JERUSALEM – Although more than 60 years have passed since World War II and the Holocaust, Americans continue to grapple with the history of that period and the lessons to be learned from it. From President Bush’s recent remark about appeasing the Nazis in the 1930s, to Senator Obama’s pride in his great-uncle’s role in liberating a Nazi concentration camp, the Hitler era continues to figure prominently in American public discourse.
Israelis, too, are actively debating the lessons of the 1930s and 1940s. In Tel Aviv last week, I joined Israeli scholars in addressing an unprecedented conference on "Rescue and Obstruction: The U.S. and the Destruction of European Jewry."
Israelis and Americans share not only an interest in this subject but also some of the history itself. In 1940, a handful of Zionist activists (including two future Knesset members) came from Jerusalem to the United States to rally support for the rescue of Jews from Europe and the creation of a Jewish state. Led by the dynamic Hillel Kook, who in the U.S. used the name Peter Bergson, these activists held public rallies, lobbied Congress, organized a march by more than 400 rabbis to the White House, and sponsored over ’00 full-page newspaper ads with headlines like "Time Races Death —What Are We Waiting For?"
Brash tactics of this sort were not commonly employed by American Jews in those days, so Bergson’s efforts stirred quite a bit of controversy in the American Jewish community, particularly among the established leadership.
Yet, as I explained at the Tel Aviv conference, the Bergson Group was not a Jewish organization. Bergson and company built an ecumenical coalition for rescue, attracting support from an array of ethnic, racial, and religious groups. Those who signed Bergson’s newspaper ads or spoke at the group’s events included prominent Italian Americans (such as Fiorello La Guardia, Frank Sinatra, and Congressman Thomas D’Alessandro — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s father); Irish Americans (New York City Mayor William O’Dwyer, Paul O’Dwyer, Cong. Andrew Somers, and others); and African Americans (including Paul Robeson, Count Basie, and Cong. Adam Clayton Powell Jr.).
Conservative Republicans such as Herbert Hoover supported Bergson; so did liberal Democrats such as Hubert Humphrey, who was then mayor of Minneapolis. And while few American Christian clergymen raised their voices in protest during the Holocaust — as a Christian, that fact is particularly painful to me — it is noteworthy that the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Henry St. George Tucker, was a Bergson supporter.
Hollywood and Broadway also contributed their share to Bergson’s campaign for Holocaust rescue. Bob Hope, the Marx Brothers, the Andrews Sisters, Edward G. Robinson, Ben Hecht, Stella Adler, and other stars backed Bergson.
For many years, the Bergson Group suffered the fate that controversial groups sometimes endure, as it was routinely omitted from Holocaust-related textbooks, encyclopedias, and museums. But in recent years, a younger generation — unencumbered by the intra-Jewish rivarlies of the 1940s — has taken a fresh look at the Bergson Group’s achievements.
The most notable of those achievements came in early 1944, when the group mobilized members of Congress to pressure President Roosevelt to create a government agency to rescue Jews from Hitler. That pressure was crucial to FDR’s belated (and very reluctant) decision to establish the War Refugee Board. During the last 15 months of the war, the board played a central role in rescuing more than ‘00,000 refugees. Last year, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, responding to public appeals, agreed to add material to its permanent exhibit recognizing the Bergson group’s contribution to the creation of the War Refugee Board.
Sadly, Israel’s central Holocaust institution, Yad Vashem, lags far behind in this respect. Last week, I was part of a delegation that delivered to Yad Vashem a petition signed by more than 1’0 prominent Israelis — including Knesset members, former cabinet ministers, historians, writers, and artists — asking it to recognize the Bergson Group. A senior museum official responded that as a matter of principle, Yad Vashem never makes any changes in its exhibit. Even, apparently, when the exhibit is marred by an egregious omission.
Enter Raoul Wallenberg. It was the War Refugee Board that persuaded Wallenberg to leave the safety of Sweden and travel to Nazi-occupied Budapest in 1944 to save Jews from being deported to Auschwitz. It was the board that financed his rescue work. And without the Bergson Group, the board would probably never have come into existence.
Yad Vashem recognizes Wallenberg as one of the "Righetous Among the Nations," but its panel about him does not mention that he was an emissary of the War Refugee Board. If an industrious visitor thinks to open the unmarked drawers below the Wallenberg panel, he will eventually find, in the bottom drawer, a brief mention of the War Refugee Board — but no explanation of who brought about its creation and no mention of the ‘00,000 lives the board helped save.
Our country’s response to the Holocaust was generally abysmal, but the Raoul Wallenberg saga is one of the few shining exceptions, and Americans have proudly publicized his heroism. He is only one of two non-Americans ever granted honorary U.S. citizenship (the other was Winston Churchill), and his story is taught in schools throughout the land. As Americans, we have every right to expect a major Holocaust institution such as Yad Vashem to describe both America’s failures during the Holocaust as well as the accomplishments of the Bergson Group and the War Refugee Board. Relegating the War Refugee Board to a bottom drawer, and leaving out the Bergson Group altogether, is simply unacceptable.
Prof. Wyman is author of the 1984 best-seller "The Abandonment of the Jews," which chronicles America’s response to the Holocaust.