by Dr. Rafael Medoff
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 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. 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 Two.
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 before World War Two.
In 1939, the Irgun sent Ben-Ami to the United States to organize support for aliyah 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 1930s 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 aliyah 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 fundraising 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 fundraising brochure which featured a photo of one of the Irgun’s aliyah bet ships.
Fighting for “The Right to Fight”
The outbreak of World War Two made aliyah 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 (his 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. Altogether, 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 on to 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, the First Lady told Bergson that President Roosevelt complained that one of the ads was “hitting below the belt.” Bergson replied that he was “very happy to hear that he 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 masascres would be perceived as “anti-Christian [and] could well bring on pogroms in the USA.” 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 1500 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.building an ecumenical coalition for rescue. The conference’s co-chairs included conservatives such as former president Herbert Hoover and William Randolph Hearst, as well as liberals such as American Labor Party leader Dean Alfange, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, and the executive secretary of the NAACP, Walter White.
Other African-American supporters of the Bergson Group included authors W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, labor leader A. Philip Randolph, actor Canada Lee, and Congressman Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. When the Bergson Group held a fundraiser at Madison Square Garden, Paul Robeson and Count Basie were among the entertainers who volunteered to perform. (Other performers included Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante, Zero Mostel, Milton Berle, Perry Como, the Andrews Sisters, and the Xavier Cugat Band.)
In October 1943, the Bergson Group, together with the Orthodox rescue group known as the Va’ad Ha-Hatzala, mobilized more than four hundred rabbis from around the country to march in Washington, D.C., just three days before Yom Kippur, to plead for rescue. It was the only rally for rescue in the nation’s capitol during the Holocaust.
The marchers were led by Eliezer Silver and Israel Rosenberg, co-presidents of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis; Solomon Friedman, president of the Union of Grand Rabbis; and Bernard Dov Leventhal, known as the chief rabbi of Philadelphia. Among the rabbis who took part in the march: Moshe Feinstein; Levi Horowitz (later the Bostoner Rebbe); Benyamin Kamenetzky (founder of Long Island’s Yeshiva of the South Shore); Naftali Carlebach, father of Shlomo Carlebach; Dr. Isaac Lewin, father of attorney Nathan Lewin; and Israel Miller, later chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and father of Michael Miller, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
When the rabbis reached the gates of the White House, they were stunned to be told the president was unavailable to meet with a delegation of their leaders. What the rabbis did not know what that FDR’s top Jewish advisers, American Jewish Committee member Samuel Rosenman and Stephen Wise, embarrassed by the protesters and fearing the march might provoke antisemitism, persuaded Roosevelt to avoid the rabbis by leaving the White House through a rear exit.
The snub backfired. “Rabbis Report ‘Cold Welcome’ at the White House,” the Washington Times-Herald declared. A columnist for one Jewish newspaper angrily asked: “Would a similar delegation of 500 Catholic priests have been thus treated?” The Forverts reported: “In open comment it is voiced that Roosevelt has betrayed the Jews.”
The march helped galvanize the introduction of a Bergson-initiated Congressional resolution calling for creation of a government agency to rescue refugees. It was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was the subject of well-publicized hearings in the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, senior aides to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. discovered that State Department officials had been blocking transmission of Holocaust-related information to the United States and obstructing rescue opportunities. Armed with this information, and with the rescue issue reaching the boiling point on Capitol Hill and in the press, Morgenthau went to FDR in January 1944, determined to convince him that “you have either got to move very fast, or the Congress of the United States will do it for you.” FDR quickly agreed to issue an executive order to create the War Refugee Board.
During the final months of the war, the War Refugee Board moved Jews out of dangerous zones, pressured the Hungarian authorities to end deportations to Auschwitz, and sponsored the life-saving work of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who sheltered Jews in Budapest from the Nazis. Historians estimate that the WRB’s efforts played a major role in saving about 200,000 Jews and 20,000 non-Jews. The Board’s work demolished the Roosevelt administration’s claim that there was no way to rescue Jews.
Yet precisely at the moment that the Bergson Group’s efforts reached their pinnacle of success, Jewish leaders launched their most aggressive effort to undermine the activists.
NEXT WEEK: Part Two: Jewish Leaders and the FBI Target the Bergson Group
(As published in The Jewish Press – June 8, 2007)