to opera lovers,” he said, because “opera lovers seem to me too small a group.”37
Benno Frank rehearses a scene for the 1957 Karamu production of the Ernest Bloch opera “Macbeth”
There was no flashiness in the presentation of Benno’s Karamu productions. In Palestine, he had worked with a reduced orchestra; at Karamu his young actor-singers performed to piano accompaniment, and the paper programs were simply typed and mimeographed.
During his 19 years at Karamu Benno directed the American premieres of Gluck’s Children of Moses, Carl Orff’s The Wise Maiden, and Ernest Bloch’s Macbeth, as well as directing popular musicals, such as Carousel, The Music Man, and Flower Drum Song. One of Benno’s student-performers, Robert Guillaume, would pay tribute to Benno in his memoirs: “An Israeli in his sixties, Benno was old school. He […] had no interest in psychological subtleties or fashionable notions of Method acting. ‘White people,’ he would tell us black actors, ‘may need a method to find their feelings. You have no such problems.’ Instead, his direction was absolutely utilitarian. Forty years later, they are directions I still employ.” Benno, he said, articulated his basic principles of acting night after night: “Speak clearly. Speak louder; I can’t hear you. Speak softer; you’re shouting. Don’t bump into the furniture. Enter when it’s time to enter. Exit when it’s time to exit.” Benno, he said, broke the basics down to their absolute essence. “If he thought you had not learned your lines or carried out his directions, he’d throw you out on your ass—no apologies offered. […] ‘Guillaume,’ he’d say, ‘stand in the goddamn light or get off the goddamn stage’.”
Whether working with career actors or amateurs, whites or blacks, Benno treated them unapologetically as professionals. Guillaume admitted, “Benno was not the world’s most charming man. He tended to spit rather than talk. As he barked out orders, tobacco juice dribbled down his cheek. None of this endeared him to the women. But I related to his hard-nosed manner.”38
Benno also had the remarkable ability to suit his staging to all kinds of conditions. Summers would find him directing open-air productions in Cleveland, Wellesley, Boston, Yellow Springs, and San Francisco, where he proved adept at adjusting his productions to different outdoor environments and to different weather conditions. He also managed large casts. For a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, Benno created an elaborate production with a cast of 200 and “with horses on the stage and Puck in the trees.”39 And, for a performance of Emperor Jones the outdoor setting provided a stage that could be subdivided into many spots within the surrounding park. Here, one critic wrote, “The direction of Benno Frank aims at motion, and motion both real and larger than life, as Brutus Jones […] becomes lost, exhausted, frightened, then terror-stricken and finally, before the silver bullets kill him, an incoherent being […]. Just as the drama is a crescendo of panic, so Mr.Frank’s stage motion is a reflection of that panic.”40
The outdoor production of Abe Lincoln in Illinois, performed before an audience of 9,000 on an outdoor stage in the Boston Gardens, was “by far the largest, most demanding and elaborate production as yet attempted at an Arts Festival.”41 But Benno most liked directing opera. Critics were beginning to understand that opera could, indeed, be a popular draw when it combined fine singing with fine acting. His production of Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, performed at the outdoor theater in Yellow Springs Ohio, was called “a production that is at times amazing in its filmy, balletic interpretation” while not wholly neglecting “the principal currency of opera—highly developed singing-acting.” Benno’s production required that “every piece of business on the stage be a combination of singing-acting […], thus yielding “ the meaning of the term ‘music drama,’ a meaning that traditional opera often does not have.”42 And when Benno was invited to San Francisco in 1965 to stage Robert Ward’s opera The Crucible, the critic for the San Francisco Examiner raved about “the beautiful and efficient stage direction of Benno Frank,” remarking: “I have seldom seen so smoothly functioning theatricalism in opera. He seems to have been able to make all the cast mind—something far from easy to do with the average singer.”43
By the 1960s Benno was a recognized expert in community theater, in lyric opera, and especially in working with untrained Blacks. He was now called upon to lecture, to mount guest productions, and to hold teaching workshops. In 1968 he left Cleveland to work for two years in Atlanta as director of an ambitious community-wide program called “Creative Atlanta.” Benno’s position was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, and included Benno Frank, 1959 making him a visiting scholar at the University of Atlanta.
