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Posts Tagged ‘bergson’

‘It Can Be Done’: the Rosh Hashana 1943 Escape of Danish Jews

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

As the final minutes of Rosh Hashanah ticked away, 13-year-old Leo Goldberger was hiding, along with his parents and three brothers, in the thick brush along the shore of Dragor, a small fishing village south of Copenhagen. The year was 1943, and the Goldbergers, like thousands of other Danish Jews, were desperately trying to escape an imminent Nazi roundup.

“Finally, after what seemed like an excruciatingly long wait, we saw our signal offshore,” Goldberger later recalled. His family “strode straight into the ocean and waded through three or four feet of icy water until we were hauled aboard a fishing boat” and covered themselves “with smelly canvases.” Shivering and frightened, but grateful, the Goldberger family soon found itself in the safety and freedom of neighboring Sweden.

For years, Allied leaders had insisted that nothing could be done to rescue Jews from the Nazis except to win the war. But in one extraordinary night, seventy years ago next month, the Danish people exploded that myth and changed history.

When the Nazis occupied Denmark during the Holocaust in 1940, the Danes put up little resistance. As a result, the German authorities agreed to let the Danish government continue functioning with greater autonomy than other occupied countries. They also postponed taking steps against Denmark’s 8,000 Jewish citizens.

In the late summer of 1943, amid rising tensions between the occupation regime and the Danish government, the Nazis declared martial law and decided the time had come to deport Danish Jews to the death camps. But Georg Duckwitz, a German diplomat in Denmark, leaked the information to Danish friends. Duckwitz was later honored by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. As word of the Germans’ plans spread, the Danish public responded with a spontaneous nationwide grassroots effort to help the Jews.

The Danes’ remarkable response gave rise to the legend that King Christian X himself rode through the streets of Copenhagen on horseback, wearing a yellow Star of David, and that the citizens of the city likewise donned the star in solidarity with the Jews.

The story may have had its origins in a political cartoon that appeared in a Swedish newspaper in 1942. It showed King Christian pointing to a Star of David and declaring that if the Nazis imposed it upon the Jews of Demark, “then we must all wear the star.” Leon Uris’s novel Exodus, and the movie based on that book, helped spread the legend. But subsequent investigations by historians have concluded that the story is a myth.

On Rosh Hashanah – which fell on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 in 1943 – and the days that followed, numerous Danish Christian families hid Jews in their homes or farms, and then smuggled them to the seashore late at night. From there, fishermen took them across the Kattegat Straits to neighboring Sweden.

The three-week operation had the strong support of Danish church leaders, who used their pulpits to urge aid to the Jews, as well as Danish universities, which shut down so that students could assist the smugglers. More than 7,000 Danish Jews reached Sweden and were sheltered there until the end of the war.

Esther Finkler, a young newlywed, was hidden, together with her husband and their mothers, in a greenhouse.

“At night, we saw the [German] searchlights sweeping back and forth throughout the neighborhood” as the Nazis hunted for Jews, Esther later recalled. One evening, a member of the Danish Underground arrived and drove the four “through streets saturated with Nazi stormtroopers” to a point near the shore.

There they hid in an underground shelter, and then in the attic of a bakery, until finally they were brought to a beach, where they boarded a small fishing vessel together with other Jewish refugees.

“There were nine of us, lying down on the deck or the floor,” Esther said. “The captain covered us with fishing nets. When everyone had been properly concealed, the fishermen started the boat, and as the motor started to run, so did my pent-up tears.”

Then, suddenly, trouble. “The captain began to sing and whistle nonchalantly, which puzzled us. Soon we heard him shouting in German toward a passing Nazi patrol boat: ‘Wollen sie einen beer haben?’ (Would you like a beer?) – a clever gimmick designed to avoid the Germans’ suspicions. After three tense hours at sea, we heard shouting: ‘Get up! Get up! And welcome to Sweden!’ It was hard to believe, but we were now safe. We cried and the Swedes cried with us as they escorted as ashore. The nightmare was over,” Esther recalled.

