Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel called on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to include in its exhibits an acknowledgment of the Holocaust rescue efforts of the activist Bergson Group.
Wiesel, who is a leading member –and was first chairman– of the council that oversees the museum, issued his call in his keynote address to “Jewish Activists Who Shook the World: The Bergson Group, American Jewry and the Holocaust,” which was the Fifth National Conference of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. Held at the Fordham University School of Law, in New York City, on June 17, it was the first-ever public conference on the Bergson Group.
Prof. Wiesel said he was “disappointed that the Bergson Group is not included in the museum’s exhibits, and I will do whatever I can to change that.”
The Bergson Group,which organized rallies and sponsored hundreds of newspaper ads urging rescue from the Holocaust, played a key role in bringing about the creation of the U.S. government’s War Refugee Board, which helped rescue 200,000 Jews from the Nazis. Yet the Bergson Group is not included in any of the museum’s exhibits. It is mentioned only briefly in a filmstrip in a small side area of the museum, and on the museum’s web site.
Wiesel’s call was seconded by Seymour Reich, past president of B’nai B’rith International, the American Zionist Movement and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Reich said he “agrees completely that it is wrong for the Museum to leave the Bergson Group out of its exhibits.”
Reich said, “ I have come here today, as a veteran of the Jewish establishment, to say unequivocally: The Jewish leaders in the 1940s were wrong. They should not have spent their time and energy attacking Bergson, when they should have been focusing completely on how to bring about the rescue of Europe’s Jews … We cannot change what happened between leaders and dissidents sixty years ago, but we can help the Jewish community learn the lessons of the past in order to foster greater tolerance today.” [For the complete text of Mr. Reich’s remarks, click here.]
Wiesel, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, called the group’s leader, Peter Bergson, a “just and righteous Jew who worked day and night and did everything he could to save the Jews of Europe, even though some Jewish leaders fought against him.” He recalled a postwar conversation he once had with Nahum Goldmann, who along with Wise was co-chairman of the World Jewish Congress. When Wiesel asked Goldmann why he had not more actively pressed the Roosevelt administration for rescue, Goldmann replied, “When you are in the Oval Office, you cannot say ‘no’ to the president.”
Wiesel took issue with Goldmann’s statement, recalling that during the 1985 Bitburg controversy, he (Wiesel) had directly challenged President Reagan’s plan to visit that German cemetery, where Nazi SS men are buried.
The conference opened with welcoming remarks by Fordham Law School Dean William Treanor and the conference Master of Ceremonies, Thane Rosenbaum, a professor of human rights law at Fordham as well as an award-winning novelist and prominent media commentator on Holocaust issues. Prof. Rosenbaum also served as MC of the Wyman Institute’s 2005 national conference, which was likewise held at Fordham.
They were followed by conference chairman Neil Barsky, who has been a leader of the Wyman Institute since its inception. He described the summers he spent with Bergson and Samuel Merlin in the 1970s, learning first-hand about the history of the Bergson Group and America’s response to the Holocaust.
Prof. David S. Wyman, in his remarks to the conference, said the U.S. Holocaust Museum is treating Bergson as “persona-non-mentionable.” He said the Museum’s “curtains of silence” over the Bergson story “must be lifted, not only for the sake of historical accuracy, but because without historical recognition of the Bergson Group’s achievements, an important lesson will be lost–the lesson that change is possible in a free society like ours, if dedicated people will work and sacrifice for it.”
Dr. Rebecca Kook, Peter Bergson’s daughter, spoke about her father’s legacy and shared personal recollections of growing up with him. With regard to the Museum controversy, Dr. Kook noted that the Israeli Holocaust museum, Yad VaShem, has likewise failed to include in its exhibits any mention of the Bergson Group. She urged both institutions to correct this glaring omission.
Robert Weintraub, veteran pro-Israel activist and Wyman Institute board member, provided an eyewitness account of the American Jewish community in the 1940s, what it was like seeing the Bergson Group’s stunning advertisements in New York City’s newspapers, and the Jewish leadership’s attacks on the Bergsonites. [For the complete text of Mr. Weintraub’s remarks, click here.]
AFRICAN-AMERICAN SUPPORTERS OF THE BERGSON GROUP
Another session of the conference focused on the previously-unknown alliance between the Bergson Group and African-Americans. This session was co-sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Wyman Institute director Dr. Rafael Medoff spoke about his research on prominent black public figures who were involved with the Bergson Group including W. E. B. Dubois, A. Philip Randolph, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Robeson, Canada Lee, Walter White, and Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
He also recounted how Bergson activists and black leaders in Baltimore teamed up to put an end to racial segregation in the city’s theaters in 1947.
