An Integral Part of the Story

As published in Ha’aretz – July 18, 2008

By David S. Wyman

Dr. David Silberklang of Yad Vashem (“Putting Hillel Kook in Context,” July 11) acknowledges that the Bergson Group (the Holocaust rescue activists in the United States, led by Hillel Kook) “did have an impact” on mobilizing American public support for the rescue of European Jewry. But the group’s most significant achievement was its crucial role in creating the War Refugee Board (WRB), a U.S. government agency that helped rescue more than 200,000 Jews from the Nazis during 1944-1945. Since Dr. Silberklang makes a point of mentioning that Yad Vashem in 1993 published a Hebrew edition of my book “The Abandonment of the Jews,” he presumably knows that the book documents the Bergson Group’s role in the establishment of the WRB.

Despite this, Silberklang makes three accusations against the Bergson Group, none of which is supported by the historical record.

First, he criticizes the Bergsonites for placing an advertisement in The New York Times, in February 1943, in which they urged the Allies to accept Romania’s reported offer to let its 70,000 Jews emigrate for the price of transportation costs. According to Silberklang, the ad “undermine[d] rescue efforts” because it “announced secret Romanian feelers to the U.S.,” and thus “caused the Romanians to backtrack” on their offer.

In fact, the Romanian offer was no secret. It had already been reported in the Times. But neither the Times nor the Bergson Group was to blame for the offer’s collapse. According to Yad Vashem’s own “Encyclopedia of the Holocaust,” the plan was halted because of German opposition. Similarly, a 1991 article by Dr. Ephraim Ophir, translated from Hebrew by Silberklang and appearing in Holocaust and Genocide Studies (co-published by Yad Vashem), concluded that the Romanian plan was stopped “because of German opposition … [I]t is clear that The New York Times’ 13 February 1943 article – and the subsequent 16 February paid advertisement by the Bergson Group – had nothing to do with the plan’s failure.”

Silberklang’s second allegation against the Bergson Group is equally baseless. He recalls that in May 1944, Bergson created the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation, which he says focused on “the establishment of a ‘Hebrew’ state in Palestine.” Silberklang claims that this shows the Bergson Group “changed course” and shifted away from the issue of rescue precisely at the moment Hungarian Jewry was in gravest danger.

Yet anyone who has studied the history of the Bergson Group knows that its rescue branch, the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, remained active throughout 1944-1945, and the new Hebrew Committee of National Liberation, too, focused heavily on the rescue issue in its newspaper ads, public programs and elsewhere. The attacks by mainstream Jewish leaders on the committee did divert some of Kook’s time and energy, but one cannot blame him for the fact that Jewish leaders attacked him.

Silberklang’s third allegation concerns President Franklin Roosevelt’s January 1944 decision to establish the WRB. He says the Bergson Group “may have had some influence” on FDR’s decision, “but the main force behind the WRB was Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr.’s report to the president …”

Treasury documents show that Morgenthau and his staff recognized the critical role played by a Bergson-initiated Congressional resolution urging creation of a U.S. rescue agency. At a March 8, 1944 Treasury meeting, Morgenthau remarked: “[T]he thing that made it possible to get the president really to act on this thing – we are talking here among ourselves – was the thing that – the resolution at least had passed the Senate to form this kind of a War Refugee Committee, hadn’t it?” When an aide interjected that Morgenthau himself had played a key role, he replied: “I had something to do with it, granted, but the tide was running with me. I think that six months before I couldn’t have done it. I am just wondering who the crowd is that got the thing that far.” WRB director John Pehle responded: “That is the emergency committee, Peter Bergson and his group.” In another meeting, Morgenthau referred to “the resolution in the House and in the Senate by which we forced the president to appoint a committee [the WRB].”

Silberklang concludes by trying to justify Yad Vashem’s exclusion of Bergson from its exhibit. Yad Vashem’s museum “focuses on the main points of the history of the Holocaust,” whereas, he says, the Bergson Group is part of the side story of how American Jews responded to the Holocaust. In fact, the story of the Bergson Group is an integral part of the history of the American government and public’s response. Operating independently of the organized American Jewish community, Bergson mobilized large numbers of prominent non-Jews and built an ecumenical coalition that made rescue a major issue in 1943. These efforts played a critical role in pressuring Roosevelt to establish the WRB. The WRB, in turn, sent Raoul Wallenberg to Budapest, financed his life-saving work, and engaged in other rescue activities that, all told, helped save more than 200,000 lives.

That is not a side story. It is an important part of the history of the Holocaust and it deserves to be acknowledged in Yad Vashem’s exhibition, which already includes a number of materials about other aspects of the U.S. response to the persecution and genocide of European Jewry.

As an American, I am deeply troubled that while Yad Vashem recognizes America’s failures during the Holocaust, it does not acknowledge the accomplishments of those in America, such as the Bergson Group and the WRB, who helped bring about the rescue of so many Jews from the Holocaust.

David S. Wyman is Josiah E. DuBois, Jr., professor emeritus of history at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst).