(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.


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Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and author or editor of 18 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust.