Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Eliyho Matz on the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and Peter Bergson's 1943 Washington Campaign


                                                                        Great Barrington, MA
                                                                        April 2013

                        In every serious philosophical question uncertainty extends to
                        the very roots of the problem.
                        We must always be prepared to learn something totally new.
                                                                                                Ludwig Wittgenstein
                                                                                                Remarks on Color

            My mother, Zahava, just passed away in Israel.  She was 100-years-old.  Even though her last fifteen years were rough and miserable as a result of illness, she had at least fifty good years in Israel; fifty years of trying to become an Israeli.  She did not exactly become one, but I, her son Eliyho, did become one, although I now live in America.  During WWII, she and my dad, Moshe, managed to run away from their home in Eastern Europe to the far east of the Soviet Union.  There, she worked in a military hospital, while my dad joined the Russian military where he eventually became the commander of a platoon of sharpshooters.  In 1945, his military unit was at the gates of Berlin.  Part of his Russian military march to Berlin was done by foot.  (As a result of it, his son Eliyho has flat feet!)  From Berlin, he returned to the far eastern region of Russia to reunite with Zahava.  From there, my parents made their way to Israel.  They settled in Rishonlezion, where I grew up.

            What does this story about my parents have to do with Washington, DC?  Now, I have to explain.  Ever since my childhood, I used to get into trouble, and my mother, Zahava, often had to protect me from getting into all sorts of dangerous situations.  Both my parents had to deal with this restless, difficult child.  At the age of sixteen I finally left home and went to a kibbutz in the far north of Israel, and I returned home only after completing my crazy military service a few years later.  Next, I went to work for a year in the Sinai Desert, where I almost got killed near the Suez Canal.  The only reflection I have of this experience at the Suez Canal is summed up in a story I heard from Abram Sorramello, the Israeli horse-and-buggy owner who became a famous folklorist:

            Two Egyptian soldiers were caught by their commander spying for
            Israel.  The Egyptian commander instructed his sergeant to hang them
            on a eucalyptus tree hanging over the Suez Canal.  The sergeant, who
            had just eaten lunch with them and was their friend, loosened the rope.
             As a result, when he hanged the first soldier the rope slipped, allowing
             the soldier to fall into the water and swim to freedom on the Israeli
            side.  When the second soldier saw what happened, he begged the
             sergeant not to do the same thing to him, because he did not know
            how to swim!

I happened to meet the first soldier….

            Finally, in October 1972, I entered the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  My stay at the University was short-lived; before the end of 1973 I rejoined my military unit to participate in the Yom Kippur War.  Our mission was to observe the Israeli activities on the Suez Canal.  When I finally returned to the University in April, 1974, I had by then lost interest in continuing my studies in Jerusalem.  So I left for America.  Once established, I met Hillel Kook – that was where my real troubles began, and actually never ended, and I am only sixty-five years old by now!

            Most Israelis do not know, or simply have forgotten, many issues relating to the creation of the Israeli nation.  This story is evolving, and will be developing in the years to come.  In the meantime, I will try to explain, as best as I know or remember, some of the more complex aspects of the history of the birth of Israel.   

            We have all heard about the Holocaust and the extermination of European Jews by the Nazis during WWII.  This topic engulfs Israeli society today, and its repercussions inflict enormous damage on the Israeli people.  The fact is, during the Holocaust years, the Palestinian Jewish leadership, though concerned about Jewish lives, did very to save or help the victims.  I hope this does not surprise anybody, or confuse the subject matter.  Ben Gurion, who, contrary to what most people think, was probably among the worst Jewish leaders in modern times, along with his confidants, almost ignored the plight of European Jews.  However, after the Holocaust, he and the Israeli leadership jumped on the Holocaust wagon and started all kinds of memorials and other theatrical exercises to memorialize the Holocaust and its “Heroism.”  As part of this effort, state institutions created educational tools, and thus the whole Israeli nation became involved in the memory business, or rather what one might call the “Holocaust business.”  Israeli ideas on this subject have penetrated into every nation in the world and every television station, and supposedly the world now knows more than it needs to know about the Holocaust event.  But the Israeli perspective and interpretation of the Holocaust are misleading, and historically inaccurate.  Perhaps the reader has already grasped Eliyho Matz’s conflicts and problems resulting from the above interpretation.

            Well, as an Israeli kid, I accepted the official Israeli explanation of the Holocaust, but I did meditate on these events since I was a child, a child of parents who lost most of their family in that event.  But then, I came to America in 1974, and I soon encountered Hillel Kook, better known in the US as Peter Bergson.  I will never forget my first meeting with him in Manhattan.  This individual was so angry with me, he actually came very close to asking me to leave his office.  His anger came from his deep frustration; he said that basically all he ever met were ignorant Israelis, and he figured I was just another one of them.  Perhaps at the time I was.  It took him awhile to cool off from his anger.  When I offered him some documents he had never seen before on American Jewish leadership and the Holocaust that I had found in my research, he finally realized that I had done some research and was attempting to understand the subject matter.  I had given him some new hope that finally someone was making an honest attempt to tackle the subject matter.  Kook was mentally worn down by his frustrations.  I stayed on working with him for at least ten years.  During those years, I tried to understand the reaction of Jewish leadership to the Holocaust.  It was not a pleasant story.  The Israelis have diverted the focus of Holocaust understanding by teaching the heroic events of the Warsaw Ghetto: that is, focusing on the heroism of a few of the victims -- most of this story is a historical fraud, and sadly a story that cannot teach anything about Jewish survival.  But this is the Israeli story.

