by Dr. Rafael Medoff
Media profiles of the incoming Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, have referred to her father, the late U.S. Congressman Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr., as a “Roosevelt Democrat.” What is not widely known is that D’Alesandro broke ranks with President Roosevelt on the issues of rescuing Jews from Hitler and creating a Jewish State.
D’Alesandro was one of the Congressional supporters of the Bergson Group, a maverick Jewish political action committee that challenged the Roosevelt administration’s policies on the Jewish refugee issue during the Holocaust, and later lobbied against British control of Palestine.
The Bergson activists used unconventional tactics to draw attention to the plight of Europe’s Jews, including theatrical pageants, a march by 400 rabbis to the White House, and placing more than 200 full-page advertisements in newspapers around the country. Some of those ads featured lists of celebrities, prominent intellectuals, and Members of Congress who supported the group, including D’Alesandro.
D’Alesandro’s involvement with the Bergson Group was remarkable, since he was a Democrat, supporting a group that was publicly challenging a Democratic president. And D’Alesandro was not one of the conservative “Dixiecrat” Democrats who sometimes tangled with FDR over various issues; he was a staunch supporter of President Roosevelt and the New Deal.
The Bergson Group’s whole strategy for moving U.S. policy to one of actively rescuing refugees from Hitler, was based on the premise that there were Democrats like D’Alesandro who might be willing to break ranks with the White House to advance the cause of rescue. Rallying Congress was a way to put pressure on the president.
This approach put Bergson at odds with mainstream Jewish leaders like Rabbi Stephen Wise, leader of the American Jewish Congress, who believed that his personal relationships with the president and like minded Democrats would result in sympathetic U.S. policies on Jewish issues. Wise and other Jewish leaders feared the Bergson Group was usurping the established Jewish organizations’ position in Washington, and they sometimes pressed political leaders to stay away from the Bergsonites.
“We started looking for Senators from states where there were no Jews,” the group’s leader, Peter Bergson (Hillel Kook) later explained. States with few or no Jews had no local Jewish organizations pressuring those Senators to avoid Bergson. “And we found them on the merit of the cause. [Senator Guy] Gillette we found this way. [Senator Elbert] Thomas we got. The three main senators we had were Thomas of Utah, Gillette of Iowa, and [Edwin] Johnson from Colorado.” All three were Democrats and supporters of Roosevelt–except when it came to the plight of the Jewish refugees.
The Bergson Group’s campaign for U.S. action to save Jews from Hitler culminated in the introduction of a Congressional resolution, in late 1943, urging creation of a government agency to rescue refugees. Senator Tom Connally of Texas, a loyal FDR supporter and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, blocked the committee’s consideration of the resolution. Committee member Elbert Thomas (D-Utah) urged Bergson to wait patiently until the ailing Connally was out sick–and when that day came, Thomas, as the committee’s acting chairman, ushered the resolution through with the support of every Democratic and Republican member.
The Senate committee’s bipartisan action helped influence President Roosevelt to belatedly establish the War Refugee Board. Despite its small staff and meager funding, the Board ultimately played a key role in the rescue of more than 200,000 Jews from the Holocaust. Its many accomplishments included sponsoring the heroic life-saving activities of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg in Nazi-occupied Budapest.
Every Member of Congress who supported the Bergson Group had his own particular reasons for doing so. Elbert Thomas, for example, was a Mormon, and his kinship with the Jewish people was forged by both his community’s experiences as a mistreated minority and his religious convictions about the Jews and the Holy Land. Rep. Andrew Somers (D-NY) was of Irish descent, and his resentment of British rule in Ireland strengthened his support for Bergson’s campaigns against the British shutdown of Palestine to Jewish refugees.
Rep. Will Rogers, Jr. (D-CA), son of the famous entertainer, was part Native American, and he attributed his interest in the plight of the Jews to his general concern for minorities.
Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr., for his part, was a Catholic and the son of Italian immigrants. It may be that those factors fueled his sympathy for religious minorities and refugees. Or perhaps it was nothing more complicated than his belief in what Bergson called “the merit of the cause” –the simple humanitarian instincts of every sensitive person who hears of innocent people being persecuted and wants to help, regardless of partisan political considerations.