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.