“They Weep For Israel’s Martyred…”
“Rabbis Petition Congress to Save European Jews…”
“Rabbis Plead At Capitol Hill…”
The historic 1943 Rabbis March on Washington, that brought between 400-500 rabbis from across the country to the steps of the White House with a heartrending petition, made headlines in some of the leading newspapers of the day.
As the 75th anniversary of this extraordinary event approaches, certain scenes from that day spring to life again. Throngs of rabbis tearfully imploring the government to mount rescue efforts for the threatened Jews of Europe…the bent forms of elderly rabbonim… the anguish… hope…and prayer.
“If the president thought he could avoid this controversy [over a U.S. emergency rescue effort] by avoiding the rabbis, he was mistaken,” wrote Dr. Rafael Medoff, director of the Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.
President Roosevelt had refused to meet the group, exiting through a back door of the White House as they sought to present him with a petition.
The next day’s newspapers reported FDR’s snub, and the controversy it had sparked in the Jewish community. “Rabbis Report ‘Cold Welcome’ at the White House,” declared the headline in the Washington Times-Herald.
A columnist for a Jewish newspaper spoke for many disenchanted American Jews when he asked, “Would a similar delegation of 500 Catholic priests have been thus treated?” Another Jewish publication called FDR’s snub a “betrayal” and speculated that the presidential rebuff would affect FDR’s high level of support in the Jewish community.
Organized by Vaad Hatzalah in conjunction with the Bergson Group, the March ended up exerting significant impact. Although the rabbis could not know this at the time, their widely publicized petition hastened the introduction of a congressional resolution calling for the creation of a U.S. government agency to rescue refugees.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously adopted the resolution, and hearings in the House of Representatives exposed the administration’s shameful refugee policy. Pressure continued to mount, finally compelling Roosevelt to override a hostile State Department and create the War Refugee Board (WRB) to rescue Jews from the Nazis.
This extraordinary saga and the unsung heroes who conceived and carried it off have come close to being written out of history. For decades after the war, information about the Bergson Group—and certainly the Vaad Hatzalah—was routinely left out of textbooks, encyclopedias and museums, including the world’s foremost Holocaust museums in Israel and America.
Israel’s vaunted Yad Vashem has consistently refused to include the story in its vast array of permanent exhibits. The Bergson Group’s electrifying campaign that shattered the wall of silence and apathy in this country about the horrors of the Holocaust, and galvanized support for rescue has all but sunk into oblivion.
The Washington-based US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), from its inception in 1993 until 2008, followed the same policy as Yad Vashem. For many years, the USHMM’s Permanent Exhibit made no mention at all about the Rabbis March, Vaad Hatzalah or the Bergson Group’s political activism that played a key role in saving 200,000 Jews from the Nazis.
Ostracizing Bergson Continues to This Day
Yad Vashem and the USHMM in a sense have been continuing the policy of ostracizing the Bergson Group that the Zionist leadership in this country, together with American Jewish establishment, had pursued during the Holocaust.
Literature about the American Jewish response to the Holocaust has been heavily shaped by the Zionist narrative. A key component of that narrative is FDR as a leading humanitarian and staunch ally of the Jews, supportive of Zionist goals.
Bergson’s story challenges the truth of that narrative and the skewed ethics at the core of Zionist leadership’s philosophy, which elevated the politics of creating a Jewish state over the priority of saving lives.
Bergson’s campaign to stir America’s conscience pitted him against the Zionist and American Jewish leadership, challenging their starry-eyed view of FDR that blinded them to his indifference to the Nazi slaughter. Once an ardent Zionist himself, Bergson broke ranks with the movement over these issues.
Bergson, who had changed his name from Hillel Kook to avoid endangering his uncle, Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Kook, had emigrated to Palestine-Israel in the 1920s with his family. He was a teenager when he joined the Irgun, a Zionist group that was committed to settling the Yishuv and driving the British out of the land.
British immigration restrictions cut off the flight of Jewish refugees to Palestine. The Irgun sent Kook to Poland and then to America, where he helped organize illegal Jewish immigration.
Then came the shattering news in 1942 about the Nazi annihilation of two million Polish Jews and Hitler’s vow to exterminate all of the remaining Jewry. Bergson dropped the cause of immigration to Palestine to devote himself to rescue. He believed that Hitler’s horrific, high-speed slaughter of the Jews left no choice but to drop quiet, back-door diplomacy in favor of more high-profile methods, to save what could still be saved.
