Peter Bergson’s name might seem forgotten to history but Against the Tide shows his efforts in trying to save European Jewry.
Rabbi Stephen Wise held a press conference in Washington, D.C. on November 24, 1942. It followed the State Department’s confirmation that Jews were being killed by the Nazis in Europe. You would think it would be major news, right? I mean, it was also the first time that the Nazi’s plan for the Jews became widely publicized in the US. It wasn’t even on the front page of the New York Times! In as much as this film is about Rabbi Stephen Wise, it is also about Peter Bergson, who was born Hillel Kook. He would revert back to his birth name later in life. The bulk of this film draws upon an interview conducted with him in 1978.
Bergson had read the news reports again and again and couldn’t believe it. He went to see A.A. Berle Jr. at the State Department and asked what was being done about it. Bergson decided to put all of his daily efforts to save the Jews of Europe. He had come to the US to recruit for the Jewish Army and his uncle was Chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook.
Without Bergson, FDR would not have established the US War Refugee Board. Think about it. The Bergson Group would do more in their efforts to save European Jewry than mainstream Jewish organizations. Here was how much that his efforts were not taken to in kind by Wise and company. Bergson met with the Refugee Board but Wise and company said he was worse than Hitler. Think about it! Peter Bergson took on the American Jewish establishment in an effort to save European Jews and they thought he was worse than Hitler. I cannot believe it! What was Wise and the other mainstream leadership doing? They were privately hoping FDR would do the right thing while refusing to go against him in public!
Together with screenwriter Ben Hecht, the Bergson Group would start taking ads out across the country. One ad in particular hit some buttons and certainly pissed off some of the leadership. They were not happy with Bergson or Hecht. The Bergson Group books a rally at Madison Square Garden in memorial of the 2 million dead. How does Wise and company respond? By booking MSG for another rally a week earlier. Their rally would fail in comparison to the Bergson Group. They had a much better turnout and took their We Will Never Die rally across the country. In LA, they had 10,000 people turn out at the Hollywood Bowl. Notables like Edward G. Robinson, Paul Henreid, Paul Muni, and Franz Waxman were apart of the lineup. Every Jewish Hollywood studio mogul were also honorary chairs for the evening.
It was the DC performance that would lead to some action in Washington because First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt saw and wrote about it. Cabinet officials were also in attendance. I cannot stress this enough: American Jewish leaders made Bergson the enemy. They wanted to silence him by getting the IRS to investigate him for wrongdoing or worse, get him deported. If you’re not rolling your eyes at this point, I don’t know what to say. I mean, here is a guy that’s everything possible to try and save European Jewry and the Jewish establishment wants him deported?!? Meanwhile, European Jewry was upset that those in the US were not doing enough. One of the Jewish leaders in Poland, Szmul Zygielbojm, killed himself following the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. He placed the blame on the inaction of the western Allies.
Depending on one’s point of view the April 1943 Bermuda Conference was a success or a failure. The US and British governments were meeting at the same time as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Zygielbojm left behind a suicide letter. He accused American and British Allies of “looking on passively upon this murder of defenseless millions of tortured children, women and men.” Zygielbojm also accused the Polish government of not doing enough. As fate would have it, he was survived by his son, Joseph. But anyway, Jewish leadership decided to start putting their efforts in the formation of a Jewish state. This piece by Dr. Rafael Medoff covers the Bermuda fallout in detail. Dr. Medoff is also the author of The Jews Should Keep Quiet, which should also serve as a companion to the film.
The Rabbis’ March took place three days before Yom Kippur in October 1943. There were more than 400 rabbis from the US and Canada involved in the march, many of them Orthodox. Among those marching were Rabbi Eliezer Silver and Rabbi Avraham Kalmanowitz of the Vaad Hatzalah, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, and Rabbi Eliezer Poupko. They spoke on the steps of the Capitol From here, they prayed at the Lincoln Memorial before marching to the White House. The president would not see them because they weren’t the right types of Jews. Sound familiar? Blame Wise and FDR advisor Samuel Rosenman. In the meantime, they met with Vice President Henry Wallace even though FDR had plenty of free time on his schedule. Bergson outright rejected Rosenman’s argument, yelling, “Who will save the Jewish world?!?”
When Bergson hears about what happened in Denmark and Sweden to save their Jews, he held another event to challenge FDR. Meanwhile, a report was given to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. in December 1943 that showed the State Department had been actively suppressing news from Europe about Jews. This finally forced FDR into taking action but it was too little, too late. But hey, at least it led to the formation of the US War Refugee Board and enabled Raoul Wallenberg to save 30,000 Hungarian Jews. Because of the Allied inaction, over 424,000 members of Hungarian Jewish community were murdered in the span of a few months.
What I take away from the film is that the American Jewish establishment spent more time fighting Bergson than trying to save European Jewry. Nevertheless, when it came to speaking out within the years that followed, the adopted his tactics. As did the Genocide Intervention Network when it came to speaking out against genocide in Darfur. But for American Jewish leadership to stay silent because of fear of antisemitism? I just can’t. One other note from the film is that Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik went from being a non-Zionist to a religious Zionist as a result of the Holocaust.
The final shot of the Western Wall certainly moved me to tears. Am Yisrael Chai.
Against the Tide is not an easy watch–no Holocaust film is–but it’s still essential viewing when it comes to showing the role that American Jewry played in the Holocaust.
DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: Richard Trank
NARRATOR: Dustin Hoffman
FEATURING: Peter Bergson
Moriah Films released Against The Tide in theaters on September 9, 2009.
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