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November 23, 2014 / 1 Kislev, 5775
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Posts Tagged ‘Peter Bergson’

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.

Remembering The Apathy

Wednesday, June 13th, 2007

The death in August 2001 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, downplayed or ignored the sheer extent of Jewish apathy and opposition to Bergson’s work – a subject addressed with passion and eloquence by historian Rafael Medoff last week and this week in The Jewish Press.

Glossed over in the coverage of Kook’s passing was the confluence of factors that precluded a more vigorous response from American Jewry to events in Europe, particularly the petty jealousies of Jewish leaders like Reform rabbi Stephen Wise – whose thin 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 both Medoff, in The Deafening Silence: American Jewish Leaders and the Holocaust (1986), and Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, in Were We Our Brothers’ Keepers? (1985), did a fine job of it in their compelling books.

Lookstein was especially strong on Orthodox indifference. Among the astonishing things we learn from him is that “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 three issues included the opening of a yeshiva in Cape Town; the Temple of Religion exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair; and an appeal to synagogues to join in the celebration, at a special World’s Fair dinner, of the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration.

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 continued to manifest itself deep into the war years. In 1943, Lookstein pointed out, 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, there was, of course, 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 acclaimed 1994 documentary “America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference,” the late Conservative rabbi Arthur Hertzberg told the story of the sermon his father, a rabbi in Baltimore, gave on Yom Kippur 1940.

“He got up in the synagogue,” Hertzberg recalled, “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.”

The veneration of Roosevelt seemingly knew no bounds, as can be glimpsed in this appalling, but not at all atypical, 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 Agudat Harabanim.

Such was the cult of FDR, at whose altar American Jews of every denominational stripe and level of religious observance happily prostrated themselves while men like Peter Bergson worked night and day to, in the words of the title of a Bergson biography, “shake heaven and earth.”

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/media-monitor/remembering-the-apathy/2007/06/13/

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