[Marxism] Peter Bergson's legacy

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Aug 7 08:16:09 MDT 2011

NY Times August 6, 2011
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.”



Since rightwing Zionism of the sort associated with Jabotinsky has such 
a well-deserved bad reputation on the left, it might come as a surprise 
to discover that Peter Bergson comes off fairly well in chapter 24 of 
Lenni Brenner’s “Zionism in the Age of Dictators”. Unlike the Jewish 
establishment, Bergson was not afraid to rock the boat. Brenner quotes 
the December 12, 1942 issue of the Militant newspaper to explain why so 
little was done to resist the Holocaust:

“Truth to tell, these organisations, like the Joint Distribution Board 
and the Jewish Congress, and the Jewish Labor Committee, feared to make 
themselves heard because they were afraid of arousing a wave of 
anti-Semitism here as a result. They feared for their own hides too much 
to fight for the lives of millions abroad.”

Yesterday I received the following from Lenni Brenner in reply to my 
query as to his view of Bergson’s legacy:

	Only one Zionist group understood that rescue had to be their priority 
during the Holocaust. Irgunist Peter Bergson realized that the US 
announcement of the gassing meant that they had to push Roosevelt to 
act. Ben Hecht, author and script-writer of Front Page, the classic 30s 
newspaper-man book and film, wrote a pageant, We Shall Never Die, 
bringing it into a full Madison Square Garden, March 9, 1943, and toured 
it to California.

	Kurt Weill orchestrated the musical accompaniment. Edward G. Robinson 
and other film stars worked on it. A Trotskyist journalist complained 
that it was too pious and memorial. Indeed recordings of it sound 
ponderous to later ears. But that was the state of show biz political 
consciousness at the time. They did the best they could think of.

	The WZO forces were forced to organize a Garden event, to head off 
their rivals. Instead of uniting with Bergson, they pressured 
auditoriums in Pittsburg and other cities, who refused to rent to the 
pageant. Purblind hostility culminated in Nahum Goldmann of the World 
Jewish Congress, the international equivalent of Wise’s AJCongress, 
going to Washington to demand action – against Bergson, not Hitler.

	The WZO element did nothing to pressure Roosevelt to loosen rules 
restricting 30s German-Jewish immigration, and were incapable of 
self-starting in the time of castastrophe. The Irgunists, as terrorists, 
understood, at least for a time, that they had to act, in this case, to 
mobilize public opinion, or Roosevelt would do nothing.

	In his later years, Bergson broke with Zionism, becoming a major voice 
in the chorus of its Israeli critics, and a vital source of information 
on America during the Holocaust. Goldmann never broke with Zionism, but 
his remorse for his role in that era is recorded in a later document.

(Brenner’s observations were made in connection with a State Department 
memo about Bergson and his rivals.)

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