Dr. Rafael Medoff

The Bergson Group vs. the Holocaust – and Jewish Leaders vs. Bergson (Part II)

Wednesday, June 13th, 2007

(Continued from Last Week)

Some leaders of major Jewish organizations were embarrassed by the Bergson Group’s criticism of the Roosevelt administration’s refugee policy. These leaders feared the activists’ noisy protests might provoke accusations that Jews were undermining America’s war effort. They also worried that Bergson was usurping their positions of prominence in the community and competing with them for influence in Washington.

In early 1944, several prominent Jewish leaders decided to take their anti-Bergson crusade to a new level.

The Bergson group had become “a public menace and everything must be done to liquidate them,” Nahum Goldmann, co-chairman of the World Jewish Congress, wrote to a top Treasury Department staffer. Goldmann also met with State Department officials to explain how “it distressed him to see Bergson received in high places and given facilities by this Government.”

According to Goldmann, American Jewish Congress leader Stephen Wise “regarded Bergson as equally as great an enemy of the Jews as Hitler, for the reason that his activities could only lead to increased anti-Semitism.” Goldmann said “he could not see why this Government did not either deport Bergson or draft him.”
American Jewish Committee vice president Morris Waldman, meeting with State Department officials in early 1944, likewise emphasized that “it was unfortunate that [Bergson] and his group should have been received so cordially by certain members of this Government, particularly members of Congress.” Waldman raised the idea of deporting Bergson, and suggested the FBI should investigate him for “racketeering,” in order “to curtail his stay in the United States.”

* * * *

The British, who dubbed Bergson “a Semitic Himmler,” urged U.S. officials to deport him, but thought it would never happen “in view of the influential friends who seem to be able to protect him.” The British were correct. Counter-pressure from Bergson’s allies in Congress, combined with the State Department’s fear of “making a martyr out of Bergson,” blocked the deportation threat.

But the Roosevelt administration had other weapons. The Internal Revenue Service began looking for grounds to cancel Bergson’s tax-exempt status. IRS agents arrived at the group’s headquarters in early 1945 and demanded to see every receipt.

“There were no photocopy machines in those days,” recalls retired Philadelphia accountant Jack Yampolsky, who assisted his father, Bergson Group accountant Louis Yampolsky. “We had to hand-copy every disbursement and every receipt that was given for every donation – literally thousands of one-dollar or two-dollar donations from people all over the country.”

Meanwhile, the State Department, annoyed by the Bergson group’s protests and egged on by Jewish leaders, enlisted the Federal Bureau of Investigation to spy on the activists. More than one thousand pages of internal FBI documents, obtained by this author under the Freedom of Information Act, detail the administration’s campaign against Bergson.

FBI agents began by contacting officials of rival Jewish organizations, but found them to be long on suspicions and short on evidence. An official of the Anti-Defamation League “stated [the Bergson group] is espousing the cause of the Irgun but he had no facts available to substantiate this statement,” one agent reported. A representative of the American Jewish Congress asserted he “had no evidence that the [Bergson group] is active on behalf of Irgun but stated that in his opinion this connection is a fact because they were all members of the Irgun at one time in Palestine.”

The FBI also used various clandestine methods of surveillance such as eavesdropping on the telephone conversations of Bergson activists, opening their mail, sifting through their trash, and using informants to gather information and to remove documents from Bergson’s office.

In the end, the FBI found no evidence of wrongdoing, and the IRS concluded that the Bergson Group’s books were in order. Nonetheless, dealing with these obstacles – and the deportation threat – took time and energy that Bergson and company could have used for better purposes.

The Campaign for Jewish Statehood

With the war winding down, the Bergson Group shifted its attention to the postwar struggle. It established two new action committees – the American League for a Free Palestine, to mobilize public support for creating a Jewish state, and the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation, to serve as a government-in-exile of that future state.