Dr. Medoff argued that this 1940s black-Jewish alliance, which he called “Bergson’s Rainbow Coalition for Rescue,” represented a complete reversal of traditional assumptions about black-Jewish relations. “Some people assume that relations between American Jews and African-Americans have always consisted simply of Jews helping blacks, a kind of one-way street,” Dr. Medoff noted. “But my research shows that in the 1940s, prominent African-Americans played a significant role in helping Jews on the issues of Holocaust rescue and creating the State of Israel.” [For the full text of Dr. Medoff’s remarks, click here.]
Wilhelmina Holliday-Hayes, a former New York City Deputy Police Commissioner who is president of the NAACP’s Manhattan Division, participated in the session as the commentator. She described the alliance between the Bergson Group and African-American leaders as “an important and inspiring chapter in both Jewish history and black history, and said the Wyman Institute “should be commended for bringing it to light.”
BERGSON’S IRISH SUPPORTERS
Another important but little-known part of Bergson’s coalition was the Irish-American community. Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch spoke at the conference on “The Forgotten Irish-Jewish Coalition: Bill and Paul O’Dwyer, the Bergson Group, and the Holocaust.” Journalist and Irish-American activist Pete Hamill was the commentator.
Mayor Koch focused on the support given to the Bergson Group by his predecessor, Mayor Bill O’Dwyer; the mayor’s brother and future city councilman, Paul O’Dwyer; and Congressman Andrew Somers. Based on these facts, Mayor Koch contended that the sudden decrease in anti-Jewish violence by Irish youths in the mid-1940s was due in part to the high-profile positions taken by the O’Dwyers and other prominent Irish-Americans. [For the full text of Mayor Koch’s remarks, click here.]
Mr. Hamill, the newspaper columnist and former editor of the New York Daily News and New York Post, discussed Mayor Koch’s arguments from the perspective of a veteran New York journalist and Irish-American activist.
THE DAY THE RABBIS MARCHED
The march by 400 rabbis in Washington, which the Bergson Group and the Va’ad ha-Hatzala (Orthodox rescue committee) organized in 1943, was the focus of the mid-afternoon session of the conference.
“Although today it is commonplace for Jewish groups to hold protest rallies in Washington, it is remarkable to note that the rabbis’ march was the only Jewish demonstration held in the nation’s capitol during the Holocaust,” said Wyman Institute director Dr. Rafael Medoff in his remarks introducing the panel.
One of the featured speakers at this session was Rabbi Binyamin Kamenetzky, founder of the South Shore Yeshiva on Long Island, who is one of the few remaining participants in the march.
Rabbi Kamenetzky said his decision to attend the rally was influenced by his experiences as an immigrant from Poland in 1939. “I was able to come to America, but so many of my friends were left behind and were murdered by the Nazis,” he said. “They were my closest friends–we learned together, we lived together. I carried their photos in my wallet on the day I went to that march, and I still do.”
“As we marched from Union Station to the Lincoln Memorial, I remember one old rebbe, walking slowly with a cane, crying as he marched,” Rabbi Kamenetzky recalled. “It is something I can never forget.”
Also speaking at the conference, although by videotape, was Rabbi Levi Horowitz, better known as the Bostoner Rebbe.
“We all expected that the end result would be a face to face meeting between President Roosevelt and a delegation from the march, so we were very disappointed,” Rabbi Horowitz said on the videotape, which was an excerpt from an interview with Dr. Medoff and award-winning filmmaker Martin Ostrow. “The fact that there were Jewish advisers telling the president not to meet with us, was not a surprise to us [when we learned it later] because we had that sense all along, that there were some advisers who were not taking the issue [of European Jewry] seriously, especially Rabbi Stephen Wise, who was the leader of the Reform movement.”
“Wise was palsy-walsy with President Roosevelt and was influential in convincing the Jewish community that [FDR] had our interests at heart,” Rabbi Horowitz said. Wise made it seem to Roosevelt as if the demonstrations were “not important, so the president does not have to pay attention to them–that was the tragedy of that day.”
“I can’t feel anything positive about President Roosevelt, after knowing the end result of his policies,” Rabbi Horowitz said. “The president failed our cause, not just one time, but throughout the years of Nazi persecution. Nothing was done–not bringing refugees to the United States, not doing anything to protect the Jews that are being herded into freight cars and brought to annihilation in the death camps of Poland. As big a hasid I was of his, he failed our cause–terribly, terribly so. He could have done more, that’s for sure.”
