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Bergson Group Activists Recognized At Yad Vashem-Wyman Conference

The “Bergson Boys” have finally come home.

With an international conference at Yad Vashem, a reinterment ceremony in Israel, and the publication of a new book, the controversial Holocaust rescue activists last week took a major step forward in gaining the public recognition they were long denied.

Led by Hillel Kook (1913-2001), who used the pseudonym “Peter Bergson,” the group sponsored hundreds of full page newspaper ads, lobbied in Congress, and organized a march by 400 rabbis to the White House to plead for U.S. action to rescue Jews from the Nazis.

But the group also sparked its share of controversy. The Roosevelt administration, which resented the group’s pressure for rescue, used the FBI to spy on Bergson and tried to have him deported. Some mainstream Jewish leaders were also unhappy with Bergson. World Jewish Congress co-chair Nahum Goldmann told the State Department in 1944 that his colleague, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, considered Bergson “as dangerous as Hitler” because Bergson’s activities might “cause pogroms” in the United States.

The fact that the Bergson Group made so many enemies may help explain why resentment against it lingered for so long, and why it was only recently that its activism has been gaining recognition and appreciation.

Honoring a ‘Forgotten Hero’

This July 17 marked 70 years since the establishment of the Bergson Group. The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, based in Washington, D.C., which has led the campaign for recognition of the group, organized three events to coincide with the anniversary.

The first was the reinterment in Israel of the remains of Samuel Merlin, the number two man in the group. Merlin served in the First Knesset (1949-1952), so Knesset Honor Guards were on hand to place a wreath on the grave, at the Horshim cemetery near Kfar Saba.

Speakers at the ceremony included Dr. Becky Kook, daughter of Peter Bergson; Ruth Tamir, widow of Kastner Trial attorney Shmuel Tamir, a close friend of Merlin’s; Elisha Yalin-Mor, son of Stern Group leader Natan Yalin-Mor, another friend of Merlin’s; and former MK Yossi Ahimeir, director of the Jabotinsky Institute, which co-sponsored the ceremony.

Wyman Institute director Dr. Rafael Medoff described Merlin as “a forgotten hero.” Medoff is the editor of Merlin’s book, Millions of Jews to Rescue, which was published by the Wyman Institute to coincide with the reinterment and a conference last week at Yad Vashem, Israel’s central Holocaust museum and research agency.

Yad Vashem does not mention the Bergson Group in its museum exhibits. But in what Medoff called “a moment of healing and unity,” the Wyman Institute and Yad Vashem co-sponsored an international conference on “The Bergson Group and America’s Response to the Final Solution.” It was the first time Yad Vashem had hosted an event about the Bergsonites.

Abandoning the Jews

The keynote speaker at the conference was Prof. David S. Wyman, whose 1984 bestseller The Abandonment of the Jews first brought the Bergson Group to widespread public attention. Wyman said that “as a Christian, it was deeply saddening to find, in my research, that America’s churches did so little in response to the Holocaust – but at the same time, it was heartening to discover that prominent non-Jewish members of Congress, intellectuals, and Hollywood celebrities joined the Bergson Group’s campaign for rescue.”

Medoff, who in addition to serving as director of the Wyman Institute is the author of several books about the Bergson Group, discussed his research on the march by 400 rabbis to the White House, which Bergson organized just before Yom Kippur 1943. Medoff said it was the only rally for rescue held in Washington during the years of the Holocaust.

He was followed by Prof. Monty N. Penkower, author of The Jews Were Expendable and one of the first scholars to publish research on the Bergson Group. Penkower described Bergson’s pre-Holocaust campaign for a Jewish army, which helped lead to England’s belated creation of a Jewish Brigade that fought in World War II and later helped smuggle Jews from Europe to Mandatory Palestine.

An excerpt from the forthcoming documentary about the Bergson Group, “Not Idly By,” by Pierre Sauvage, was screened. It included previously unseen outtakes from an interview with Bergson that Claude Lanzmann originally intended to include in his film ‘Shoah.’ Sauvage previously directed an award-winning documentary about the French village of Chambon, where Jewish children were sheltered during the Holocaust.

The sessions were chaired by Dr. Robert Rozett, director of the Yad Vashem libraries, Dorit Novak, director of Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies, and Prof. Zohar Segev of Haifa University. Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev and chief historian Dr. Dan Michman made opening remarks.

