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Jewish World Review August 27, 2001 / 8 Elul, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

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Hillel Kook, aka Peter Bergson, showed American Jews how to stand up and be heard -- ON Saturday, Aug. 18, the Jewish world lost one of its great heroes. There was no fanfare and not much fuss to mark his passing. But the man that most of the world once knew as Peter Bergson had a profound impact on American Jewish life.

A controversial figure, Bergson will be forever known to Jewish history as the Jew who wouldn't shut up during the Holocaust. During World War II, faced with an American Jewish establishment that was too docile to raise hell about the fate of doomed European Jews and too infatuated with Franklin Roosevelt to stand up to the president, Bergson, along with a few associates, refused to be silent.

Born in Lithuania in 1915, he came into the world as Hillel Kook, a scion of a great rabbinic dynasty. His uncle was, in fact, the revered Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), who became the first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of modern Israel, and whose belief in the synthesis of Zionism with Judaism helped revolutionize the thinking of the Orthodox and secular Jewish worlds. But Hillel Kook did not go into the family business. Instead, growing up in pre-World War II Palestine (after his family had made aliyah), he chose to devote himself to the battle to create a Jewish state. Kook was a follower of Zionist leader Vladimir Ze'ev Jabotinsky, whose right-of-center Revisionist movement was more militant in its attitude toward both the Arabs and the British rulers of Palestine than the Labor Zionist Party led by David Ben-Gurion.

In his youth, Kook became deeply involved with the underground Irgun Zvai Leumi, a group that broke away from the labor-dominated Haganah defense force.

As World War II approached, British restrictions had closed the gates of the one country that was willing to take in the endangered Jews of Europe. The Irgun sent Kook to Poland, where he helped organize illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine. While working undercover, he operated under the name "Peter Bergson," so as not to involve his prominent rabbinic family who lived under British rule.

Fortuitously, Kook/Bergson was in Switzerland when the Germans invaded Poland. Eventually, he would make his way to New York, where he joined Jabotinsky, who was working to create a "Jewish army" to fight with the Allies against Adolf Hitler.

But in the spring of 1940, Jabotinsky died. Bergson continued Jabotinsky's agitation for a Jewish army (the campaign would eventually result in the creation of the "Jewish Brigade" of the British Army, whose veterans helped form the nucleus of Israel's forces during its War of Independence); then, in 1942, his focus changed.

While most American Zionists were still concentrating on the struggle to create a Jewish state in the aftermath of the war, Bergson realized that there was a more urgent priority: the rescue of Jews trapped in the clutches of the Nazis. By the end of 1942 (when the murder of Polish Jewry was itself largely accomplished), American Jewish leaders were no longer in doubt as to what was going on in Nazi Europe - the attempted extermination of the entire Jewish people.

Though leaders such as New York's Rabbi Stephen Wise were deeply troubled by this knowledge, they felt helpless to do anything about it. There were hundreds of thousands of Jews still alive in countries such as Hungary, where the Nazis and their collaborators had not yet started their grim deportation process. But the leaders of major Jewish organizations, such as Wise, were unable and/or unwilling to use whatever clout they possessed to challenge the Roosevelt administration to attempt to rescue as many Jews as could be saved. Bergson had no such inhibitions and was a master of public relations.

Mobilizing celebrities - such as journalist and screenwriter Ben Hecht - Bergson began a flamboyant campaign to bring the fate of European Jews to the forefront of the American consciousness. His Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe published provocative newspaper ads, staged pageants written by Hecht to memorialize Jewish victims and held a rabbinic march on Washington to galvanize support for rescue.

Rather than joining in with Bergson's efforts, Wise and other Jewish leaders feared and despised him. They thought Bergson's campaign would arouse anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish pogroms in America. But the foreign-born Bergson understood America better than natives like Wise, who was too close to Roosevelt to see that he was being used. Appealing to the instinctive American belief in fairness, the Irgunist's campaign was able to tap into powerful feelings of sympathy for Jewish victims and for Zionism among ordinary Americans, as well as many non-Jewish politicians.

Fortunately, the establishment failed to stop him. Bergson's agitation on behalf of rescue led to congressional pressure that resulted in the Roosevelt administration creating the War Refugee Board in 1944. The board's work was directly responsible for saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews.

To the end of his life, Bergson believed that despite its limited success, his work was a failure. Had his group been able to force the creation of the War Refugee Board earlier and if it were given more resources, even more Jews might have been saved.

That is an argument historians will continue to debate. But there is little doubt that Bergson's valiant efforts were a bright light of Jewish honor at a time when the counsels of despair governed the hearts of the men who were supposed to be American Jewry's leaders.

Yet for the man known as Peter Bergson, there would be no postwar honors. As a political opponent of Ben-Gurion, Kook (who resumed his real name after the State of Israel was declared) was elected to the first Knesset along with Menachem Begin. But Kook was no politician. He soon quarreled with Begin and, disillusioned, left Israeli public life - and then Israel itself, to take up a successful career on Wall Street. He eventually returned to the Jewish state in 1975, where he lived in obscurity until his death.

Over the years, Kook would periodically emerge to give testimony about the past and contribute to the fierce debates that raged about the failure of the leaders of the Jewish world to effectively aid the victims of the Holocaust.

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Some, influenced by their dislike of Kook's politics, would denigrate him and seek to exonerate Wise. But with the publication of influential books such as Arthur Morse's While Six Million Died, David Wyman's The Abandonment of the Jews and Rafael Medoff's The Deafening Silence, recognition of the importance of Kook's work grew. Though the body of scholarship on this topic is increasing, to date, only one biography of Kook exists - a fine effort by the late Louis Rapaport, titled Shake Heaven & Earth: Peter Bergson and the Struggle to Rescue the Jews of Europe .

In his refusal to be silent, Kook not only set in motion the chain of events that helped save many Jewish lives but also created the paradigm for a half-century of unapologetic Jewish activism on behalf of Soviet Jewry and the State of Israel. Bergson is largely unknown to most American Jews alive today. But he was, as much as anyone, the man who helped set in motion the activist identity of countless American Jews who grew up long after this hero left the stage.

As American Jewry marshals its considerable resources to support the embattled Israel of our own time, it is fitting that we remember the man who came from Palestine more than 60 years ago to show us how to stand up and speak truth to power. Let his memory be for a blessing, and let his legacy inspire us to act with honor, as he did so long ago.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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