On an unseasonably warm Washington morning in November 1942, Peter Bergson sipped his coffee and leafed through the latest editions of the New York Times and the Washington Post. It was a habit he’d acquired since arriving in America nearly two years earlier, as a 25-year-old Palestinian Zionist on a mission to raise awareness, and money, for the establishment of a Jewish military force to join the Allies’ war against Hitler.
Yet when he spotted a brief news item, tucked away on an inside page of the Post, he knew that mission was over. The headline read: “Two million Jews slain, Rabbi Wise asserts.” The reference was to a news conference the previous evening by Rabbi Stephen Wise, American Jewry’s foremost spokesman and leader. It was the first public confirmation of the Nazi Holocaust. For Bergson, his Jewish army campaign now seemed utterly, obscenely, irrelevant.
Over the next several years, he and a small band of supporters worked tirelessly to publicise the slaughter of the Jews of Europe, determined to bring popular and political pressure on President Franklin D. Roosevelt to save those Jews who were still alive. That this meant confrontation with the Roosevelt Administration was inevitable. Roosevelt’s view was that there could be only one American war aim: to defeat Hitler’s armies.
Yet the main obstacle turned out to lie elsewhere: in the strident, unceasing opposition to Bergson’s rescue campaign from Rabbi Wise, other prominent Jews with access and influence in the White House, and nearly every American Jewish organisation, with the notable exception of a number of Orthodox groups. At a time when such public campaigning, certainly by Jews, was unheard of, the Jewish establishment’s message to the Bergson Group was unequivocal: keep quiet. You’ll undermine our influence. You’ll alienate people. You will fan the flames of antisemitism.
Bergson believed the stakes were too high to stay silent. He held news conferences of his own. He enlisted the support of some of America’s leading writers and artists, actors and composers. He took out deliberately provocative full-page ads in the Times, the Post and other newspapers. He produced standing-room-only pageants in Madison Square Garden and across the country to dramatise the mass murder of Europe’s Jews. Above all, he lobbied politicians — cabinet secretaries, senators and congressmen, as well as Eleanor Roosevelt, the president’s wife — to urge the President to establish a government agency explicitly dedicated to rescue work.
In the end, thanks in large part to the support of non-Jewish public figures in America, the campaign succeeded. It was too late, and too little, Bergson always felt. Still, some 200,000 Jews were saved in the final year of the Holocaust following President Roosevelt’s establishment, in 1944, of the War Refugee Board.
Next week, JW3 will premiere a powerful documentary on Bergson and his rescue campaign, followed by a panel discussion. The Los Angeles-based film-maker, Pierre Sauvage, will join by video link. The panel will include the JC and Guardian writer and broadcaster Jonathan Freedland, and Laurel Leff, the distinguished Jewish-studies academic who wrote a groundbreaking exposé of the extraordinary dearth of coverage of the Holocaust by the — Jewish-owned —New York Times.
I must declare a personal interest in the event, and not just because I will be chairing the discussion. Peter Bergson, who passed away in 2001, was my father-in-law. “Bergson”, in fact, was an alias he adopted for his work in the US. His real name was Hillel Kook. He was the son of a rabbi, who had brought the family from a shtetl in Lithuania when Hillel was eight years old. He was the nephew of another rabbi: Avraham Yitzhak Kook, the Chief Rabbi of Palestine. Before abandoning his religious studies to join the Irgun Zvai Leumi, Hillel studied at Kook’s Merkaz haRav yeshivah in Jerusalem.
His story, in itself, is utterly compelling. He went on to serve in Israel’s first Knesset, leaving in protest at the failure of the assembly to do the work it was in fact elected to perform: the writing of a formal constitution for Israel. Yet his real genius was to grasp the larger issues beyond day-to-day politics. For Hillel, the primary political imperative for individual Jews was to see clearly, and act morally. That lesson, though never more urgent than during the Holocaust, is one that is timeless, as I expect the panel and audience discussion at JW3 will reflect.
Ned Temko is a former editor of the JC. ‘Not Idly By – Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust’ is premiered at JW3 on May 10