Crazy Bergson Boy
By: Eliyho Matz
In honor of Will Rogers, Jr., and other Gentiles who attempted to save Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
And a special thanks to Thomas Jefferson.
[In a future feature film about the Bergson Boys, there will be an opening scene in a classy New York City restaurant: On one side of the room will be seated Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein, Claude Levi-Strauss, Isaiah Berlin, Benzion Netanyahu and some other prominent Jewish personalities. Seated at the other side of the restaurant will be Will Rogers, Jr., Guy M. Gillette, Edwin Johnson, Andrew Somers, and some other Congressmen and Senators prominent in the 1940’s. The group of Jews will be overheard discussing their overall personal achievements during WWII in science, philosophy, etc. The Congressmen and Senators will be heard rehashing their frustrations concerning the pitfalls they encountered in their attempts to work together to save European Jews. Suddenly Peter Bergson appears, entering into the restaurant with Marlon Brando, Ben Hecht, Kurt Weill, and Stella Adler. The group of government gentlemen look up and obviously recognize and warmly greet Bergson and his entourage; the Jewish group displays only sketchy familiarity….Evidently, it’s all relative….]
As years go by, recognition given to the Bergson Group’s activities in the United States during WWII has become increasingly ambivalent. The leading character in this group is Hillel Kook, a.k.a. Peter Bergson, a Palestinian Jew growing up under British Mandate Palestine who left the religious life of the yeshivas in Jerusalem and became a founding member of the Irgun in Palestine. Established as one of the Irgun leaders, Bergson’s activities carried him to Europe and culminated in the United States, where he not only became a leading spokesman for European Jews during the Holocaust, but where he also played a leading role in the creation of the new Israeli nation.
Some episodes of Peter Bergson’s life have been highlighted by various historians and writers, whose writings have reflected perhaps amazement but more often confusion over his activities. It is not surprising that such reactions would appear, especially because most of the time those who admired him, or those who admonished him, all seem to have had at best only a partial perspective of who he was. I was fortunate to have worked closely with Peter Bergson during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s at his Institute of Mediterranean Affairs in New York City. As we worked together to organize his papers and chronicle his thoughts, he spoke extensively of his activities, associations, dreams and frustrations. Due to the upcoming conference at Yad Vashem scheduled for mid-July 2011, the theme of which is an examination of the activities of the Bergson Group during the Holocaust, I feel compelled to comment upon and clarify some issues concerning Bergson’s activities.
To begin with, that such an event is happening at Yad Vashem at all is, in itself, some sort of a miracle. Several years ago the Wyman Institute presented a petition asking Yad Vashem to mention and exhibit some of Peter Bergson’s activities during the Holocaust. Yad Vashem, the Israeli National Holocaust Memorial and its top leadership, refused to hear the plea [see my article “Not a Yad and Not a Shem”]. And now, a sudden shift. The main speaker of the Yad Vashem conference will be Dr. David Wyman, a leading American historian of the Holocaust era, and the historian who has connected the dots to illustrate and prove that the political pressure that the Bergson Boys brought to bear during 1943 in the United States led to the establishment of the US governmental agency, the War Refugee Board.
Dr. Wyman is the individual who introduced me to Peter Bergson. However, what is confusing to me is Wyman’s lack of interest, as displayed in his writings, to confront the “other” issues that the Bergson Group dealt with, such as those surrounding “nationhood” and the political consequences of the work they did. This reluctance on Wyman’s part was apparently due to his desire not to confront Jewish organizations about their passive and ineffective role in the Holocaust. The fact that Wyman has now finally picked up the challenge to explain the Bergson phenomenon is, to me, not indicative of his overall understanding of the larger implications of some of their work, nor is he confrontational enough to bring the Bergson Group to the center stage of Holocaust historical writing. The appearance of Wyman at the conference in Jerusalem is significant. But, as I mentioned before, Wyman refuses to confront the totality of the Bergson Group’s activities as they extended past 1944 to the creation of the Israeli nation and to Bergson’s membership in the first Israeli Parliament; thus, for example, he offers no analysis of the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation [this is not Hebrew National, the kosher hot dog manufacturer, whose founders probably meant it to be Jewish and Kosher, and not National].
