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Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Remembering the Bergsonites

While there are certain sections of the Jewish community in the United States which happily criticises Europeans for their reaction to the Holocaust. It's interesting to note that during the the 1940's, the U.S. was largely ignorant of the plight of the Jews in Nazi occupied Europe. There are some exceptions to the widespread denial, ignorance and flat out anti-Semitism though. One such example was a small group of Rabbis (400 to be exact) who two days before Yom Kippur marched on the White House calling for action to help their European Jewish brethren who were being murdered by the Nazis.

Precisely 60 years following this event, this article reviews the activism of a courageous group of Jews responsible for the Rabbis' March and other activities that eventually swayed public opinion and United States government policy to intervene on behalf of European Jews.

In a time of darkness, when news items about the murder of Jews were relegated to back pages, a small group of Jews from the Yishuv (pre-State Israel), put the topic on the agenda of press and legislators. Known as the "Bergsonites" or the "Bergson Group" after leader Peter Bergson, they used unconventional ways to drive home their message, thus being at odds with establishment Jewish leaders in the United States as well as the Zionist leadership in Palestine.

Peter Bergson was the pseudonym of Hillel Kook, nephew of the first chief rabbi of the Yishuv, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook. He used an alias since he didn't want to embarrass his uncle with his political activities.

Hillel Kook passed away in 2001 at the age of 86, largely unknown and unrecognized for his activities during the Holocaust. A memorial service, sponsored by the Root and Branch Organization, was held in August at Jerusalem's OU Israel Center, with the attendance of scholars, survivors and family members, who spoke also of the need to commemorate Kook and other group members.

Bergson, an independent thinker and charismatic leader, was a member of the Etzel underground movement (Irgun). In 1940 together with other members, he was sent to America by Revisionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky to help establish a Jewish Army. Other emissaries were Samuel Merlin, Aryeh Ben Eliezer, Alex Rafaeli and Yitzchak Ben Ami. In 1941 they established the Committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews.

On November 25, 1942, the mission of the Bergsonites changed. A shocking article in The Washington Post with the headline "Two Million Jews Slain" grabbed Bergson's attention. The story was that Rabbi Stephen Wise, leader of major Jewish organizations, had confirmation from the State Department that the Nazis were planning to annihilate the entire Jewish population of Europe.

From then on, rescuing Europe's Jews became Bergson's top priority. He dedicated himself to organizing various efforts to make Americans aware of what was happening in Europe, and lobbying American politicians, with the hope of influencing President Franklin D. Roosevelt to take concrete action.

Bergson and his followers used unconventional, innovative, and very effective tactics to grab the public's attention, causing tension within the Jewish community. For example, in response to a report that the Rumanian government was prepared to ship 70,000 Jews to a safe haven as long as the Allies covered the expenses, the Bergson group took out a provocative advertisement. Under the headline "For Sale to Humanity: 70,000 Jews, Guaranteed Human Beings at $50 a Piece", the group demanded that the Allied countries "immediately appoint an inter-governmental committee" to devise plans to end the Holocaust. The established American Jewish leadership, Zionists included, was horrified: The Bergsonites were accused of sensationalism and recklessness.
Isn't it time the Bergsonites were remembered properly? Or are the wounds too deep?

Comments on "Remembering the Bergsonites"


Blogger Irina Tsukerman said ... (2:21 AM) : 

Actually, there's some evidence that many in the United States knew exactly what was going on, and there was some lobbying on the part of the Jews.


Anonymous evariste said ... (7:09 PM) : 

Wow, Dave.


Anonymous aridog said ... (3:11 AM) : 

Some Americans did know what was happening, perhaps not the full extent of it, but enough to know the evil, and that Jews were to be persecuted, killed or driven out. My parents knew, garnered from short wave radio communications with relatives in England, as well as first hand conversations with Austrian emigres they knew in Detroit. I grew up being taught that the evil of National Socialism was clearly identified in the 1930's, but not enough Americans were offended by it. Not a heroic part of our history.


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