Portrait of a Fiery Maverick

Article excerpt

A Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust, by David S. Wyman and Rafael Medoff. New York: The New Press, 2002, 269 pp., $26.95.

And still the disclosures come--this time from the combined resources of two gifted researchers and writers, David. S. Wyman, author of the disquieting memoir called The Abandonment of the Jews and Rafael Medoff, an American academic who has published seven volumes on the Holocaust.

The mainstream studies on this horrific event concentrate mainly on the Nazis' war against the Jews and the pitiless annihilation of that community during the period 1939-1945. However, new and powerful tributaries leading into that epoch-making episode are being uncovered each day.

Thanks to the exertions of Wyman and Medoff, the little known story of the ignoble activities of the American government during that period when the swastika was blotting out the sun of European Jewry, is being peeled away, layer by layer, to reveal a besotted record of inertia, deviousness, hypocrisy, and malice.

The indictment found in this book is not restricted, however, to government circles; it includes a sad portrait of internecine fighting in the early 1940s among American Jews relating to issues of turf, political ideologies, mad prestige. The image conveyed by the co-authors is not one calculated to inspire respect for those who spoke officially on behalf of American Jews. But their record speaks for itself.

By late 1941, through various back channels, the American government and the media in general had become aware of the Nazis' brutal slaughter of more than one million Jews. But a corporate timidity and fear of rocking the boat led the organized Jewish community's two major groups, the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee, to adopt low profiles in the delusional hope that President Roosevelt would succor European Jewry.

This hope was devastated by the ministrations of Breckenbridge Long, assistant secretary of state, who, between 1941 and 1944, became Roosevelt's chief instrument for blockading Jewish immigrants to the United States. Under the pretext that the Nazis would exploit American immigration laws to infiltrate their own fifth columnists, Long ordered a Draconian immigration policy that affected the Jews of Europe more than any other potential immigrant group.

In 1940, Peter Bergson (ne Hillel Kook--a nephew of the then chief rabbi of Palestine) arrived in the United States and, without the inhibitions of the Jewish establishment, proceeded to set up an independent Jewish lobby to agitate on behalf of European Jewry. One of the astonishing things about the Wyman-Medoff book is their important reconstitution of the life of a man whose indefatigable work on behalf of his people is practically unknown outside the small circle of cognoscenti who are knowledgeable about this aspect of American Jewish history.

Bergson was a proud member of the Irgun Zvai Leumi (Menachem Begin's organization) and a disciple of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the multilingual, fiery maverick whose right wing interpretation of Zionism and founding of a competing Zionist group, earned him the opprobrium of the majority of Zionists. When Bergson began his rescue work in the United States, he was saddled with two burdens, the "sha shtil" (he quiet) syndrome of the American Jewish leadership and the accusation that he was an unsavory representative of a Fascist-oriented Jewish outlook.

Luckily Bergson didn't waste his time engaging in intramural Jewish debate but focused all his energies toward saving the remnants of European Jewry. In a series of interviews with Bergson, executed by Wyman and incorporated in this book, the former's role in energizing a large segment of American Jewry is duly recorded. And what a record it was! Wyman also conducted probing interviews with Cherut activist Samuel Merlin and Congressman Emanuel Celler. …