But his blunt, hard-hitting tactics were deeply embarrassing to prominent Zionist and American Jewish leaders of the period. They preferred a hush-hush approach to the news of the horrors the Nazis were inflicting on the Jews of Europe. They loathed the Zionist-turned-rescue-activist who they feared might spark an anti-Semitic outbreak in the United States.
Anti-Semitism was indeed on the rise in many parts of America at the time. But fears of a spike that would lead to riots and pogroms on American shores never materialized. Bergson’s campaign was somehow able to tap into powerful feelings of sympathy for Jewish victims among ordinary Americans, as well as many non-Jewish politicians.
Easier to Mobilize Non-Jews For Rescue Than Jews
“I ceased being a Zionist in 1943 when I realized was going on,” Bergson said in an interview in the 1980s with documentary-maker Claude Lanzmann, author of Shoah.
“It was a traumatic experience for me…I was born a Zionist. But when people’s lives were threatened and Zionism said we can’t save them because it doesn’t fit with our ideology… I have very bitter feelings about the movement.”
Bergson’s close friend and associate, Sam Merlin, recalled in the same interview, “We came to this country in 1941 with a sense of urgency about the situation in Europe. Even before news of the atrocities. Here in America, there was no sense of urgency at all. Jews here did not emotionally identify with the masses of Jews in Europe…They were not shocked to their innermost being when terrible things happened to them.”
Bergson believed if enough public and congressional pressure were brought to bear on Roosevelt, he would live up to his humanitarian image. He badgered congressmen, government officials and anyone he thought might be positioned to influence the president to take action to save Jews.
“We found it easier to mobilize prominent non-Jews than prominent Jews,” Bergson recalled. “The Secretary of the Interior under FDR was Harold Ickes, [a non-Jew]; he was honorary chairman of our Emergency Committee to Save the Jews of Europe.”
Although President Roosevelt until 1944 took no steps to rescue Europe’s Jews, not even mentioning their plight or condemning their Nazi murderers in his famous “fireside chats,” the rich, influential American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress continued to endorse him.
Despite his indifference to the mass slaughter of the Jews, these organizations, led by assimilated Jews, energetically promoted him as a friend and protector. With 80 per cent of the Jewish vote wrapped up through most of his 12 years in office, FDR had little incentive to invest any effort on behalf of the doomed Jews of Europe.
A Force on the American Scene
By1943, write historians David Wyman and Rafael Medoff in Race with Death, “Bergson was a force on the American political scene; despite opposition from many Jewish quarters, his committee’s Rescue Resolution would eventually pass the Senate and serve as the catalyst for the creation of the War Refugee Board.”
The striking work of a small band of “foreigners” who managed to reach and influence so many, raises the painful question: had American Jewry – the most powerful Jewish community in the free world at the time of the Holocaust—united passionately behind the cause of rescue, how much more might they have accomplished? How many millions might have been saved?
Ironically, while his opponents ascribed all manner of evil intentions, arrogance and unscrupulousness to him, the worst he would say about them years later is “They were petrified. They should have come to their senses when all their dire warnings [about fomenting pogroms] didn’t come to pass.”
Reform rabbi Stephen Wise, the most prominent Jew in America and a friend of President Roosevelt, attempted to destroy Bergson by systematically collecting, with the aid of his newspaper advertisements and letterheads, the names of hundreds of Bergson sponsors.
Through telephone calls, letters and personal visits, Wise and his group pressured many, including Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, to resign from the Emergency Rescue Committee. Ickes sent them packing, but others buckled under the pressure.
Wyman Institute Petitions US Holocaust Museum to Include Bergson
Bergson/Kook died in relative obscurity in 2001, his extraordinary activism and the controversy it sparked during the Holocaust largely excluded from current history books and museums displays.
Several notable exceptions are earlier works from the 1970s to the 1990s, such as The Jews Were Expendable (Monty Penkower,1983); The Abandonment of the Jews (David Wyman, 1984); Token Rescue (Sharon Lowenstein 1986) and Beyond Belief (Deborah Lipstadt,1986), in which the Bergson Group’s accomplishments are acknowledged.
In 2002, the David Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies initiated correspondence and a series of high level meetings with Museum officials to have the exclusion of the Bergson story rectified.
In response, “the museum pledged to make important changes and include material on Bergson. But years passed and in spite of additional meetings, letters and pleas, nothing was done,” Dr. Medoff stated in correspondence with Yated.