The conference, if serious about doing any justice to the Bergson Group, is going to have to deal with the analysis of how the news of the Holocaust came to America. The arrival of the news of the Holocaust has been debated, explored and is in totality a mess. A few historians, like Walter Laqueur and Richard Breitman in their book Breaking the Silence [NY: Simon & Schuster, 1986], Richard Breitman and Alan M. Kraut in their article “Who Was the ‘Mysterious Messenger’?” [Commentary: October 1983], and David S. Wyman in his own interpretation [The Abandonment of the Jews] have all emphasized the role played by Dr. Gerhardt Riegner, the World Jewish Congress representative in Switzerland, in transmitting a German messenger’s news to America. I do not have the real answer as to the identity of the German sources. However, I did see a copy of an affidavit that Paul Guggenheim, a Swiss Jewish professor of law, presented to American authorities in Switzerland in 1942 which indicates that the information on the mass killing of European Jewry came initially from a German official of the German Foreign Office, and an official of the Ministry of War. This affidavit led me to believe that detailed information came to US representatives in Switzerland from various German informants; and at one time I wrote a short article, “The Mysterious Riegner,” to present this case. While he was still alive, Riegner refused to give the name of his German source, which leaves us with more confusion than we need.
The simple facts are thus: the United States, at the start of WWII, did not have good Intelligence services. FDR’s quick response to this Intelligence crisis led eventually to the establishment of the OSS and to the nomination of William (“Wild Bill”) Donovan as its Chief Operating Officer. The lack of American experience in international spying led the Americans to ask the British to help out. The British help was simultaneously a blessing and a curse; what is important to note is that some of the British Intelligence leadership were double agents and committed Communists, a situation that, not surprisingly, resulted in many disastrous consequences in Intelligence, and is especially where the Jewish Holocaust suffered severe casualties. Some of these consequent frustrations can be found expressed in the book Intrepid’s Last Chance by William Stevenson [NY: Villard Books, 1983]. According to Stevenson, it was two Polish nationals, Jan Nowak and Jan Karski, who both brought the news of the massacre of European Jewry to the West. “Jan Nowak went to the Public Record Office outside London long afterwards and was shocked to find that everything from Karski and himself with regards to the extermination of the Jews had been omitted” (p. 272). Looking carefully at Intelligence issues during WWII, one discovers that some elements of the German leadership had been very shaken by Hitler’s wartime activities. Based on facts understood today, I would speculate that these elements, once they discovered and fully understood the Holocaust massacres, comprehended quite well that this plan of the systematic murder of European Jewry would harm Germany in the future. Therefore, as I mentioned above, they were willing to bring the terrible news to the West, especially to the Americans. Switzerland was the ideal place for them to carry out their mission, and sure enough, a few German messengers did arrive there. The Germans who endangered themselves knew exactly what they were doing. Once the messages reached the West, it would have been proper for the Allied governments to react. But this did not happen; the reason? -- Intelligence, Communist and other elements preferred the War to continue as long as it would help the Soviets. The consequent damage done to the Americans as a result of their inability to grasp the import of the intelligence reports coming out of Germany was enormous, and of course no action was taken to save Jews. The German elements willing to endanger their lives to topple the Hitler regime later failed again in July 1944.
The news about the Holocaust became public in the United States at the end of 1942. This led to a great deal of anxiety and anger in the American Jewish community. Within two weeks, on December 8, 1942, at noontime, FDR met with the Jewish leadership in America in a meeting at the White House; this was, in fact, the only time during WWII that the President invited this group to meet with him. A document I uncovered, written by Adolf Held, the President of the Jewish Labor Committee, that I published in Midstream [August/September 1980] is probably the most devastating piece of information we have about FDR and the massacre of European Jewry. In it Held documents that by this early date, December 8, 1942, FDR and his administration are fully aware of the massacre, but that FDR has decided not to take any action in this regard, at least for awhile. Wyman cites this document in his book The Abandonment of the Jews, but he fails to mention in his footnotes that it took me a few years to find it, and that I actually published this Held piece in an article four years before his book appeared. This omission is not a matter of a footnote error.
