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September 17, 2014 / 22 Elul, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Bergson Group’

A Holocaust Pageant that Was too ‘Political’ for FDR

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

Seventy years ago this week, 40,000 New Yorkers watched as Jewish activists and Hollywood celebrities joined hands to bring news of the Holocaust to the vaunted stage of Madison Square Garden. But a requested message of greeting from President Franklin D. Roosevelt never arrived, because the White House decided the mass murder of the Jews was too “political” to touch.

In January 1943, a Gallup poll asked Americans, “It is said that two million Jews have been killed in Europe since the war began. Do you think this is true or just a rumor?” Although the Allied leadership had publicly confirmed that two million Jews had been murdered, the poll found only 47 percent believed it was true, while 29 percent dismissed it as a rumor; the remaining 24 percent had no opinion.

The failure of the news media to treat the Nazi genocide as a serious issue contributed to the public’s skepticism. To some extent, editors were following the lead of the Roosevelt administration, which, after issuing a condemnation of the mass murder, made no effort to publicize the tragedy or aid Jewish refugees.

Ben Hecht, the newspaper columnist and Academy Award-winning screenwriter, responded in the way he knew best: he picked up his pen and began to write.

With his outsized dramatic sense in high gear, Hecht authored a full-scale pageant called “We Will Never Die.” On a stage featuring forty-foot-high tablets of the Ten Commandments, it would survey Jewish contributions to civilization throughout history, describe the Nazi slaughter of the Jews, and culminate in an emotional recitation of Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead, by a group of elderly rabbis.

“Will it save the four million [Jews still alive in Europe]?” Hecht wrote on the eve of the opening. “I don’t know. Maybe we can awaken some of the vacationing hearts in our government.”

Hecht was involved with a small group of Jewish activists led by Hillel Kook, a Zionist emissary from Palestine who operated under the pseudonym Peter Bergson. The Bergson Group booked Madison Square Garden for the evening of March 9 and set about trying to convince the established Jewish organizations to cosponsor “We Will Never Die.”

Bergson’s well-meaning attempt at Jewish unity flopped. A meeting of representatives of several dozen Jewish groups, hosted by Hecht, deteriorated into shouting matches. It was an example of what the historian Henry Feingold has described as the sad tendency of some Jewish organizations to “allow themselves the luxury of fiddling while Jews burned.”

Hecht succeeded, however, in persuading some of Hollywood’s most prominent Jews to volunteer their services. Actors Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, Sylvia Sydney and Stella Adler assumed the lead roles; Kurt Weill composed an original score; Moss Hart agreed to serve as director, and famed impresario Billy Rose signed on as producer.

It was Rose who decided to approach Roosevelt. Through White House adviser David Niles, Rose asked the president for a “brief message” that could be read aloud at the pageant. Nothing bold or controversial, of course – something that would say “only that the Jews of Europe will be remembered when the time comes to make the peace.”

Rose assured the White House, “There is no political color to our Memorial Service.”

But apparently even the very mention of the Jews was “political” in the eyes of official Washington. White House aides warned the president that sending the requested message would be “a mistake.” Despite Rose’s assurance, “it is a fact that such a message would raise a political question,” Henry Pringle of the Office of War Information advised.

What Pringle meant was that publicizing the slaughter could raise the “political question” of how America was going to respond to the Nazi genocide. And since Roosevelt had decided the U.S. was not going to take any specific steps to aid the Jews, raising that question would be embarrassing. Hence Rose was informed that the “stress and pressure” of the president’s schedule made it impossible for FDR to provide the few words of comfort and consolation the Bergson Group sought.

None of this deterred the irrepressible Ben Hecht and his comrades from making sure the show would go on. More than 20,000 people jammed Madison Square Garden on the frigid evening of March 9. Since there were so many people gathered on the sidewalks outside who were unable to enter the packed hall, the cast decided to do a second performance immediately after the first. The second show, too, filled the Garden.

Bergson Group Continues To Win Belated Recognition

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

The campaign for recognition of the Bergson Group’s Holocaust rescue efforts took another step forward last week when a prominent historian who previously had been unsympathetic to the group publicly praised Bergson.

Prof. Richard Breitman, editor of the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s journal, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, made his remarks during a panel discussion at the Center of Jewish History. The discussion followed a screening of Pierre Sauvage’s new documentary film, “Not Idly By: The Bergson Group, America, and the Holocaust.”

Breitman told the audience that Bergson “did a lot of good” with his campaign of rallies, newspaper ads, and lobbying for rescue in 1943.

Prof. Laurel Leff of Northeastern University, who was on the panel with Breitman, noted that while established Jewish organizations were “involved with a whole variety of issues, only the Bergson Group was totally focused on the rescue issue.”

Breitman replied that Bergson “deserves a lot of credit for focusing exclusively on rescue.”

In his 1987 book American Refugee Policy and in other writings, Breitman had minimized the effectiveness of the Bergson efforts. But in his remarks at the Center for Jewish History, he said the Bergson Group “was extremely useful in building up support in Congress for rescue, in late 1943, which helped lead to President Roosevelt’s establishment of the War Refugee Board.”

Breitman said he still feels that behind-the-scenes pressure by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. was the largest factor leading to the creation of the Board but he added that Morgenthau and his aides themselves credited Bergson for building up the public pressure that made it possible for Morgenthau to influence FDR.