They staged public rallies and conferences, lobbied Congress, placed hard-hitting newspaper ads, and solicited celebrity support. Backers included former boxing champ Barney Ross, singer Frank Sinatra, comedian Carl Reiner, and a future United States vice president who was then mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey.
The new campaign also used theater, with Ben Hecht authoring a powerful Zionist play in 1946 called “A Flag is Born.” It starred Paul Muni, Celia Adler, and Stella Adler’s most promising student, 22-year-old Marlon Brando. The play’s strong Zionist message infuriated British reviews, who called it “the most virulent anti-British play ever staged in the United States.”  Hecht’s reply: “Britain may be able to patrol the Mediterranean, but she cannot patrol Broadway.”

When “Flag” traveled to Baltimore, it unexpectedly played a significant role in the fight against racial segregation. There the Bergson Group teamed up with the local NAACP to force the management of Baltimore’s Maryland Theater to suspend its policy of discriminating against African-American patrons. The NAACP used the episode as a precedent to bring about the desegregation of other theaters in Baltimore.

With funds raised by the play’s nationwide tour, the Bergson Group purchased a former yacht that was renamed in Hecht’s honor. Taking aboard six hundred Holocaust survivors in southern France, the S. S. Ben Hecht made it to within nine miles of Tel Aviv before being intercepted by British destroyers. The refugees were deported to Cyprus, where they remained until the establishment of Israel the following year.

Uncertain what to do with the American crew, the British authorities took them to the prison fortress at Acre. The ship’s captain, Bob Levitan of Brooklyn, was able to sneak his camera into the jail. That enabled the Irgun prisoners there to manufacture the false identification papers they would need if their planned escape attempt succeeded. A month later, under U.S. pressure, the British shipped the crew members of the S.S. Ben Hecht back to America. A few weeks after that, the Irgun staged its famous Acre Prison breakout.

Most of the Bergson Group’s leaders settled in Israel soon after its establishment in May 1948. Bergson, reassuming his real name, Hillel Kook, was elected to the first Knesset, along with his colleague Samuel Merlin, on Menachem Begin’s Herut list. Those of the Bergson Group leaders who remained in the United States voluntarily dissolved the organization – an extremely rare occurrence in the Jewish world. Now the battle over its legacy began.

Times Have Changed

At the height of the Holocaust, Jewish leaders urged U.S. officials to “draft or deport” Peter Bergson. Today, mainstream Jewish leaders are co-sponsoring the upcoming Wyman Institute conference acknowledging Bergson’s central role in the rescue campaign.

Bergson’s close collaborator, the journalist and playwright Ben Hecht, was denounced by Jewish leaders as a “terrorist,” a “fascist,” and a “Communist.” Today, there is a street named in his honor in the center of Chicago.

When four hundred Orthodox rabbis marched to the White House in 1943 to plead for rescue, Jewish leaders blasted the rally as an “undignified stunt” and persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt to snub the rabbis. Today, Jewish schools of all denominations are adding material about the march to their Holocaust curricula.

What has brought about this sea change in the American Jewish community’s attitude toward the Bergson Group? How is it that those who were vilified and treated as pariahs are today widely praised for their actions during the Holocaust?

Part of the reason can be found in America’s changing political and cultural climate. By the 1970’s, there was a new, younger generation of American Jews who were willing to challenge their elders on a range of issues. In this new climate, many conventional assumptions about history were overturned and the failings of presidents were more readily exposed to public view. Thus, when new books documenting America’s failure to respond to the Holocaust began appearing during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, American Jews were receptive.
The new scholarship concerning America and the Holocaust began with While Six Million Died by Arthur Morse (1967) and Paper Walls by David S. Wyman (1968). Then came Henry Feingold’s The Politics of Rescue (1970) and Saul Friedman’s No Haven for the Oppressed (1973). Monty Penkower’s essays and books (especially The Jews Were Expendable) in the early 1980’s offered the first serious reseach on the Bergson Group. 

