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May 23, 2015 / 5 Sivan, 5775
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Hadassah Honors Bergson Group

WASHINGTON – The campaign to win public recognition for the Holocaust rescue activists known as the Bergson Group took another step forward recently when Hadassah became the latest major Jewish organization to pay tribute to the 1940’s activists.

The occasion was an event at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, just outside Washington, D.C., cosponsored by Hadassah’s Greater Washington division and the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. The Wyman Institute has been leading the effort to publicize the work of the Bergson Group.

The focus of the Chevy Chase event was the late Mrs. Dorothy Naftalin, who in the 1940’s served as president of Hadassah in Washington and also as a leader of the Bergson Group’s D.C. chapter.

D.C. Hadassah president Arlene Steinberg, programming vice president Saradona Lefkowitz, and Wyman Institute director Dr. Rafael Medoff presented Mrs. Naftalin’s son, Micah, with a plaque honoring his mother for her “tireless efforts, with both Hadassah and the Bergson Group, on behalf of rescue from the Holocaust and creating a Jewish State.”

Naftalin is director of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews and former director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. In his remarks, he said his mother’s devotion to both Hadassah, an establishment group, and the Bergsonites, who used unorthodox activist tactics, represented a “spirit of pluralism that all Jews should emulate.” He also praised the local Hadassah division for resisting pressure from other Zionist leaders in the 1940’s to repudiate Bergson.
 
 
Hadassah leaders Arlene Steinberg and Saradona Lefkowitz, with Wyman Institute director Dr. Rafael Medoff, present a plaque to Micah Naftalin (second from left) honoring his mother’s work with the Bergson Group.
 

Recalling his own years of activism on behalf of Soviet Jewry, Naftalin compared the Jewish leadership’s treatment of the Bergson Group to its later treatment of activist groups like the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry and his own Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry.

However, just as the Soviet Jewry activists eventually received community-wide recognition for their accomplishments, the achievements of the Bergson Group too have slowly gained acknowledgment, as the Hadassah-Wyman Institute event demonstrated.

Wyman director Medoff, in his remarks at the Chevy Chase event, described his recent research on Hadassah’s relations with the Bergson Group. He said that documents he has uncovered indicate that Hadassah did not share the mainstream Jewish leadership’s extreme hostility to the Bergsonites. Among other things, he found evidence that one Hadassah leader in Washington gave the Bergson Group logistical advice to help with the group’s 1943 march by four hundred rabbis to the White House. He also found a memo by an American Zionist leader complaining to his colleagues that “women of prominence in Hadassah” were supporting the Bergson Group’s efforts to smuggle Jews from Europe to Palestine during the early months of World War II.

The Hadassah-Wyman event in Chevy Chase comes on the heels of the crowning success of the Wyman Institute’s campaign – the recent decision by the U.S. Holocaust Museum to recognize Bergson in its Permanent Exhibit. Several years ago, Medoff, Naftalin, and other sons and daughters of Bergson Group activists met with Museum leaders to make their case for inclusion of Bergson. More recently, the Wyman Institute organized a petition by Jewish leaders, historians, and other public figures urging the Museum to recognize Bergson.

The Wyman campaign also attracted the sympathetic interest of Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Wyman Institute researchers recently found documents showing that Ms. Pelosi’s father, Maryland Congressman Thomas D’Alessandro, Jr., was a Bergson supporter. In a message to a Wyman Institute conference on the Bergson Group last year, Pelosi said she was “thrilled” to learn of her father’s link to Bergson and “deeply proud to know that he was one of those who stood up for what was right, at a time when too many people chose to look the other way.”

Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, the keynote speaker at that Wyman conference, said that while the Bergson Group worked “day and night” to promote rescue of Jews from the Holocaust, “the Jewish community’s leaders didn’t do what they should have.” Wiesel said, “Even now, it makes me despair.”

About the Author: Jason Maoz is the Senior Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at jmaoz@jewishpress.com.


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