Due to the commotion brought by the messages that appeared in the American newspapers in November 1942 and the news of the systematic mass killing of European Jewry, the Bergson Group immediately started shifting gears and moved from their project to establish a Jewish army, to a full-blown effort to convince the FDR administration to take action to save what was left of European Jewry. Their activities have been documented by a few historians, of whom the leading one is Dr. David Wyman, but he is not alone. Wyman is of the school that concluded that the Bergson Group’s political activities in the year 1943 led to the establishment of the War Refugee Board in January 1944. This being so, the Bergson Group’s interest in saving European Jews did not, however, begin only in 1942/1943, nor did it end in 1944; rather, Bergson was involved in attempts to save Jews from 1935-1948. The trauma of November 1942, did not change his tempo or his ultimate goal to establish a Hebrew Republic (Israeli Republic) with a written constitution à la Thomas Jefferson as a model. This is what most historians fail to recognize. Bergson was probably the most tuned-in individual to come out of Palestine; over more than thirteen years he single-handedly reacted and promoted schemes to save Jews: The Committee for a Jewish Army, the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, and the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation, were all established by Bergson and were meant to give the Jews during WWII a political identity denied to them by the Nazis. For the Nazis, for whom the “Jew” was worth only one thing, i.e., a ticket to Auschwitz, thus eliminated Jewish political identity altogether. So for Bergson, this Nazi scheme fomented the critical need to reestablish and inform the free world of a political status for European Jewry. Bergson believed that establishing a political status for Jews was a critical factor toward saving them. A Hebrew Republic in Palestine, in spite of the world’s unwillingness to accept this idea, was for him the formula for achieving this sought for political status. The current research on the Bergson Group’s activities is to-date very limited, but the totality of his activities is essential to grasp, not just what the Group did in 1943.
Another participant in this upcoming seminar at Yad Vashem will be Judith Baumel, whose book Between Ideology and Propaganda: The “Irgun” Delegation and the Origins of American-Jewish Right-Wing Militancy [Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1999; Hebrew] is totally confusing as well as misleading, analytically faulty, and absolutely ahistorical. Dr. Wyman will thus have to face her and her theoretical nonsense, and I hope that there will not be an academic explosion at this conference! Baumel does not accept Wyman’s conclusion that the political activity of the Bergson Group led to the creation of the War Refugee Board. It should be noted that she is not alone in this stance among Israeli and American historians. For example, Saul Friedlander, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews 1939-1945 [NY: Harper Perennial, 2008], also does not believe that to be the case. But I believe that unprejudiced examination of the facts will support Wyman’s conclusion. Many years ago, while I was a student of Dr. Wyman, and afterwards, I tried to explain the issue to Joel Carmichael, the editor of Midstream magazine and the son of Louis Lipsky, a well known Zionist leader. As a result of this discussion, Carmichael published my article “Political Actions vs. Personal Relations” [April 1981], also concluding that it was not shtadlanut (Jewish begging) but rather the political action of the Bergson Group in 1943 that led the United States government to take some sort of a role in saving Jews. [In the Jewish prayerbook one repeats in the daily prayers “Thank G-d for not making me a woman.” I would like to pray “Thank G-d for not making me an academic….”]
The reasons for my writing this article are many. For me it is important to bring up and to highlight some of Bergson’s activities. For a number of years at the end of the 1970’s and into the early 1980’s I spent many hours with Peter Bergson as well as Samuel Merlin and Yitshaq Ben-Ami (the father of Jeremy Ben-Ami of J-Street). Throughout those years we shared lots of ideas and thought over many approaches as to how to reclaim their place in history, and make their ideas and messages clear and relevant to the next generation. One of the main issues that always came up in our conversations was the role of the non-Jews who helped the Bergson Group. It is sort of interesting: it was the non-Jewish politicians who took a moral stand and decided to help. For Bergson presented them with the powerful argument that if they did not take a moral stand, then they were like the Germans -- and they responded. So it is important for me to develop some thoughts on the subject of the non-Jewish participants in the Bergson Group’s activities. Here I would like to focus on one individual, an American Congressman, who was instrumental in helping to propel the Bergson Group’s response to the Holocaust in 1943. Will Rogers, Jr., was the son of the famous American humorist Will Rogers, whose ancestors were Cherokee Indians and once commented that “’my ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower – they met the boat’” [P.J. O’Brien, Will Rogers, Ambassador of Good Will Prince of Wit and Wisdom (Philadelphia: The John C. Winston Co., 1935; p. 24)]. Will Rogers, Jr., who came to Congress in 1942, should be considered an American hero in the tradition of Sitting Bull, or better still, Crazy Horse. He definitely inherited from his ancestors that spirit of freedom and stubbornness that helped the Bergson Group pursue its resolve to bring to the United States Congress via the House and the Senate a resolution to create an agency to save European Jews. FDR did so eventually in 1944 particularly as a result of the pressure of Congress. In honor of Will Rogers, Jr., and his ancestors, I suggest that we look at the project in the American West of the building of the huge monument to Crazy Horse. In the spirit of Will Rogers and his ancestors, American Jews and Israelis should take this example of the Americans and erect such a large monument to Peter Bergson in New York, or in Tel Aviv, or in both.