In 1985, Wyman’s The Abandonment of the Jews reached the New York Times best-seller list. Abandonment was the first book to tell the Bergson story in depth, and to document the Bergson Group’s key role in the creation of the U.S. government’s War Refugee Board. It was also the first book about America and the Holocaust to reach a large segment of the public rather than just academic circles.

As a Christian, Wyman could not be accused of having a vested interest in one version of Jewish history over another. As a scholar, his research was impeccable and the book was soon hailed as the definitive account of the American – and American-Jewish – response to the Nazi genocide.

Other factors also contributed to changing attitudes in the Jewish community. The creation, in 1981, of a short-lived American Jewish Commission on the Holocaust, chaired by former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg and charged with studying American Jewry’s response to the Shoah, stirred widespread discussion of these issues.

Films such as Laurence Jarvik’s “Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die” (1982) and Martin Ostrow’s award-winning PBS documentary “America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference” (1994) made a powerful impact. Just this spring, Bernard Weinraub’s off-Broadway play about the Bergson Group, FDR, and the Holocaust, “The Accomplices,” set off a whole new round of public discussion of the subject.

Some surprising new research findings have further roused the public’s interest in the Bergson Group. Some of the research has revealed the previously unknown support given to the Bergson activists by such celebrities as Walt Disney, Bob Hope, boxing champion Barney Ross, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s father, Congressman Thomas D’Alesandro.

At the height of the early 1980’s debate, there was also a last-ditch effort by several pundits to turn the clock back. Writing in various Jewish periodicals and even the New York Times Sunday Magazine during 1980-1983, Lucy Dawidowicz, Bernard Wasserstein, and Marie Syrkin ridiculed the idea that more American Jewish activism could have led to the rescue of more European Jews.

Syrkin claimed activism was impossible, given the anti-Semitic atmosphere in the United States during the 1940’s. “In that climate,” she wrote, “should American Jews have marched on Washington in righteous fury, as contemporary wiseacres suggest? The doors would have been slammed tighter.”

Apparently Syrkin did not know that more than four hundred rabbis had indeed “marched up and down in front of the White House.” The result was not a “slamming of doors even tighter,” but rather an increase in Congressional efforts in support of rescue.

Dawidowicz, Wasserstein and Syrkin also tried to politicize the debate. They portrayed the Bergsonites as “terrorists” and claimed that the new interest in the Bergson Group was all part of a conspiracy by the Zionist Right to rewrite history.

But those familiar with the history of the Bergson activists knew that many of the Bergson Group’s leading members were active on the Left. Ben Hecht was labeled a Communist by J. Edgar Hoover himself. Stella Adler was blacklisted for refusing to give names of suspected Communists to the House Un-American Activities Committee, and Arthur Szyk was accused by HUAC of signing Communist front petitions. (Five months later, he died of a heart attack, which some attributed to the stress of the HUAC investigation.) Maurice Rosenblatt, Bergson’s chief Capitol Hill lobbyist from 1945 to 1948, was an ex-Harlem civil rights activist who later played a key role in the downfall of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

In the end, even Marie Syrkin herself acknowledged American Jewry’s failure during the Holocaust. Late in her life, on the occasion of a public dialogue with Rabbi William Berkowitz, Syrkin declared:

“The evidence is that the Jews of America did not act [during the Holocaust]. They just did not. We felt that we were good American citizens and we had to do what the American government wanted us to do, and the last thing the American government wanted was disturbance, uproar, change in immigration quotas, anything they thought would impede the war effort. We did nothing to rock the boat.”

Which is exactly what the Bergson Group said, sixty-five years ago, about American Jewry’s response to the Holocaust.

Dr. Rafael Medoff

The Bergson Group vs. the Holocaust – and Jewish Leaders vs. Bergson (Part I)

Wednesday, June 6th, 2007

At the height of the Holocaust, Jewish leaders urged U.S. officials to “draft or deport” rescue activist Peter Bergson. Yet later this month, Jewish leaders from across the political and religious spectrum will co-sponsor a conference acknowledging Bergson’s role in promoting the rescue of Jews from Hitler.