Bergson’s daughter, Dr. Becky Kook of Ben-Gurion University, delivered the closing remarks. She called on museums and other Holocaust institutions around the world to examine the recent research about the Bergson Group and add material about the subject to their exhibits.

Spotlight on Stephen Wise

The only discordant note of the day came when a Yad Vashem spokesman read a statement from retired Holocaust historian Prof. Yehuda Bauer, who was unable to attend the conference in person. Bauer’s statement chided the conference speakers for criticizing Rabbi Wise’s failure to publicize a telegram he received from Europe in August 1942 about the mass killing. Bauer said Wise had no choice but to wait until the telegram’s contents were confirmed.
 
 
Former MK Yossi Ahimeir, director of the Jabotinsky Institute,
joins with two members of the Knesset Honor Guard
 in placing a wreath on Samuel Merlin’s grave
 

None of the speakers at the conference, however, had criticized Wise for doing so. Bauer, who had taken part in some public sparring in the early 1980s over the question of Wise and the telegram, had erroneously assumed that the same criticism would be leveled by speakers at last week’s conference. 

“It sounds as if Prof. Bauer is still fighting the battles of twenty-five years ago,” said conference panelist Dr. Judith Baumel-Schwartz, of Bar Ilan University. “It’s a shame he didn’t brush up on more recent scholarly debates about these issues before composing his statement.”

Bauer’s statement also drew a sharp rebuttal from former Israeli defense minister and foreign minister Moshe Arens, author of the recent book Flags Over the Warsaw Ghetto. Arens, a panelist at the conference, said Bauer’s focus on the telegram was misleading, because Wise received news about the mass killings from many other sources, yet still refrained from leading an activist campaign for rescue. He quoted a 1941 letter from Wise to the Geneva office of the World Jewish Congress, instructing that “not one more package” of food or other aid should be sent to the Jews in Warsaw, because that would violate the Allied blockade of Nazi-occupied countries.

Wise has in recent years come under criticism from many quarters for his response to the Holocaust. Rabbi Dr. David Ellenson, president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion said a recent Wyman Institute conference in New York City that Wise “failed miserably” in his response to the Holocaust. He said Wise’s “absolute and complete love for President Roosevelt” was to blame. Ellenson’s statement was especially noteworthy since Wise himself was a founder and president of the Jewish Institute of Religion.

Prof. Mark Raider of the University of Cincinnati, a scholar who is generally sympathetic to Wise, has said that Wise was “cautious and ineffective” in response to “the disgracefully slow response of the Allies” to the Holocaust. According to Raider, “Wise exchanged his [earlier] maverick independence for the illusory promises of the Roosevelt administration.”

Changing Attitudes

Medoff described the conference at Yad Vashem as “a major step forward in the process of the Bergson Group receiving appropriate recognition for its achievements.”

In 2008, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., added materials about the group to its permanent exhibit, following a long campaign by the Wyman Institute. Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel and then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi were among the notables who supported the Wyman Institute’s effort. Pelosi became involved after Wyman Institute researchers found that her father, at the time a Maryland congressman, had supported the Bergson Group in the 1940s.

The Bergson Group was also included in the exhibits of the recently expanded Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. The group was also included in the recent new edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica. The Brooklyn Holocaust Memorial Park also now has a plaque about the Bergsonites. The Bergson Group is now routinely found in history books, including Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East by Dr. Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States.

A number of prominent American Jewish leaders have in recent years criticized the wartime Jewish leadership and praised the Bergson Group, including Seymour Reich, former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations; Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, former chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum; and Michael S. Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York City. Miller’s father, the late Rabbi Israel Miller, took part in the 1943 march to the White House.

Explaining the reasons for the changing attitude toward Bergson, Medoff cited the new research by scholars about the group; the rise of a new generation of American Jews who were not involved in the bitter rivalries of the 1940s; and the fact that the adult children of Bergson Group activists are speaking out, which Medoff compared to the role of children of Holocaust survivors acting as a voice for the passing generation of survivors. 

“American Jewry is finally facing the skeletons in its closet,” Medoff said. “This will pave the way for a healthier understanding by U.S. Jews of America’s response to the Holocaust, the role of Jewish activism in American public life, and the tragedy of Jewish disunity in times of crisis.”

About the Author: Jason Maoz is the Senior Editor of The Jewish Press.


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