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Peter Bergson, America, and the Holocaust

by David S. Wyman & Rafael Medoff

Pub Date: Nov. 7th, 2002
ISBN: 1-56584-761-X
Publisher: New Press

Throughout WWII, it seems, the last thing the US government wanted to hear about was the plight of Europe’s Jews. That we were made to listen, this study suggests, owes much to the tireless efforts of one man who is little remembered today.

In 1940, a Lithuania-born Palestinian Jew named Hillel Kook, an organizer for the nationalist Irgun organization, arrived in New York and immediately set about lobbying the American government and Jewish leadership to take up the Zionist cause as their own. Changing his name to Peter Bergson, he first confined his activities to raising funds and public awareness for a project to relocate European Jews to Palestine, which met with considerable resistance in this country in part because the government did not wish to alienate the Arab nations and threaten supplies of oil essential to the war effort. He eventually found powerful backers in Eleanor Roosevelt, Florida congressman Claude Pepper, and Secretary of War Henry Stimson. Wyman (History Emeritus/Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst; The Abandonment of the Jews, not reviewed) and Medoff (associate editor of the journal American Jewish History) offer a thoughtful essay discussing Bergson’s work and its fruition in turning an indifferent government’s attention toward Jewish affairs (though not without cost, as they write, for more than one beleaguered official threatened Bergson with deportation). The authors, however, focus mostly on transcripts from interviews that Wyman conducted with Bergson in 1973. In them, Bergson talks unguardedly about the opposition he met from officials and anti-Zionist American Jews—and about some of the unlikely allies he found, such as the reputedly anti-Semitic publisher William Randolph Hearst. (“I mean, Nixon isn’t as hated as Hearst was then. What right did we have to decide who would save the Jews? For God’s sake, we would go to anybody.”) Though highly partial, these interviews will be of much interest to scholars with a background in the period, although general readers may find themselves lost in the absence of annotation.

Nonetheless, a useful addition to the literature of the Holocaust.