Then in 2007, the Wyman Institute organized petitions that brought considerable pressure to bear on the Museum. A letter signed by Holocaust historians, public figures, Jewish and non-Jewish leaders, as well as relatives of the rabbis who marched on Washington in 1943, petitioned Museum Chairman Fred Zeidman to include the contributions of the Bergson Group in the Permanent Exhibit.
“Doing so is important for the sake of historical accuracy,” the petition read. “It is also important because the Bergson Group’s work demonstrates the possibility of ordinary citizens taking action to bring about humanitarian action by the government. The American public, and especially young people, need to hear that message.”
Finally, in 2008, after additional urging from high profile figures such as Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, the Museum bowed to pressure and implemented the long overdue corrections.
Visitors to its Permanent Exhibit today will view an informative section on the Bergson Group under “American Rescue Efforts: The War Refugee Board.” The panels include a captivating photo of the Rabbis emerging from Union Station on the first leg of their march to the White House. The explanatory text links the March with the broader campaign that led to the creation of the WRB.
Doctoring Up History To Exonerate FDR
How striking, given these significant changes to the Permanent Exhibit, that the Museum has now opened a new 3-year exhibit, “America and the Holocaust,” that takes a u-turn right back to its earlier revisionism!
The new exhibit marginalizes or excludes mention of FDR’s critics such as the Bergson Group, Vaad Hatzalah, (which receives no mention at all), and many other dissenting voices that opposed FDR’s policy of silence and inaction toward Europe’s Jews.
These historical highlights are downplayed, given reduced-size placement on the display panels, or wholly ignored.
“The Bergson Group’s march by over 400 rabbis to the White House is included in the exhibit, but in such an obscure way that viewers will barely notice that it took place, much less understand its impact and significance,” writes Medoff in Distorting America’s Response To The Holocaust.
Even more disconcerting is the blackout of information about President Roosevelt’s refusal to meet with the rabbis, and his dramatic exit through the back door of the White House to avoid them. That pointed snub is what triggered a backlash that made headlines the following day, ratcheting up pressure on FDR to prove he was taking concrete steps to help rescue Jews. But none of that is in the exhibit.
In Making Excuses for FDR, Medoff notes another significant omission related to the march: Roosevelt’s crude outburst about the rabbis. FDR’s senior adviser and speechwriter, Samuel Rosenman, told confidantes at the time that the president “used language [concerning the rabbis] that would have pleased Hitler himself.”
The omission of this pejorative remark, coupled with the absence of any reference to FDR’s shunning the rabbis, points to an obvious bias in the exhibit’s narrative. Although its main theme is that overwhelming anti-Semitism in American society supposedly thwarted FDR’s good intentions, the bigotry in his administration itself is almost completely ignored.
Medoff cites evidence of this anti-Semitic prejudice in the diaries and correspondence of senior State Department officials from the period. “They are replete with scornful references to alleged Jewish character traits and dire warnings about Jewish war-mongering and disloyalty,” he notes.
All of this is omitted in the exhibit. America and the Holocaust appears to be consistent with current efforts by various historians to sanitize and cover up FDR’s secret bigotry toward Jews and his abandonment of Hitler’s victims, noted Medoff in an interview with Yated.
He cited a striking example of this cover-up from a book about the WRB entitled Rescue Board by Prof. Rebecca Erbelding, who is also one of the curators of the new 3-year USHMM exhibit in Washington.
Erbelding does an astonishing spin on Roosevelt’s refusal to meet the rabbis. She writes (on p.36) that “a small delegation” of rabbis went to the White House “and met with one of Roosevelt’s aides.” This of course is a complete fabrication. As she surely knows, the rabbis who approached the gate were not granted a meeting. They were turned away by one of Roosevelt’s aides. The most they managed to do before retreating was hand the aide a petition.
Calling this “a meeting” is knowingly misrepresenting the president’s pointed snub of the gedolim, commented Medoff.
[This writer emailed Prof. Erbelding asking if she indeed regarded the rabbis’ seconds-long encounter with FDR’s aide as “a meeting,” as she wrote in her book. She has not responded.]
Erbelding’s cover-up for Roosevelt in her book is mirrored by similar misinformation and obfuscation in the new Holocaust exhibit, historians and scholars in Distorting America’s Response to the Holocaust have found. This raises troubling questions about who or what is behind the subtle and not-so-subtle whitewash of FDR at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.