When the 1967 Arab-Israeli war broke out, the Bostoner Rebbe organized buses to bring protesters to Washington to urge U.S. support for Israel. “That trip to Washington in 1967 was an outgrowth of my trip to Washington before,” he said in his videotaped message to the conference. “It was because of the the fact that I participated in the march [in 1943] that I felt something [like that] ought to be done when Israel was facing its terrible crisis.”
Other prominent public figures connected to the 1943 march also spoke at the conference.
Neshama Carlebach, the singer-songwriter, spoke via videotape. She expressed her “deep pride” that her grandfather, Rabbi Naftali Carlebach, was one of the marchers. She believes her grandfather’s participation may have influenced her father, the singer-activst rabbi, Shlomo Carlebach.
Nathan Lewin, the attorney and constitutional scholar, spoke about his father, Dr. Isaac Lewin, who took part in the march and was also active in the Vaad ha-Hatazala. He also read from articles that his father wrote in the Yiddish press in the 1940s, criticizing American Jewish leaders for not actively protesting against the Holocaust. [For the full text of Mr. Lewin’s remarks, click here.]
Michael Miller, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York City spoke about his father, Rabbi Israel Miller, who took part in the march. Rabbi Miller later served as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Mr. Miller criticized President Roosevelt’s Jewish advisers, Samuel Rosenman and Rabbi Stephen Wise, for undermining Bergson and urging FDR to snub the rabbis.
Miller compared the record of Jewish leaders in the 1940s with the later generation of Jewish leaders, who were more active on behalf of Soviet Jewry. He urged that more be done to study the rabbis’ march and its implications and praised the Wyman Institute for teaching young people about the march.
The chairman of the session on the march was Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, leader of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun and principal of the Ramaz Day School. Dr. Lookstein, a member of the Wyman Institute’s Academic Council, was one of the first historians to write about the rabbis’ march, in his 1984 book, Were We Our Brothers’ Keepers?
In his remarks to the conference, Rabbi Lookstein said it was “simply wrong” for Rosenman and Wise to persuade the president to refuse to meet with the rabbis. He also said that his own research on the rabbis’ march had influenced him to take a more active role in the Soviet Jewry protest movement in the 1980s. He recalled that in 1986, he initially hesitated to travel to Washington to meet with Secretary of State George Shultz regarding Soviet Jewry because the meeting was scheduled to take place three days before Yom Kippur. “And then it suddenly hit me–these four hundred rabbis had dropped everything, just three days before Yom Kippur in 1943, to go to Washington to plead for rescue of their fellow-Jews–how could I do any less?”
Although many of the rabbis who took part in the march believed they had failed because FDR would not them, in fact the march “had an important impact,” said Dr. Medoff. “It was the culmination of the Bergson Group’s year-long campaign of newspaper ads, rallies, and lobbying for rescue. The appearance of hundreds of rabbis in the streets of Washington attracted important new publicity for the rescue issue and made a deep impression on members of Congress. The march speeded up, the introduction of a Congressional resolution that the Bergson group had initiated, calling for the creation of a U.S. government agency to rescue refugees.”
REMEMBERING ALEX RAFAELI
The final session of the conference was the Alex Rafaeli Memorial Colloquium, honoring the life and work of Alex Rafaeli, one of the leaders of the Bergson Group. The keynote speakers for this session were Esther Rafaeli, Alex’s wife; and Israeli statesman Moshe Arens. A former Defense Minister, Foreign Minister, and Ambassador to the U.S., Professor Arens was a close friend of Alex’s, and came to the United States specially for the conference.
Another speaker at the Rafaeli session was Prof. Selwyn Freed, son of the actress Celia Adler, who co-starred in the Bergson Group’s play, “A Flag is Born.” Rafaeli was the Bergson Group’s key point man for recruiting Hollywood celebrities to support rescue Jewish refugees from the Holocaust.
The final speaker was Prof. Dalia Ofer, of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who described Israeli public attitudes toward the Bergson Group. She said that the younger generation of Israeli historians did not share the political prejudices of the earlier generation and were thus able to look at the history of the Bergson Group more objectively. She expects a gradual increase in scholarly and public interest in the subject in the year ahead.
The conference concluded with remarks by Nili Kook, Bergson’s wife, who expressed her appreciation to the Wyman Institute and the conference delegates for bringing the Bergson story to public attention.