Creative Atlanta was a summer program and part of a larger effort by the city to prevent the volatile conditions of Atlanta’s disadvantaged neighborhoods from erupting into violence, by offering programs in recreation and summer education courses, and providing the same basic city services to deprived areas as those given to the more affluent. Benno’s role in Creative Atlanta was to supervise a summer arts program for more than 5,000 Atlanta youth. Under the joint sponsorship of some 20 local agencies, Creative Atlanta consisted of 17 weeks of workshops conducted in various troubled neighborhoods of the city. Activities ranged from guitar and piano lessons to the writing and performance of plays, modern dances, and marionette shows.
The works Benno staged for The Atlanta University Center’s new Lyric Theatre also fulfilled the aims of Creative Atlanta by pulling cast and performers from all around the city. Street Scene, for example, was a musical based on Elmer Rice’s play about life in the New York city tenements; it had been adapted to music by German émigré Kurt Weil with lyrics by Black poet Langston Hughes. It featured faculty and student players from four of the six Atlanta University Center Schools: Clark, Morehouse, Morris Brown, and Spelman colleges, and 40 elementary school children from M. Agnes Jones School. Piano accompaniment was provided by the musical director of Karamu and by a faculty member at Emory University.
Street Scene was performed in February 1970, at a time when Benno was reaching mandatory retirement age, and it was his last production in Atlanta. He and Kitty had decided that they would return to Palestine—now Israel—and spend their remaining years there. They did just that in 1970; Benno died exactly ten years later. But he was not forgotten by his former colleagues: in the 1990s, his fellow veterans were still paying tribute to his wartime services, and aging Black performers were still expressing gratitude for his mentorship and training. Benno had, as one old-timer put it, simply been “one of the best.”44
Beverley Driver Eddy
1.) Douglas Martin, “About New York: Together Again, These Sly Foes of Nazi Resolve,” The New York Times, 14 Apr. 1990.
2.) Most of the factual information in the first four pages of this article is taken from Sophie Fetthauer, “Benno D. Frank,” Lexikon verfolgter Musiker und Musikerinnen der NS-Zeit, Claudia Maurer Zenck, Peter Petersen eds., Hamburg: University Hamburg, 2012 (https://www.lexm.uni-hamburg.de/object/lexm_lexmperson_00001881).
3.) I have taken my information about the Schiller Opera history from “Soul Pauli: Schiller-Oper,” https://soul-pauli.de/schiller-oper/
4.) D. R., “Palestine Opera Revival. Mr. Benno Frankel’s Direction of ‘Rigoletto’,” The Palestine Post, 17 Oct. 1933.
5.) “Chamber Opera in Haifa: Suitable Substitute for the ‘Grand’,” The Palestine Post, 4 Dec. 1934.
6.) “German Opera Tenor turns Brick Carrier,” The Daily News (New York), 12 Jan. 1936.
7.) “Artists Sell ‘Hot Dogs’ on Palestine Streets,” The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle (Milwaukee), 23 Feb. 1940.
8.) “Jewish Youth at Cream Ridge,” Allentown Messenger (New Jersey), 15 June 1939.
9.) “Novel Opera Training Plan Introduced at New School,” New York Musical Courier, 1 Jan. 1942.
10.) George Bailey, Germans: The Biography of an Obsession. Enlarged and updated edition, New York: World Publishing, 1991, 24.
11.) George Bailey, Germans, 16.
12.) George Bailey, Germans, 20.
13.) Letter to the author from Otto Schoeppler, 18 (?) November 2014.
14.) David Hertz, “The Radio Siege of Lorient.” In William E. Daugherty, A Psychological Warfare Casebook. Baltimore: The Johns Hopins Press, 1960 , 386.