The transports of Jewish refugees from Europe to Palestine that Bergson and his colleagues organized were labeled “floating concentration camps” by their opponents. Today, there is a museum in Israel dedicated to honoring the heroes of Aliya Bet (“illegal immigration”).

When 400 Orthodox rabbis marched to the White House in 1943 to plead for rescue, Jewish leaders blasted the rally as an “undignified stunt” and persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt to snub the rabbis. Yet today, Jewish schools of all denominations are adding material about the march to their Holocaust curricula.

What has brought about this sea change in the American Jewish community’s attitude toward the Bergson Group? How is it that those who were vilified and treated as pariahs are today widely praised for their actions during the Holocaust?

The story of the Bergson Group’s campaign against the Holocaust, and the Jewish leadership’s campaign against Bergson, begins shortly before the outbreak of World War II. In 1937, the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the underground militia in British Mandatory Palestine, began sending its most promising activists to Europe to smuggle boatloads of Jewish immigrants to the Holy Land.  Chief among them were Hillel Kook, Yitshaq Ben-Ami, and Alex Rafaeli. Dodging the Nazis and defying the British, they helped bring some twenty thousand refugees to Palestine during the tense months leading up to World War II.

In 1939, the Irgun sent Ben-Ami to the United States to organize support for Aliya Bet. He established an organization called American Friends of a Jewish Palestine (AFJP). Supporters included a prominent Reform rabbi, Louis I. Newman; magazine editor Harry Selden; and authors Frances and John Gunther (Death Be Not Proud).

The AFJP encountered vigorous opposition from some Jewish leaders. Rabbi Stephen Wise, longtime leader of the American Jewish Congress and Zionist Organization of America, who was deeply loyal to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, contended that Jews should support FDR’s pro-British policy and refrain from “anti-British agitation” over Palestine, “even if the Zionist cause suffered.” The Emergency Committee for Zionist Affairs – the coalition of major Zionist groups, chaired by Wise – said the Aliya Bet ships “resemble concentration camps.”

But Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis felt otherwise. He told one of Ben-Ami’s associates, “If I were a young man like you … I would be with you.” At a meeting of Jewish leaders in 1939, Brandeis rebuffed a suggestion that bringing Jews to Palestine in defiance of the British was “illegal.”

“It may be considered illegal by Great Britain, but we Jews consider it to be legal,” he said.

“It may seem odd that a venerated Supreme Court Justice would endorse breaking the laws of an American ally,” Ben-Ami’s son Jeremy later wrote. “But given America’s own traditions, I don’t find it surprising at all. The Jewish Underground Railroad that my father and his colleagues ran in Europe in the 1930’s was based on the same moral principle that energized the original Underground Railroad, which helped black slaves illegally escape the South. Both my father and Justice Brandeis, despite their very different backgrounds, understood that there are some principles that are more moral than the law itself.”

In early 1940, the S.S. Sakarya, an Aliya Bet ship carrying 2,300 Jewish refugees, became stranded on the freezing Danube River. Needing $10,000 to rescue the ship, the AFJP turned to the United Palestine Appeal, the major Jewish groups’ primary fund-raising agency for Palestine.

The UPA rejected the request because the passengers had been chosen randomly. Mainstream Zionist leaders preferred “selectivity” in immigration, meaning that only those European Jews who were trained as pioneers should be brought to Palestine. The funds to save the Sakarya were supplied instead by two Jewish philanthropists who considered themselves anti-Zionists, Lucius Littauer and David Donneger.

Ironically, the UPA later circulated a fund-raising brochure that featured a photo of one of the Irgun’s Aliya Bet ships.

