Ken Burns’ The US and the Holocaust underplayed Peter Bergson’s role in the creation of the War Refuge Board, which is said to have saved 200,000 European Jews. Burns’ documentary, whether for ideological reasons or willful ignorance treated Bergson’s role as an afterthought. On the other hand, Rabbi Stephen Wise, Bergson’s nemesis received positive attention in Burns’ documentary. Yet, it was Stephen Wise who told the antisemitic State Department to hold off on distributing Gerhard Riegner’s report of the German Nazis systematic murder of Jews in Europe until he could verify it! It was pretty clear then, in 1943, that Hitler’s Germany intended to annihilate Europe’s Jews.
Hillel Kook, the Palestinian (Jewish) emissary who was sent to America by Zeev Jabotinsky, the legendary founder and leader of Revisionist-Zionism, and the Haganah (pre-state armed militia) ostensibly to raise money for a Jewish army that would help fight for a Jewish state. In order to dissociate himself from his illustrious family (he was the nephew of Israel’s beloved chief Ashkenazi rabbi during WWII), Hillel Kook used a pseudonym. He took the name Peter Bergson upon arriving in America. He never intended to be a Holocaust hero. As a major figure in the Irgun Tzvai Leumi (Etzel), another Jabotinsky creation, his mission was to help raise funds, find recruits, and appeal to the consciousness of Americans. The Irgun was dedicated to fighting the British White Paper that barred Jews from entering Mandatory Palestine during WWII, as well as defend Palestinian Jews from Arab terror.
During the dark days of the Holocaust, Bergson was one of the very few who worked day and night to awaken the free world and America in particular, to Hitler’s Germany ongoing genocide of European Jewry. While Bergson was working tirelessly to move the US government to save the Jews of Europe, the Jewish establishment in America, led by Rabbi Stephen Wise, responded with public denunciations of Bergson’s efforts. He endured threats and intimidation, as well as a campaign to persuade his supporters to repudiate him. Still, Bergson emerged from the ashes of the Holocaust with a record of achievement that few could claim. It was his pushing that ultimately led US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to create the War Refugee Board in 1944 which managed to save 200,000 Jews from the death camps.
Reaching New York in 1940, to organize a Jewish army, Bergson quickly recruited talented people including Ben Hecht, the celebrated Hollywood screenwriter. In Philadelphia, he enlisted Jack Yampolsky and his parents to serve as accountants and fundraisers. The majority of Jewish leadership in the US did not want to make waves. They were “shocked” by Bergson’s tactics, and attempted to have him deported back to Palestine. But Bergson was tenacious; he refused to give up. He organized protests and staged pageants to draw attention to the plight of Europe’s Jews.
Outraged by a tiny article in the Washington Post (November 1942), and on page 10 in the New York Times in which Stephen Wise revealed (information Gerhard Riegner provided earlier that was suppressed by the State Department and delayed by Wise) that two million Jews had already been murdered by the Nazis, changed Bergson’s life. Interviewed in Laurence Jarvik’s 1982 documentary “Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die,” Bergson had this to say: “I immediately reacted. I couldn’t go on with what I was doing. I even cancelled an appointment with a congressman that afternoon. I told the members of my committee that from now on we work with just one thought: how to save the Jewish people.”
Prior to launching the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, Bergson and his right-hand man Samuel Merlin formed the Committee for a Jewish Army. In New York City (in July 1943), the Committee for a Jewish Army organized the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People in Europe. It was a reaction to the Bermuda conference on refugees attended by representatives of the US and Great Britain in May 1943. Believing that the Bermuda meeting had failed to address itself specifically to the treatment of Jews in Axis countries, the organizers of the New York conference established the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe. The original members of the executive board were Peter Bergson, Louis Bromfield, Ben Hecht, Max Lerner, Will Rogers, Jr., and Sigrid Undset. Others on the committee were Congressman Andrew L. Somers, Konrad Bercovici, Frances Gunther, Dean Alfange, Stella Adler, Rose Keane, and Arthur Szyk.
Among the Palestinian Zionist activists working with Bergson were Professor Eri Jabotinsky (son of Zeev Jabotinsky), Samuel Merlin, Alexander Hadani-Rafaeli, Arieh Ben Eliezer (become a Knesset Member in Menahem Begin’s Herut Party) and Yitzhak Ben Ami.
Responding to FDR administrations feeble efforts to react to the killing of Europe’s Jews, and to bring national attention to their cause, Bergson and the Committee held plays and mass pageants, including Ben Hecht’s ”A Flag Is Born” and ”We Will Never Die,” which toured the country after attracting 40,000 to Madison Square Garden in March 1943. Edward G. Robinson, Marlon Brando and Stella Adler were among those who took part.
Bergson and the Committee used full-page advertisements in major newspapers, including one that appeared in The Times and The Washington Post in February 1943. It said: ”For sale to humanity: 70,000 Rumanian Jews, Guaranteed Human Beings at $50 a Piece.” Jewish leaders were outraged, and Stephen Wise, who headed the American Jewish Congress, immediately condemned the advertisement as a hoax.
Ben Hecht called Bergson “a force of nature.” Bergson had the energy and smarts to pull together many complicated productions. Two days before Yom Kippur, in October 1943, Bergson persuaded 400 orthodox rabbis to descend on Capitol Hill in Washington to protest the Roosevelt administration’s indifference to the plight of European Jews. He also invited clergymen of all faiths, but none came.
Irritated by Bergson’s campaigns, the Roosevelt administration sent the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service to squash him. Although they were pursuing evidence of criminal wrongdoing, it is clear that political motives were the impetus. The FBI’s investigation of Bergson proceeded along two tracks simultaneously — to find evidence that the Bergson group was assisting the Irgun, and to determine if Bergson and his group were Communists. If Bergson was found to be providing financial assistance to the Irgun, it would mean he had violated federal regulations concerning the registration of foreign agents. However, because the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation had registered itself as an agent of “the Hebrew Nation,” rather than of the Irgun, the IRS and the FDR administration didn’t have a case.
Bergson’s efforts to rescue European Jews were instrumental in changing American policies; they led to saving hundreds of thousands of lives. More famous rescuers, such as Raoul Wallenberg, were able to act in Europe because Bergson had convinced the Roosevelt administration to set up the War Refugee Board in 1944. Before Bergson’s work, saving Jews was simply not a priority for the US government. After Bergson succeeded in persuading FDR and Congress, it became a war aim. Peter Bergson or better yet, Hillel Kook was truly the unintended hero of the Holocaust era.