US Holocaust Museum launches exhibit on Bergson rescue group

JERUSALEM POST – July 16, 2008

By Etgar Lefkovits

Bowing to public pressure, the US Holocaust Museum in Washington has inaugurated a new exhibit about the Holocaust rescue activists known as the Bergson Group.
Hillel Kook, aka Peter Bergson.

The Bergson Group was a maverick activist group in the US in the 1940s led by Hillel Kook – a nephew of Israel’s first chief rabbi who worked under the pseudonym of Peter Bergson – that raised public awareness of the Holocaust and campaigned for US rescue efforts to save the Jews of Europe during World War II.

The organization was viewed by mainstream American Jewish leaders during World War II as being too forthright in its criticism of the Roosevelt administration’s failure to rescue Jewish refugees, although in recent years most Jewish leaders have come to recognize the Bergson group as a crucial contributor to the infamously belated rescue effort.

The group is credited with helping to persuade the president in 1944 to establish the War Refugee Board, which ultimately saved 200,000 Jewish lives, including the life of future US Congressman Tom Lantos, who passed away earlier this year.

The exhibition was unveiled less than a month after Yad Vashem rebuffed a petition signed by 100 Israeli political and cultural leaders from across the political spectrum to include an exhibit about the group in Israel’s Holocaust Museum as well.

The new exhibit, which is located in a section of the museum devoted to rescue, is in a display titled “American Rescue Efforts: The War Refugee Board” near another display about the famous Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg who saved tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.

The new display states that as US congressmen and Jewish organizations began openly criticizing the State Department for its inaction and that the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe – which was the full name of the Bergson Group – organized a campaign for the creation of a US government rescue agency.

The exhibit then offers a brief summary of the work of the War Refugee Board and states how it helped save lives.

“This was a totally neglected issue which was not on their agenda,” said Rabbi Benyamin Kamenetzky, 85, founder and longtime head of the South Shore Yeshiva in Long Island and one of the few surviving participants of a historic march by 400 Orthodox rabbis in Washington that the group organized during the Holocaust to protest the US government’s inaction to save the Jews of Europe.

“It took a lot of effort and influence to have it exhibited,” he said. The new exhibit was also welcomed by the prominent American Holocaust Institute, which had lobbied the US Holocaust Museum, and more recently Yad Vashem, to include an exhibition about the Bergson Group in their museums.

“The US Holocaust Museum has officially recognized that the Bergson Group’s rallies, newspaper ads, and congressional lobbying played a significant role in the process leading to the creation of the War Refugee Board,” said Dr. Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. “We urge other Holocaust museums and institutions around the world to take note of the US Holocaust Museum’s important step and likewise update their own exhibits.”

In a controversial decision, Israel’s Holocaust Authority said last month that they could not include all the events and activities pertaining to the Holocaust and World War II in one museum, as encompassing as it may be, adding that some of these – such as the Bergson Group – find expression in a variety of activities at Yad Vashem outside the museum, such as education, documentation, and research.

“Telling the story of the Bergson Group is extremely important not only because of its historical significance, but also because it sends a powerful message to today’s younger generation that it really is possible to change history,” said Prof. David S. Wyman, a leading international authority on America’s response to the Holocaust, and author of the highly acclaimed The Abandonment of the Jews.
“Americans, Israelis, people everywhere need to know that they can make a difference.”

For decades after the war, information about the Bergson Group was routinely left out of textbooks, encyclopedias and museums. Despite opposition from mainstream American Jewish leaders, the group actively campaigned to save the doomed Jews of Europe through theatrical pageants, lobbying on Capitol Hill, placing more than 200 advertisements in newspapers and organizing the Rabbi march in Washington, which the Wyman Institute said was the only rally for rescue held in the nation’s capital during the Holocaust.

The US Holocaust Museum had agreed to add material about the Bergson Group to its permanent exhibit last year following a petition organized by the Wyman Institute by more than 100 prominent Americans, including former members of Congress, prominent historians, and Jewish leaders such as Nobel Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.