It’s odd to recommend a film that’s unbearable to watch. But Not Idly By fits into that category. Less than an hour long and consisting of interviews with just one person, it’s not exactly cinema gold. But the film, which had its UK premiere last month, left me wrestling with a series of questions I can’t quite shake.
It tells the story of Peter Bergson, the alias of Hillel Kook, a 25-year-old Jew from Palestine who pitched up in America just in time for the Second World War. Originally charged with helping Vladimir Jabotinsky rally a Jewish army to join the Allied fight against Hitler, by late 1942 Bergson had learned of the Nazi slaughter of European Jewry — and from then on devoted himself to campaigning for the US to save Jewish lives.
The film charts Bergson’s efforts, whether taking out full-page ads in the New York Times or staging epic pageants and rallies at Madison Square Garden and the Hollywood Bowl, featuring the hottest celebrity names of 1943. His purpose was captured by the name of the body he set up: The Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People in Europe.
But the story is one of repeated, serial frustration. Again and again, his efforts were thwarted. He brought 400 rabbis to Washington, but no one would see them at the White House; Franklin Roosevelt contrived to have another engagement that afternoon. Congress dithered and delayed; State Department officials traded memoranda back and forth. And, with every day that passed, thousands more Jews were being shot or gassed.
None of this is new information but it’s chilling all the same. Many of us, I suspect, were raised to think of the Holocaust as the work of the wicked Nazis alone. Then we learned of the connivance of the entire German state bureaucracy, and we glumly concluded that Germany itself was culpable. Then we studied the way the killing was conducted — whether in Poland or Belarus or the Ukraine or Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — and how it could not have been done without the active and often enthusiastic collaboration of the local populations of those places and others. And we reached the even bleaker conclusion that the Shoah was the work of all Europe.
Bergson’s experience, and the way he was rebuffed by a Roosevelt administration that is revered to this day, is a reminder that the lens of blame should be widened further still. It suggests that the US, by dint of its inaction and lethargic lack of interest, was also a partner in making the Holocaust possible. (Britain, too, is not exempt: like FDR, Churchill refused to take any action specifically aimed at saving Jewish lives, such as bombing the railway tracks to Auschwitz, insisting that Jews’ best hope was that the Allies win the war.)
But the Bergson story is more unsettling even than that. It wasn’t just official Washington that stood in his way. The leadership of American Jewry was also an obstacle, regarding Bergson and his comrades as irritants and troublemakers. They, it seemed, were not keen to make too much of a fuss — lest they stir up antisemitism, lest they be thought of as somehow too much like the foreigners they were trying to save. (Jewish congressman Sol Bloom opposed the rabbis’ march, worried that the sight of so many beards looked un-American.)
Hearing this story retold is a useful corrective to a common self-perception among us British Jews. It’s often said that we suffer from quietism, that we are and were too timid, preferring to keep our collective head down in the hope that any threat will go away. The contrast is always made with the loud confidence of American Jewry. Well, now we know that rests on a myth – that when it counted, US Jewry’s leaders wanted to stay quiet.
It would be tempting to think that, back then, people didn’t know, that they didn’t have the benefit of hindsight to see that the Holocaust was unfolding before their eyes.
But they did know. On November 25, 1942, the New York Times reported that two million European Jews had been murdered. But — and this fact alone is incredible — this report only made it to page 10. Indeed, that paper, which was owned by a Jewish family, regularly buried the story of the Shoah, rarely allowing word of it to reach the front page. The other papers were no better.
All this leaves me wondering about the futility of protest and activism: that all Bergson’s big galas and adverts could not bring people out of their inertia, even when the issue at stake was as momentous as the Holocaust. No wonder the world stands by now, as innocents are slaughtered in Syria or Yemen.
And I’m left wondering about Bergson himself, who lived until 2001. How could he go on, knowing what he knew about man’s ability to see evil — and to look the other way?