By Etgar Lefkovits
The speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, has detailed her father’s support for a World War II-era rescue group that worked to save the Jews of Europe in a new book.
Pelosi’s father, the late US congressman Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr. of Maryland, was a fervent Roosevelt Democrat, but he broke ranks with FDR by supporting the Bergson Group, which challenged the Roosevelt administration’s policies on the Jewish refugee issue during the Holocaust.
The Bergson Group was run by Irgun activists and worked in the US in the 1940s to raise awareness of the Holocaust and campaign for America to help save the Jews of Europe.
The group’s leader, Hillel Kook (the nephew of Abraham Isaac Kook, Israel’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi), worked under the pseudonym of Peter Bergson.
The organization was viewed by mainstream American Jewish leaders as being too direct in its criticism of the Roosevelt administration’s failure to rescue Jews; in recent years most Jewish leaders and Holocaust scholars have come to recognize the group’s important contribution.
“Although [my father] was a New Deal Democrat and followed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s lead, there was one area in which he disagreed with the administration,” Pelosi wrote in the book, Know Your Power: A Message to America’s Daughters.
“Daddy supported an organization called the Bergson Group, which held rallies, pageants, and parades focusing attention on the plight of European Jews during World War II and calling for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, which was not yet the administration’s policy.”
The activism of her father – a Catholic and the son of Italian immigrants – sprang in part from his early friendships in the Jewish community, she said, adding that as a boy, he had been “a Shabbos goy” and even learned Yiddish. “His enthusiasm came from doing what he believed was right,” she wrote.
The publication of Pelosi’s book comes as Yad Vashem is again being urged to include an exhibit in its museum about the Bergson Group.
“The fact that one of America’s most important political leaders feels such pride in her father’s involvement with the Bergson Group should serve as a reminder to Yad Vashem that many Americans, Christians and Jews alike, are interested in how America’s response to the Holocaust is portrayed in Holocaust-related museums around the world,” the director of the Washington-based David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, Dr. Rafael Medoff, wrote to Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev on Wednesday.
“The Yad Vashem museum’s panels on America’s abandonment of the Jews need to also acknowledge those in America, such as the Bergson Group and Congresswoman Pelosi’s father, who did speak out for rescue,” Medoff wrote.
Yad Vashem has refused to add material about the Bergson Group in its museum, saying its history is taught in its vast research and educational facilities, and that inserting information about group without “the overall context” would be “misleading.”
Meanwhile, the daughter of another US congressman who worked to rescue Jews has also expressed disappointment that Yad Vashem does not include information about the rescue group in its museum.
“As the daughter of a member of the United States Congress who helped to bring about the rescue of Jews from the Holocaust, I am disappointed that my father’s efforts are not acknowledged in the Yad Vashem museum,” Valerie Somers, daughter of the late New York congressman Andrew L. Somers, wrote the Yad Vashem chairman.
“Since Yad Vashem has exhibit panels and a continuously-running film which describe the failure of the United States and its allies to admit significant numbers of refugees or to bomb Auschwitz, I believe it should also make some reference to those Americans, such as my father, who did promote rescue.”
The Bergson Group is credited with helping to persuade Roosevelt to establish in January 1944 the War Refugee Board, which saved 200,000 Jewish lives.
The Bergson Group campaigned to save Jews through theatrical pageants, lobbying on Capitol Hill, newspapers advertisements and organizing a march in Washington by 400 rabbis that was the only rally for rescue held there during the Holocaust.
For decades after the war, information about the Bergson Group was routinely left out of textbooks, encyclopedias and museums.