During 1944-1945, the War Refugee Board played a major role in the rescue of about 200,000 Jews, according to Prof. David S. Wyman, author of The Abandonment of the Jews.  It was the War Refugee Board that sent Raoul Wallenberg to Nazi-occupied Budapest and financed his rescue work there.

In response to a question from the audience, Breitman said that Wallenberg would not have been able to get to Hungary, with the official Swedish diplomatic credentials that made his work possible, if not for the intervention of War Refugee Board representative Ivor Olsen.

Thus, Breitman said, it is “probably” accurate to say “that Wallenberg would not have been able to do what he did in Budapest if Bergson had not done what he did in Washington.”

The Center for Jewish History is the latest in a series of prominent institutions that have held Bergson-related events. The U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington installed an exhibit about Bergson’s rescue campaign; Yad Vashem and the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies hosted a conference to mark the Bergson Group’s seventieth anniversary; and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York invited the Wyman Institute to conduct a teachers training workshop on how to teach about the Bergson Group and America’s response to the Holocaust.

Bergson Group Activists Recognized At Yad Vashem-Wyman Conference

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

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.”

Bergson Group Honored At NYC’s First Holocaust Memorial Site

Wednesday, October 1st, 2008

  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.”

Conference Spotlights Americans Who Tried To Rescue Jews From Hitler

Wednesday, October 1st, 2008

  Americans who tried to rescue Jews from the Holocaust – and those who tried to interfere with the rescue efforts – were the subject of a major conference in New York City last week.

  A standing room-only audience was on hand Sept. 21 at the Fordham University Law School for “They Spoke Out: American Voices for Rescue from the Holocaust,” the sixth national conference of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

  The Institute, based in Washington, D.C., is named after Prof. David Wyman, author of the 1984 bestseller The Abandonment of the Jews.

  The keynote session of the conference focused on Treasury Department attorney Josiah E. DuBois, Jr. (1913-1983), who is the subject of a new book, Blowing the Whistle on Genocide, by Wyman Institute director Dr. Rafael Medoff.

  Medoff, Wyman, Dr. Rebecca Kook – daughter of Bergson Group leader Hillel Kook – and DuBois’s friend Richard Goodwin spoke at the conference session. They described how DuBois, a Protestant, discovered and exposed the State Department’s obstruction of plans to rescue Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe.

  DuBois, whom Medoff called “an unsung American hero,” helped force President Franklin Roosevelt to create the War Refugee Board.  “It is hard to imagine the Board coming into existence if not for DuBois doing what he did,” Prof. Wyman said.  The Board, of which DuBois was a leader, organized the rescue of an estimated 200,000 Jews during 1944-45. Prof. Wyman pointed out that the War Refugee Board organized and financed the rescue mission of Raoul Wallenberg in German-occupied Budapest.
 
 
Sigmund Rolat, the businessman and philanthropist leading the rebirth of Jewish cultural life in Poland, chaired the Wyman Institute conference. (Photo: Meir Schein)
 

  The conference’s second session touched on the conflicts within the American Jewish community in the 1940s that hampered rescue activity.  Rabbi Dr. David Golinkin, of the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, described how his father, Noah Golinkin, led a delegation of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbinical students to meet with American Jewish Congress leader Rabbi Stephen Wise in December 1942.  The students tried to convince Wise to organize protest rallies and other activist steps in response to the killing of Europe’s Jews.

  According to Noah Golinkin’s account, Wise unequivocally rebuffed their suggestion that Jewish refugees be sheltered in a U.S. territory such as the Virgin Islands or Alaska.  Wise insisted that because the students had limited experience in the world, they were obligated to trust the judgment of a veteran Jewish leader such as himself.
 
 
Thane Rosenbaum, the Fordham law professor, novelist, and human rights activist, served as master of ceremonies. (Photo: Meir Schein)

 
  Rabbi Dr. David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College, who also spoke at the session, likewise criticized Wise, who was the founder and leader of the school Ellenson now heads.  Dr. Ellenson said Wise lacked the “imagination and flexibility” necessary to respond effectively to the Allies’ abandonment of European Jewry.  He added that Wise’s “blind love” for President Roosevelt unduly influenced his judgment.


  The final session of the Wyman Institute conference focused on the Bergson Group’s controversial 1946 Broadway play “A Flag is Born,” about Holocaust survivors and the fight to create Israel.  Actor Steven Hill, famous for his role in the television series “Law & Order” in recent years, spoke about his first acting role, as a character in “A Flag is Born,” in which he appeared alongside a young Marlon Brando.  Hill said he was “deeply proud” to have been part of a theatrical production that helped the movement to create Israel.

  Hebrew University president Judah Magnes denounced “Flag” for its sympathetic portrayal of the Jewish armed revolt against the British in Mandatory Palestine.  He called it “an appeal to terror” and urged former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to withdraw her endorsement of the play. She ignored the request.

  When “A Flag is Born” came to Philadelphia, mainstream Zionist groups urged the public to boycott it. The boycott proved ineffective, however, and Hecht wrote afterward:  “To the 20,000 who saw our show during its 15 performances, we say: Glad we were able to wake Philadelphia up – even if only for two weeks.”

  In Baltimore, the Bergson Group discovered that the theater where “Flag” was to be performed had a policy of confining African-Americans to the balcony seats.  The Bergsonites teamed up with the local NAACP to force the desegregation of the theater.  This unprecedented step paved the way for desegregating all of Baltimore’s theaters.

Hadassah Honors Bergson Group

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

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.”

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/interviews-and-profiles/hadassah-honors-bergson-group/2008/01/30/

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