Sixty-five years after they shook the political establishment with their newspaper ads and rallies against the Holocaust, the activists known as the Bergson Group have been officially acknowledged by New York City.
A memorial stone about the Bergson Group, which was officially called the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, was unveiled last week at the Brooklyn Holocaust Memorial Park in Sheepshead Bay.
The stone was unveiled by Nili Kook and the Dr. Rebecca Kook, the widow and daughter, respectively, of Hillel Kook, who under the pseudonym Peter Bergson had been the group’s leader. Mrs. Kook and Dr. Kook flew from Israel to attend the event.
The project was initiated by Elliot Zolin of Long Island, in cooperation with the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. The inscription on the stone notes that the Bergson Group “staged theatrical programs, sponsored hundreds of newspaper advertisements, lobbied government officials and organized a march by rabbis in Washington. These efforts led to a congressional resolution that helped influence President Roosevelt to establish the War Refugee Board, which played a major role in saving an estimated 200,000 Jews and other refugees.”
Former New York City mayor Ed Koch spoke at the ceremony. He strongly praised the Bergson Group’s efforts and said the city’s recognition of the group was “long overdue.” It was under Koch’s auspices that the Holocaust Memorial Park was created in 1983 as the first official Holocaust commemoration site in the city.
Rabbi Binyamin Kamenetzky, founder and dean of the South Shore Yeshiva, also spoke at the event. Rabbi Kamenetzky was one of the rabbis who took part in the 1943 march in Washington. More than one hundred students from Mesivta Ateres Yaakov, which is located at South Shore, and from the Ramaz School in Manhattan, took part in the event.
Caption: Dr. Rebecca Kook, daughter of Peter Bergson/Hillel Kook, speaking at the dedication of the Bergson Group memorial stone. In the foreground is former mayor Ed Koch and, to his right, Prof. David S. Wyman, Mrs. Nili Kook, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, and Elliot Zolin, sponsor of the memorial stone. To Dr. Kook’s left is award-winning filmmaker Pierre Sauvage, who is completing a documentary about Bergson. (Credit: Photo: Einat Haskel)
Rabbi Kamenetzky praised the students who participated in the rally at the United Nations against Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, comparing the rally to the activities of the Bergson Group in the 1940s.
“Every one of us has an obligation to speak out against those who want to destroy the Jewish people,” he said. “The Bergson Group spoke out then, and we must speak out now.”
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, principal of Ramaz and leader of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, also spoke at the Brooklyn event. He came to the ceremony straight from the rally at the UN. He recalled how his 1984 book Were We Our Brothers’ Keepers? found that many American Jewish leaders had a “business as usual” mindset during the Holocaust years. “But not the Bergson Group,” he said. “They were among the few who realized that what was happening in Europe was business as usual.”
Wyman Institute board member Robert Weintraub told the gathering that Hillel Kook, Ben Hecht, and the other Bergson activists were “modern Maccabees” who “showed courage and daring at a time when too many American Jews were afraid to speak out.” He said that some Jewish establishment figures had tried to “write the Bergson Group out of history, because they couldn’t forgive the activists for being right when they were wrong.”
But in recent years, he said, the Wyman Institute had succeeded in finally winning public recognition for the Bergson Group, “as evidenced by today’s event.”