Two New Films on U.S. Jewry’s Response to the Holocaust

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Most accounts of American Jewry and the Holocaust emphasize the failure of mainstream Jewish leaders to respond forcefully to news of the Nazi genocide. Now, two new films are focusing attention on the other side of the story: the minority of U.S. Jews who actively protested the Allies’ abandonment of the Jews.

The first of the two new documentaries, directed by Pierre Sauvage, is “Not Idly By,” which tells the story of the Holocaust rescue activists known as the Bergson Group. It had its world premiere at the recent International Jewish Film Festival, held in Jerusalem.

“Not Idly By” is based on previously unreleased interviews with Hillel Kook (aka Peter Bergson), the leader of the Bergson Group. Kook, a nephew of the chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, came to the United States in 1940 at the behest of Revisionist Zionist leader Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky to promote the rescue of Jews from Europe and creation of a Jewish state.

Kook and several colleagues created a series of political action groups that used unorthodox protest tactics, such as full-page newspaper advertisements, public marches, and lobbying Congress. (In some respects, they were the first “Jewish Lobby.”) Their Committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews campaigned for the establishment of a Jewish armed force to fight the Nazis. When news of the Nazi genocide was confirmed by the Allies in late 1942, the Bergson activists established a new group, the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe. Later, they created the American League for a Free Palestine, to rally American public support for Jewish statehood, and the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation, to serve as a government-in-exile for the future Jewish state and pressure the British to withdraw from Palestine.

The Bergson Group’s efforts were opposed by some mainstream Jewish leaders, who feared its noisy protests would provoke antisemitism or usurp their positions of leadership in the community.

In the film, Kook, reflecting on those days, is understandably bitter about the stance of the Jewish leadership. “I am the last one on earth to condone the passivity of the political leadership of the United States,” he remarks at one point. “But the people who should have dramatized, shook up, awakened the world leadership to what was going–should have been the Jewish leaders.”

The film director’s own background was shaped by the Holocaust: Sauvage was born during World War II in Le Chambon, a French village whose residents sheltered some 5,000 Jews, including Sauvage’s family, from the Nazis. That experience inspired him to write and direct an award-winning 1989 documentary, Weapons of the Spirit.

Meanwhile, more than 250 Jewish schools around the United States recently screened “Rescue and Neglect,” written by Rabbi Dovid Bernstein and directed by David Lenik for Torah Umesorah, the network of Orthodox Jewish day schools.

This compelling documentary focuses on the Vaad ha-Hatzala, an Orthodox activist group established in 1939 for the initial purpose of facilitating the rescue of prominent rabbis and rabbinical students from Hitler Europe. Its many achievements include arranging for the entire faculty and student body of the famed Mirrer Yeshiva to escape Lithuania and find refuge in Shanghai throughout the war.

The Vaad’s work soon expanded to aid European Jews in general. “Rescue and Neglect” recounts, for example, the Vaad’s close collaboration with the Bergson Group to organize a march by 400 rabbis to the White House in 1943, to plead for U.S. rescue action.

Like the Bergson Group, the Va’ad ran into opposition from the Jewish establishment. Some Jewish leaders urged President Roosevelt to refrain from meeting with the rabbis who led the 1943 march. (The president heeded their advice). Some Jewish philanthropic organizations clashed with the Vaad over its separate fundraising drives.

Perhaps the more memorable aspect of the Vaad’s fundraising work, however, was the decision by activists such as Rabbi Avraham Kalmanowitz to ride in taxis on the Sabbath in order to reach synagogues with a desperate appeal for funds to ransom Jewish refugees. Saving lives took precedence over all else, including the prohibition against riding in automobiles on the Sabbath.

Many Jewish day schools showed “Rescue and Neglect” on, or close to, the tenth day of the Hebrew month of Tevet (which in 2009 fell on December 27), a traditional day of fasting that is marked by many in the Orthodox world as a day of remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust. Remembering those who spoke out for rescue certainly was an appropriate topic for such a day.

For more information about “Not Idly By,” call the Chambon Foundation at 323-650-1774. For more information about “Rescue and Neglect,” call Torah Umesorah at 845-356-2961.

February 2010