Americans & Israelis Grapple With Lessons of the Holocaust

A report from Jerusalem:

by David S. Wyman

(Prof. Wyman is author of the 1984 best-seller The Abandonment of the Jews, the definitive study of America’s response to the Holocaust.)

JERUSALEM- Although more than sixty years have passed since World War Two and the Holocaust, Americans and Israelis alike continue to grapple with the history of that period and the lessons to be learned from it.

In Tel Aviv last week, I joined Israeli scholars in addressing an unprecedented conference on “Rescue and Obstruction: The U.S. and the Destruction of European Jewry.” Much of the gathering focused on the Bergson Group, the handful of Zionist activists (including two future Knesset Members) who came from Jerusalem to the United States to rally support for the rescue of Jews from Europe and the creation of a Jewish state. Led by the dynamic Hillel Kook, who in the U.S. used the name Peter Bergson, the group held rallies, lobbied Congress, organized a march by more than 400 rabbis to the White House, and sponsored over 200 full-page newspaper ads with headlines like “Time Races Death–What Are We Waiting For?”

Brash tactics of this sort were not commonly employed by American Jews in those days, so Bergson’s efforts stirred some controversy in the Jewish community, particularly among the established leadership.

Yet, as I explained at the Tel Aviv conference, the Bergson Group was not a Jewish organization. Bergson built an ecumenical coalition for rescue, attracting support from an array of ethnic, racial, and religious groups. Those who signed Bergson’s newspaper ads or spoke at the group’s events included prominent Italian Americans (such as Fiorello La Guardia, Frank Sinatra, and Congressman Thomas D’Alessandro –House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s father), Irish Americans (New York City mayor William O’Dwyer, Paul O’Dwyer, Congressman Andrew Somers, and others), and African Americans (including Paul Robeson, Count Basie, and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.).

Conservative Republicans such as Herbert Hoover supported Bergson; so did liberal Democrats such as Hubert Humphrey, then mayor of Minneapolis. And while few American Christian clergymen raised their voices in protest during the Holocaust –as a Christian, that fact is particularly painful to me– it is noteworthy that the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Henry St. George Tucker, was a Bergson supporter.

Hollywood and Broadway acontributed their share to Bergson’s campaign for Holocaust rescue. Bob Hope, the Marx Brothers, the Andrews Sisters, Edward G. Robinson, Ben Hecht, Stella Adler and other stars backed Bergson.

For many years, the Bergson Group was routinely omitted from Holocaust-related textbooks, encyclopedias and museums. But in recent years, a younger generation –unencumbered by the intra-Jewish rivarlies of the 1940s– has taken a fresh look at Bergson’s achievements.

The most notable of those achievements came in early 1944, when the group mobilized Congressmen to pressure President Roosevelt to create a government agency to rescue Jews from Hitler. That pressure was crucial to FDR’s belated (and very reluctant) decision to establish the War Refugee Board, which played a central role in rescuing more than 200,000 refugees during the final months of the war. Last year, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, responding to public appeals, agreed to add material to its permanent exhibit recognizing the Bergson group’s contribution to the creation of the War Refugee Board.

Sadly, Israel’s central Holocaust institution, Yad Vashem, lags far behind in this respect. Last week, I was part of a delegation that delivered to Yad Vashem a petition signed by more than 120 prominent Israelis –including Knesset Members, former cabinet ministers, historians, writers, and artists– asking it to recognize the Bergson Group. A senior museum official responded that as a matter of principle, Yad Vashem never makes any changes in its exhibit. Even, apparently, when the exhibit is marred by an egregious omission.

Enter Raoul Wallenberg. It was the War Refugee Board which persuaded Wallenberg to leave the safety of Sweden and travel to Nazi-occupied Budapest in 1944 to save Jews from being deported to Auschwitz. It was the Board that financed his rescue work. And without the Bergson Group, the Board would probably never have come into existence. Yad Vashem recognizes Wallenberg as one of the “Righetous Among the Nations,” but its panel about him does not mention that he was an emissary of the War Refugee Board. If an industrious visitor thinks to open the unmarked drawers below the Wallenberg panel, he or she will eventually find, in the bottom drawer, a brief mention of the War Refugee Board–but no explanation of who brought about its creation and no mention of the 200,000 lives the Board helped save.

Our country’s response to the Holocaust was generally abysmal, but the Raoul Wallenberg saga is one of the few exceptions and Americans have proudly publicized his heroism. He is one of only two non-Americans ever granted honorary U.S. citizenship (the other was Winston Churchill), and his story is taught in our schools. As Americans, we have every right to expect a major Holocaust institution such as Yad Vashem to describe both America’s failures during the Holocaust as well as the accomplishments of the Bergson Group and the War Refugee Board. Relegating the War Refugee Board to a bottom drawer, and leaving out the Bergson Group altogether, is simply unacceptable.

June 2008