Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Bergson Group

On Sunday we heard a presentation at AACI-Netanya by Dr. Rafael Medoff, Director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, Washington DC. He spoke about "Millions of Jews to rescue." David Wyman was the author of "The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust" and Dr. Medoff was founding Director of the Institute that bears Wyman's name.

Medoff focussed on the activities of the so-called "Bergson group." This is based on the book "A Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust" by David Wyman and Rafael Medoff). Peter Bergson was the alias of Hillel Kook, the nephew of the famous Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who had brought his family to Palestine in 1904 and became the Rabbi of Palestinian Jews. Hillel Kook was one of a group of young Jewish activists who engaged in smuggling Jews into Palestine under the British blockade, an endevor known as "Aliya Bet." In the years before WWII it is estimated that they saved ca. 30,000 Jews from Europe.
Another member of the group was Benzion Netanyahu, father of our current PM Benjamin Netanyahu and also the son of the famous Jewish revisionist Zeev Jabotinski. These three plus a few others were sent to the USA after the war in Europe started in 1939, but before the US joined the war in 1941 after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, to try to get the US to help save Jews from Europe. Kook changed his name to "Bergson" to avoid exposure.

Their task was not an easy one, because of isolationist views in the US, the prevalence of anti-Semitism and the tendency of the established Jewish community "not to rock the boat." The reports of massacres of Jews in June 1941 after Germany invaded Russia was soon followed by Pearl Harbor in December. Bergson met with many Senators and Congressmen, mostly non-Jews and gradually garnered support for a more activist approach to the problem than was being taken by the Roosevelt Administration, whose attitude was reflected in the slogan "rescue through victory," i.e. we will not do anything specific to rescue Jews. His group took out full-page ads in US newspapers asking for support to help of save Jewish lives. The established Jewish organizations were discomfited by this approach and generally opposed these initiatives.

In 1942 the Germans started mass gassings of Jews in Chelmo, Poland, and established Auschwitz to "speed up" the process of genocide. Americans were skeptical of these reports and the Washington Post reported on p.10 the estimate that over 2 million Jews had already been killed. Bergson was galvanized by these reports and began a public campaign of marches of Rabbis and persuaded many Jewish personalities, such as Ben Hecht, the screenwriter, Barney Ross, the boxer, Groucho Marx, Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni and many others, to support his campaign. They organized extravaganzas at Madison Square Garden and hearings in Congress. Many Jewish politicians such as Rep. Sol Bloom of CA and Roosevelt aide Ed Rosenman were unsympathetic to the cause, but when the representative of the State Department Breckenridge Long actually lied under oath and stated that the US had admitted 550,000 Jews when the number was only about 30,000, public opinion began to push for a more active approach by the US Administration.

To forestall this opposition Roosevelt agreed to the establishment of "The War Refugee Board," an office that was run out of the Treasury Department, whose head was Henry Morgenthau Jr., the only Jew in the Cabinet. This Board's job was to rescue Jews, and they sent representatives to Europe and recruited an obscure Swedish diplomat named Raoul Wallenberg to go to Budapest, where in June 1944 the extirmination of Hungarian Jewry was in progress. By extrordinary action and bravery Wallenberg managed to buy safe houses and to safe teh lives of thousnads of Jews. Altogther int eh 10 months of its exitence before WWII ended the WRB managed to save ca. 250,000 Jeiwsh lives. One can only wonder how many lives could have been saved had the Roosevelt Administration and the organized American Jewish community acted sooner. Let it be a lesson for all time!


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