            As opposed to the Israeli story, my story is an attempt to explain what happened to Hillel Kook during the year 1943 in Washington, DC.  It is not such a pleasant story to hear, and not one without complexity.  But again I am not heeding the warnings of my mom that often replay in my head, my mom who died a few weeks ago and who had always warned me and tried to protect me from unseen danger.  Rather, I am telling the facts as I can best reconstruct them, for the benefit of future generations.

            Hillel Kook, a.k.a. Peter Bergson, came from Europe in 1940 via Warsaw, via Jerusalem, to New York.  In his early twenties, he was already a senior commander in the Palestinian Jewish underground and one of the leading individuals in the Irgun Zvai Leumi.  His arrival in American created a storm among some of his friends and supporters of the Irgun in America.  He arrived poor, not connected, and unable to speak English well.  While in America he overcame those three obstacles.  How he did so is worth a movie or two.  The focus of my story will be his activities between November, 1942, when he first heard in Washington, DC, the official announcement confirming the news of the extermination of European Jews, and his raising of the Israeli flag in Washington in early 1944 (four years before the establishment of an Israeli nation).   

By November 1942, Hillel Kook was very familiar with many of the Representatives and Senators in the US Congress, as well as with many officials in the State Department, the War Department and the Interior Department, and scores of other government officials working in Washington.  The news of the Holocaust arrived in Washington in the middle of July, 1942, and was confirmed by the US government in November 1942.  The period between November, 1942, and May, 1944, represented Hillel Kook’s finest hours.  One must recognize that he was the leader who responded to the Nazi atrocities in the US capital.  His activities began in New York City, where, with the help of playwright Ben Hecht, he managed to organize a pageant called, “We Will Never Die,” which was performed later in other cities around America.  The purpose of this pageant was to bring to the public eye the Nazi plan to exterminate European Jews.  Later on, in July, 1943, he organized a conference in New York City that was attended by many important Americans and dealt with options of how to save European Jews.  By mid-1943, it became clear to Kook that in order to save European Jews, he needed the support of the American government, so his next move was to try to convince Congress.  Congressman Will Rogers, Jr., a Democrat from California, along with several other Congressman and Senators, became interested in backing a resolution that would call for the US Government to enter into the business of rescue.  As part of this effort,  Will Rogers, Jr., a descendant of Cherokee Indians, flew to London in late 1943 to explore possibilities with the British on how to save Jews.  But he came back disappointed.  It was clear to Kook from early November 1942, that unless the US government became actively involved in saving Jews, there would be little chance for any rescue.  Backed by allies in Congress as well as friends in the Treasury, State and War Departments, Kook worked ceaselessly to place pressure on the FDR Administration to act on behalf of European Jews.  In retrospective analysis of his activities, one must recognize Kook’s enormous energy and determination to do the right thing to save Jews.  With great difficulties Kook convinced Orthodox Jewish rabbis to come and protest in Washington on the eve of Yom Kippur in 1943.  In that case, he had to invoke his uncle’s name (Rabbi A. Kook) and put all sorts of pressure on those Orthodox rabbis.  Today, Orthodox Jewish leaders praise that event, but as Hillel told me, it was one heck of an effort to convince them.   

Despite enormous efforts, FDR was not yet convinced.  At the time of the War, his closest advisors were American Jews.  The Zionists in America were receiving their cues from Ben Gurion: not only were they not taking much action themselves toward rescue, but they were also creating Congressional obstacles behind Kook’s efforts to exact pressure for government action to save Jews.  Sol Bloom, a Zionist Jewish Congressman from NY, along with distinguished Reform Rabbi Stephan Wise, both pressured to kill the resolution in Congress.  I hope that, with the distance of seventy years, American Jews take note of this today.   

As a member of the Jewish Palestinian underground, Kook also had to deal with a number of issues happening in Palestine.  Towards the middle of 1943, he sent Irgun member Arie Ben Eliezer to Palestine to reorganize the collapsing Irgun.  During this year of terrible tragedy for European Jews, Kook also thought about the future of a Hebrew Republic in Palestine, later called the Israeli nation, and today being attempted to be called the Jewish nation.  Kook purchased a building in Washington, and in May, 1944, he boldly raised the flag of the future Israeli nation on the front porch.  One would think that smart Israelis, or sophisticated American Jews, would pay attention to their past history and might reach some constructive conclusion surrounding these past events.  Regrettably, that has not yet been the case.  Monuments of Hillel Kook are no where to be found; his name does not appear in the history books; his activities are unknown to the majority of Israelis and American Jews.

            My mom, who raised me, always warned me against getting into trouble.  I guess I did not listen to her.  I have not been able to stop telling this story of the revolt in Washington.  Mom, I hope you forgive me.