The recent death in Israel of Hillel Kook, better known as Peter Bergson during his rescue efforts on behalf of European Jewry in the 1940’s, received a fair amount of notice in American newspapers with sizeable Jewish readerships.
Most of the obituaries, however, ignored the sheer extent of Jewish apathy and opposition to Bergson’s work. (Columns by the always reliable Eric Fettmann in the New York Post and Jonathan Tobin in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent were two sterling exceptions.)
Glossed over was the confluence of factors that precluded a more vigorous response from American Jewry, in particular the petty jealousies of Jewish leaders like the Reform rabbi Stephen Wise – whose scant knowledge of Judaism led one of his contemporaries to observe that “as a theologian, Wise is the blank page between the Old and New Testament” – and the reverence felt by American Jews for Franklin Roosevelt, whom Wise had the habit of referring to as “Boss.”
It’s not easy to convey the near-surrealistic mood of the American Jewish community in those years, but Rabbi Haskel Lookstein did a masterful job of it in his meticulously researched book Were We Our Brothers’ Keepers? Among the many astonishing things we learn from Lookstein, “The Orthodox Union, published monthly by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, had no reference whatsoever to the plight of German Jewry in the three issues following Kristallnacht.”
Subjects the Orthodox Union did manage to find space for in those issues included the opening of a yeshiva in Capetown; the Temple of Religion exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair; and an appeal to synagogues to join in the celebration of the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration at a special World’s Fair dinner. As Lookstein dryly noted, “For some reason – perhaps the assumption that readers would get the important news elsewhere – there was no room in the Orthodox Union for reflection on the mortal threat to German Jewry.”
(The Orthodox Union’s apathetic attitude toward events in Europe continued to manifest itself deep into the war years. Lookstein pointed out that in 1943, most of the magazine’s “gaily covered Purim issue was devoted to parochial subjects like activating the synagogue, revitalizing Orthodoxy, conducting a junior Sabbath service and the problem of Jewish youth.”)
Besides the indifference, of course, there was the looming figure of Roosevelt. “Jewish people are not supposed to worship graven images, but my mother used to kiss this little bust of Franklin Roosevelt that was on top of the big old radio,” the theatrical producer Arthur Cohen reminisced to Harvey and Myrna Frommer in their oral history Growing Up Jewish In America. “The women especially were nuts about him.”
In the 1994 documentary “America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference,” the historian and Conservative rabbi Arthur Hertzberg recalled that his father, a rabbi in Baltimore, gave a sermon on Yom Kippur 1940: “He got up in the synagogue and he said, ‘Our brothers are being killed in Europe by the Nazis. If we had any Jewish dignity, we would, at the end of this fast, get into our cars and go from Baltimore to Washington. We would picket the White House and we would demand of the president that he use his influence on the Nazis, as the great neutral power, to stop the killings….’
“That night, within an hour after the end of the fast, my father got a note from the board of this little synagogue firing him for his disrespect for the president.”
That the worship of Roosevelt seemingly knew no bounds can be glimpsed in this appalling, but all too typical, statement from one of the Jewish leaders of that era:
“The greatest friend we have, who lights up the darkness of the world, is our president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. His words are like balm for the broken Jewish hearts….Traditional Jewry will engrave, with the blood of our holy martyrs, the names of our president and his people in the annals of Jewish history for generations to come,” said Rabbi J. Konvitz, president of the Orthodox Agudat Harabanim.
Jason Maoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org