A major new novel features a Jewish activist organizing protests against the Roosevelt administration’s abandonment of European Jewry. A recent off-Broadway play (being made into a movie by an Academy Award-winning actor and director) depicted Jewish activists and leaders clashing over Holocaust rescue.
With his appearance in literature, theater, and film, the once-controversial Peter Bergson is finally entering the popular culture. And the U.S. Jewish community at long last seems to be coming to grips with one of the most painful chapters in its history.
Seventy-five years ago this summer, Bergson (real name: Hillel Kook) and a handful of colleagues launched what would become perhaps the most dramatic political action campaign in American Jewish history.
To advance their demands to rescue Europe’s Jews and create a Jewish state in Palestine, these activists placed hundreds of full-page ads in newspapers, lobbied in Congress, and organized a march by 400 rabbis to the White House. Such tactics were radical steps for Jews in the 1940s. Many immigrants and children of immigrants, still nervous about their place in American society, were uneasy about broadcasting Jewish concerns in the pages of the major newspapers.
Bergson liked to call himself a “nuisance diplomat,” and his group’s activities did prove to be quite a nuisance to the Roosevelt administration, which insisted the rescue of European Jews was impossible. The Bergsonites mobilized enough congressional and public pressure on President Roosevelt to help force him to create a U.S. government agency, the War Refugee Board, in early 1944. During the final fifteen months of World War II, the board played a central role in rescuing some 200,000 Jews from the Nazis.