15.) David Hertz, “The Radio Siege of Lorient,” 389.
16.) David Hertz, “The Radio Siege of Lorient,” 387.
17.) Arthur Jaffe, in conversation with the author, 19 Feb. 2014.
18.) W. E. D. [William E. Daughter], “Benno Frank.” In William E. Daugherty, A Psychological Warfare Casebook. Baltimore: The Johns Hopins Press, 1960 , 249.
19.) Cited in W. E. D., “Benno Frank,” 250.
20.) David Hertz, “The Radio Siege of Lorient,” 387-388.
21.) Ray K. Craft, Psychological Warfare in the European Theater of Operation, Study Number 131 .
22.) Douglas Martin, “About New York: Together Again, These Sly Foes of Nazi Resolve,” The New York Times, 14 Apr. 1990.
23.) Clayton D. Laurie, The Propaganda Warriors: America’s Crusade Against Nazi Germany. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996, 207.
24.) H. H. Burger, “Operation Annie: Now It Can Be Told,” New York Times Magazine, 17 Feb. 1946, 13.
25.) Brewster Morgan, “Operation Annie, The Saturday Evening Post, 9 Mar. 1946, 123.
26.) George Bailey, Germans, 127.
27.) Sam Hopkins, “Art Is Asked in Everyday Life of the Masses,” The Atlanta Constitution, 28 Gus. 1968, 45.
28.) Benno Frank, “Theater and Music as a Principle [sic] Part of Re-orientation in Germany,” 16 Sept., 1947. Cited in Abby Anderton, “‘It was never a Nazi Orchestra’: The American Re-education of the Berlin Philharmonic,” ***?, VII;1, Winter 2013, 1.
29.) “Furtwaengler Past Cleared: Eminent Conductor Will Get OK of American Army Authorities, Arizona Daily Star (Tucson), 29 Aug. 1946, 6.
30.) “Rejected,” The Memphis Press-Scimitar (Memphis, TN), 5 Oct. 1946, 1. Emmy Sonnemann was imprisoned for a year, then barred from the stage for five years after that. She died in poverty.
31.) Abby Anderton, “‘It was never a Nazi Orchestra’,” 10.
32.) Red Ban Hits Wilder Play, The Arizona Republic (Phoenix), 23 Sept. 1947, 10.
33.) Pamela M. Potter, Art of Suppression: Confronting the Nazi Past in Histories of the Visual and Performing Arts. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016, 120.
34.) Pamela M. Potter, Art of Suppression, 120-121.
35.) Wolfgang Schivelbusch: In a Cold Crater: Cultural and Intellectual Life in Berlin, 1945-1948, Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 1998, 200.
36.) Wolfgang Schivelbusch: In a Cold Crater, 200.
37.) “Opera Center Set Up, The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa CA), 19 Aug. 1956, 19.
38.) Robert Guillaume, with David Ritz: Guillaume: A Life. Columbis MO: University of Missouri Press, 2002, 61-62. Benno cast Robert Guillaume as Billy Bigelow in Carousel; his performance earned him a New York contract.
39.) A. S. Kany, “Let’s Go Places,” The Journal Herald (Dayton OH), 20 June 1950, 6.
40.) Cyrus Durgin, “‘Emperor Jones’ at Wellesley; ‘The Vegetable’ Then and Now. The Boston Globe, 8 Aug. 1954, 83.
41.) Cyrus Durgin, “Arts Festival Drama ‘Abe Lincoln in Illinois’,” The Boston Globe, 18 June, 1956.
42.) “Opera Series Opens For Antioch Audience, The Cincinnati Enquirer, 4 July, 1957, 63.
43.) Kenneth Rexroth’s “Spring Opera’s Broken Promise, San Francisco Examiner, 27 June, 1965, 34.
44.) Letter to the author from Otto Schoeppler, 18 (?) November 2014.