By David S. Wyman & Rafael Medoff
Hardcover 2002. Paperback 2004. The New Press. New York City. 70 pages. $15 + $3 postage. Order from The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies www.WymanInstitute.org
A Race Against Death is about Peter Bergson’s [better known as Hillel Kook] heroic efforts in America to save European Jews from the clutches of Hitler. The book is based on Mr. Wyman’s exclusive interviews with Mr. Bergson and provides a compelling and well documented insight into the struggle waged in the States in the early 1940s.
Bergson foresaw the horrifying threat to the Jewish communities in Europe and strove to awaken the conscience of American Jews and public opinion. He and his team organized never before seen full page advertisements, public rallies and interviews, and they lobbied industriously to awaken the Jewish community and the public at large to the developing catastrophe of the Holocaust. Their object was to influence Roosevelt to take action to save lives. And he could have. Sadly, mainstream Jewish organizations were embarrassed by these efforts and sought to thwart them wherever and however possible.
It is a particularly relevant expose these days for three main reasons. First, there is Peter Beinart’s book, The Crisis of Zionism. Second, the emerging story of Hiram Bingham, now being recognized as having saved many hundreds of Jews while serving as a US Vice Consul in Marseilles in 1939/40, only to be re-posted to the Argentine in 1941 because Washington lost patience with him, and third, the revelations of the destructive infighting in the major organizations of the American Jewish community at a very critical time.
Beinart apparently has great praise for Rabbi Stephen Wise who was President of the American Jewish Congress at this time. Bergson explains how this extremely successful and powerful leader, who had easy access to Roosevelt, vehemently opposed Bergson’s efforts to save Jews from the Holocaust.
The book reveals, inter alia, that Bergson did manage to meet with the Secretary of State, Mr. Harold Ickes; a “man with a conscience”. He was sympathetic to the cause and accepted the Chairmanship of the Washington Division of the Committee to rescue European Jews. This earned him a written rebuke by Rabbi Wise. Mr. Ickes, however, to his credit, did not withdraw.
The very sad truth is that infighting amongst the leaders of the community, who mistrusted Bergson’s motives, seriously hindered the efforts of his committee. Even prominent Jews who understood and backed Bergson were pressurized to withdraw from his campaign.
In the end, thanks to Bergson’s amazing strength and the stamina to continue with his campaign, notwithstanding the obstacles put in his way by community organizations that he had had reason to believe would enthusiastically join his efforts, the campaign succeeded in changing Roosevelt’s refugee policy, and the War Refugee Board was set up in 1944. This Board helped save the lives of some 200,000 Jews. But many more could have been saved if the Jewish leadership of the time had overlooked their personal squabbles and prejudices and supported Bergson wholeheartedly in the race against death.
Then Secretary of State, Colin Powell, gave Mr. Bingham a posthumous award for “constructive dissent”, although the State Department resisted any attempt to honor him for over 50 years. Surely Mr. Bergson is deserving of more recognition than he received. Impressive reviews of this book are not enough.
Reading A Race against Death should, today, be a wake-up call for Jewish organizations and politicians throughout the world. Consider how internal struggles and dissension cost the nation millions of lives. Can Israel and the Diaspora find a modus vivendi?
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