Thursday, January 26, 2012
Belatedly Recognizing Heroes of the Holocaust
HORASHIM, Israel — When 20 people gathered for a modest ceremony in the tranquil cemetery of this kibbutz in central Israel last month, the intimacy and quiet dignity of the event belied the tumultuous historical forces coursing beneath it.
The occasion was the reinterring of the remains of Samuel Merlin, a founder of a small but brazen band of militant Zionists and Holocaust rescue activists who shook America and challenged the Jewish establishment in the 1940s, but who until recently have been largely excluded from official Holocaust history. The activists, known as the Bergson group, have been credited by modern historians with playing a pivotal role in rescuing hundreds of thousands of European Jews.
But the group was rejected by the Jewish establishment it challenged, both in the United States and in Israel, where its militant tactics and right-wing Zionism clashed with the mainstream. Mere mention of the group stirs up old passions and painful questions about what America did or did not do to save European Jewry, and the extent to which schisms within Jewish ranks hampered more effective action.
More recently, prominent historians have begun to recognize the group’s achievements. On July 17, Yad Vashem, the official Holocaust remembrance authority in Jerusalem, which had ignored the Bergson group in its exhibits, held a symposium on it for the first time.
For those attending the reburial of Mr. Merlin a few days earlier, including some widows and children of the group’s members, the event was a symbolic start of a process of reconciliation.
“This is a moment of healing for American Jews and Israeli Jews,” Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington, said shortly after reciting Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, over Mr. Merlin’s grave.
The institute, which has been instrumental in promoting the Bergson group’s legacy, co-sponsored the conference at Yad Vashem.
The Bergson group formed in 1940 when about 10 young Jews from Palestine and Europe came to the United States to open a fund-raising and propaganda operation for the Irgun, the right-wing Zionist militia. The group was organized by Hillel Kook, a charismatic Irgun leader who adopted the pseudonym Peter H. Bergson. Mr. Merlin was his right-hand man.
The group began by raising money for illegal Jewish immigration to what was then the British Mandate of Palestine and promoting the idea of an army composed of stateless and Palestinian Jews. But the mission abruptly changed in November 1942 after reports of the Nazi annihilation of two million European Jews emerged. Like earlier reports of the mass killing of Jews, the news barely made the inside pages of major American newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post.
The Bergsonites were appalled by what they saw as the indifference of the Roosevelt administration and the passivity of the Jewish establishment, which staunchly supported the administration and largely accepted its argument that the primary American military objective was to win the war, not to save European Jews. The group embarked on a provocative campaign to publicize the genocide and to lobby Congress to support the rescue of Jews, roaming the hallways of Capitol Hill and knocking on doors, displaying a degree of chutzpah that made the traditional, pro-Roosevelt Jewish establishment uncomfortable.
The group took out a series of fiery, full-page advertisements in The New York Times and other major dailies highlighting the mass murder, soliciting donations at the bottom of each one to pay for the next. With help from celebrity supporters like the director and writer Ben Hecht, the impresario Billy Rose and the composer Kurt Weill, they staged a flamboyant pageant called “We Will Never Die,” filling Madison Square Garden twice before sending the show on the road.
In October 1943, the Bergson group organized a march of 400 Orthodox rabbis on the White House, most of them in traditional black garb, a spectacle the likes of which had never been seen in Washington.
Finally, in January 1944, under heavy pressure from the Treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau Jr., President Franklin D. Roosevelt set up the War Refugee Board by executive order, leading to the rescue of 200,000 Jews.
“Without Hillel Kook and the Bergson group,” said David S. Wyman, author of the book “The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945,” which first re-evaluated the role of Bergsonites, “there would have been no War Refugee Board.”
Yet the American Jewish leadership at the time fought the newcomers, saying their tactics would lead only to increased anti-Semitism. Rabbi Stephen Wise, the Jewish community’s chief representative, wrote to a colleague in 1944 that the Bergsonites “are a disaster to the Zionist cause and the Jewish people.”
Jewish American leaders were apparently afraid of making waves, and of losing their own prominence.
“This was an era in which militant civil action was just not done, certainly not by Jews,” said Charley Levine, an Israeli-based international communications and public relations expert who has studied the Bergson group. “This was before Vietnam.”
The Bergson group was no less ostracized by the leaders of Israel after its founding in May 1948. An early showdown came that June when the group dispatched a ship called the Altalena to Israel loaded with weapons for the Irgun in violation of an agreement with the new state to stop independent arms acquisitions.
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, ordered his troops to fire on the ship. Sixteen Irgun members and three soldiers were killed in the confrontation. Mr. Merlin, who was on board, was shot in the foot.
Mr. Merlin and Mr. Kook went on to serve as members of Israel’s first Parliament, but the Bergsonites soon had an ideological falling out with their own political leader, Menachem Begin, the Irgun leader who later became Israel’s prime minister. They remained at odds with the left-wing Mapai and Labor leaders who dominated the state for its first 30 years.
The dissension led to the Bergson group’s being blanked out of the early histories of the Holocaust. “My father and his group went against the grain of those writing the narrative of the war,” said Mr. Kook’s daughter, Rebecca Kook, now a political scientist at Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.
But with the perspective of time and the opening of additional Holocaust era archives, including Mr. Merlin’s, the Bergson group has begun to be reworked into Jewish history. After years of campaigning by Mr. Medoff and others, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington included a small exhibit on the group in 2008.
Mr. Merlin’s detailed account of the rescue campaign was published posthumously last month. Mr. Merlin died in the United States in 1996.
In a foreword to the book, Seymour D. Reich, a veteran leader of major Jewish organizations, wrote, “The time has come to acknowledge, unequivocally, that Rabbi Wise and his colleagues were wrong.”
Instead of attacking Mr. Bergson, they should have focused on the rescue mission, he wrote, adding, “That was their obligation, and they failed.”