Fighting for ‘The Right to Fight’

The outbreak of World War II made Aliya Bet almost impossible. Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, leader of the Revisionist Zionist movement and the Irgun, turned his followers’ attention to a different issue. In early 1940, Jabotinsky traveled to the United States to persuade the American government and public to support creation of a Jewish army to fight alongside the Allies against the Nazis. A number of Irgun and Revisionist activists in Europe followed Jabotinsky, including Hillel Kook, Alex Rafaeli, and Samuel Merlin. After Jabotinsky’s death later that year, the Irgun emissaries took up the Jewish army campaign, creating the Committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews. Kook, a dynamic public speaker,

became its leader. (He used the pseudonym Peter Bergson to protect his family in Palestine, which included his uncle, Chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook.) The group’s other leaders were Merlin, Rafaeli, Ben-Ami, Harry Selden, Jabotinsky’s son Eri, and a young Orthodox rabbi from Maryland, Baruch Rabinowitz.

The committee used tactics that were unorthodox for that era, including mass rallies, lobbying Congress, and full-page newspaper ads. Many of the ads were authored by Ben Hecht, the Academy Award-winning Hollywood screenwriter (whose credits included “Gone with the Wind”). The ads featured long lists of political figures, labor leaders, intellectuals and entertainers endorsing the Jewish army cause. Some of the ads were illustrated by the famous artist Arthur Szyk, a Bergson supporter.

Hecht recruited numerous Hollywood and Broadway figures, including Stella Adler, the actress and acting coach, actors Burgess Meredith and Melvyn Douglas, singer Eddie Cantor, and composer Kurt Weill. Their involvement attracted attention and gave the Bergson activists added credibility.

The British Foreign Office and the State Department initially opposed the Jewish army on the grounds that it might anger the Arabs. But the Bergson group’s public pressure campaign, together with behind-the-scenes lobbying by Jewish leaders, eventually persuaded the British government to establish the Jewish Brigade, which fought with distinction against the Germans in 1945.

Brigade veterans later helped smuggle Holocaust survivors to Palestine and helped defend the newborn State of Israel against invading Arab armies in 1948.

Confronting the Holocaust

When news of the Nazi genocide was confirmed in the United States in late 1942, the Bergson group shifted its focus to the cause of rescue. To raise public awareness, Hecht authored a dramatic pageant called “We Will Never Die,” which debuted at Madison Square Garden in March 1943, starring Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, Stella Adler and Luther Adler. It was also performed in Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall, the Boston Garden, Chicago Stadium, and the Hollywood Bowl. All told, more than 100,000 Americans saw it.

During 1943-1944, the Bergson Group placed more than two hundred advertisements in newspapers around the country, to force the rescue issue onto the public agenda. With headlines such as “How Well Are You Sleeping? Is There Something You Could Have Done to Save Millions of Innocent People from Torture and Death?” and “Time Races Death: What Are We Waiting For?” the ads were soon being discussed on op-ed pages, in the halls of Congress, and in the White House.

On one occasion, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt told Bergson that her husband complained that one of the ads was “hitting below the belt.” Bergson replied that he was “very happy to hear that [the president] is reading it and that it affects him.”

One of their ads was delayed when American Jewish Committee president Joseph Proskauer warned Bergson that the ad’s criticism of the Christian world’s disinterest in the Nazi massacres would be perceived as “anti-Christian [and] could well bring on pogroms in the U.S.A.” Bergson held back the ad on condition that Proskauer mobilize Jewish leaders to press for U.S. rescue action. When Proskauer failed to make good on that promise after six months, the Bergson Group went ahead with the ad. No pogroms ensued.

In the summer of 1943, the Bergson Group directly challenged the Roosevelt administration’s claim that nothing could be done to rescue Jews except winning the war. The group’s five-day Emergency Conference to Save the Jewish People of Europe, held in New York City with more than 1,500 delegates, featured panels of experts outlining ways to save Jews. The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Henry St. George Tucker, spoke at the conference despite Stephen Wise’s plea to him to withdraw. The involvement of Tucker and other public figures demonstrated the Bergson Group’s success in

Dr. Rafael Medoff

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/front-page/the-bergson-group-vs-the-holocaust-and-jewish-leaders-vs-bergson-part-i/2007/06/06/

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