WWII was over, and Bergson found himself more and more involved in the pursuit of his lifetime dream to bring about the creation of a Hebrew Republic (as called today the Israeli nation) in Palestine. It took an enormous amount of political work as well as other grassroots and cultural work to bring about this goal, that his Group felt was worthy to achieve. I would like to backtrack here and explore something about the Bergson Group that is sometimes overlooked. In 1943 Bergson for the first time came to realize and tried to cement a few issues concerning Jews. First he tried to alert the American people to the facts of what was going on in Europe while America was at war and the Jews were being massacred. Toward this end, he staged a famous pageant “We Will Never Die,” written by the playwright Ben Hecht, in New York City as well as other cities around the US. Later on, between July 20-25, 1943, in New York City, Bergson arranged The Emergency Conference to Save the Jewish People of Europe. That conference led Bergson to believe that in order to convince the American government that it should take immediate action to save Jews, he would have to move his activities to Capital Hill and personally to lobby in Congress to push FDR to do something. He was beginning to fear that the goal to create a state for Jews after the War was getting to be an impossibility, as the number of Jews was diminishing by the millions. To help secure Jewish (Hebrew, Israeli) sovereignty in Palestine, he dispatched Arie Ben Eliezar to Palestine to revive the Irgun by appointing Menachem Begin to assume its leadership there. It was only thereafter that Bergson realized the magnitude of his mistake in this appointment. Menachem Begin, later the Israeli Prime Minister, was one of the biggest disasters that happened in Bergson’s decision-making; Begin caused him agony for the rest of his life, not only for his role in the Altalena incident, but for other issues as well. We always used to kid around about Begin, seen in Israel as a demagogue, that his legacy would culminate in the famous argument in the Israeli Knesset between him and Sprinzak. [When Sprinzak commented on the Roman orator Cicero, he used the Hebrew pronunciation “Kikero.” Begin responded that the name should be pronounced “Tzitzero.” Sprinzak again repeated “Kikero,” and Begin finally deferred by saying, “All right Mr. Sprinkak!”] Begin was earlier involved in the Altalena incident, the ship that the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation purchased with the help of American funds, part of which were amassed from a play written by Ben Hecht titled “A Flag is Born” and starring the young actor Marlon Brando. According to Bergson, Begin’s behavior in this incident ruined his life. [I plan to publish a short article on this subject in the near future.] As for Begin’s achievement of peace with Egypt in the Camp David agreement, this milestone was mostly due to the involvement of Moshe Dayan.
In 1944, Bergson also proposed the importance of a government-in-exile embassy in Washington, DC., which he established in April 1944. He asserted that the main reason for this embassy would be to ensure that those Jews who had lost their political identity during the War and were thus stateless could claim to be part of a Hebrew (Israeli) nation, proof of which was their embassy in Washington. This for him was a critical symbol for the surviving remnant of European Jewry; the fact that Begin in Palestine and the American Jewish leadership did not grasp its significance did not detract from its purpose. During 1944 and toward the end of WWII, Bergson formulated a written proposal articulating his belief that a Hebrew Republic (Israeli Republic) with a written constitution (like the American one) could be established immediately after the War. The fact that an Israeli sovereign nation was established in 1948 was for Bergson a natural progression of events and one that he contributed a great deal to. However, in the end, with the creation of the Israeli nation there emerged realities that terribly bothered Bergson. First and foremost was the fact that the Israeli nation never wrote a constitution for the Israelis, thus depriving itself of becoming a modern nation. In 1948 he predicted the terrible ramifications that this omission would cause. The impact of this issue is more complex, as it became a constant source of agony for Bergson for the rest of his life.
To conclude, we wish the organizers of this conference good luck, even though we know for sure that the serious issues Bergson raised will not be discussed. But it is a beginning, and let us hope that something good will come out of it.
Monday, June 27, 2011
Eliyho Matz on the Legacy of Peter Bergson
Eliyho Matz sent this article for publication in anticipation of an upcoming July conference about Peter Bergson (Hillel Kook), to be held at Israel's Yad Vashem: