Film Recalls Controversy Over U.S. Jews’ Inaction During WWII
12/09/2011
Special To The Jewish Week
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Pierre Sauvage has focused as a filmmaker on Jewish subjects.  He owes his life to the good people of Le Chambon, France, who saved him as a child, along with many others, during the Holocaust.  His 1989 film, Weapons of the Spirit, documents their story. 

His new documentary, Not Idly ByPeter Bergson, America and the Holocaust, is a searing indictment of the leadership of the American Jewish community during World War II as articulated by Hillel Kook, better known as Peter Bergson.  Its 55 minutes interweave Bergson's statements from two sources, Laurence Jarvik’s Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die (1982) and outtakes from Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985). It includes clips of the pageant, We Shall Never Die, one of the means used by the “Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe” (the Bergson Group, as it was called) to mobilize public support.      

Sauvage finds it puzzling that some assume that he’s drawn to the political right.  In a meeting with this reporter at an East Village cafe, Sauvage expressed surprise that a woman would come up to him after the debut screening last month of his film at New York’s Center for Jewish History to praise him while simultaneously fulminating at “the traitors in J Street.”  He “steers clear of the Mideast” conflict, having trouble “wrapping his head around” its complexities. 

Nevertheless, the complexities of the Mideast do enter into this subject.  Bergson came to the U.S. from Palestine in 1940.  He and most of his closest colleagues were members of the Irgun, the “Revisionist” (right-wing) Zionist underground. 

Among these was Jacob or Yitzhak Ben-Ami, the father of J Street’s founder, Jeremy Ben-Ami.  In the recent posthumous publication of a memoir by Bergson’s colleague, Samuel Merlin (Millions of Jews to Rescue, published by the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies), Jeremy Ben-Ami writes an afterword expressing pride in his father’s role in the Bergson Group.  He argues that “All Jews from right to left should have been able to support [its rescue mission].”  He also points out that most individuals recruited into the Bergson Group, such as Ben Hecht and Stella Adler, were liberals, augmented by varying degrees of support from such leftists as Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson. 

Astra Kook-Temko, one of Bergson’s two daughters, spoke from the audience at the premiere screening in New York. (She lives in England; his other daughter is Israeli.)  Ms. Temko’s email confirmed their father’s liberal idealism, even after serving in Israel’s first Knesset as an MK for Herut (Menachem Begin’s party):

“My father … split with Herut ... and left the party over the issue of wanting Israel to write a constitution, as part of his liberal world view, i.e., seeing Israel as a secular democratic society in which all citizens, including Arabs, could enjoy equal rights ....”

In the film, Bergson indicates that Jewish establishment figures, especially Rabbi Stephen Wise, the leading American Zionist at the time, opposed their work by lobbying Congress, calling them extremists, and even trying to get Bergson deported or drafted.     

In his admittedly one-sided presentation of Bergson’s view, Sauvage feels that he’s delivering a perspective that is not commonly heard.  He spoke humbly, without rancor, stating that “film is inadequate as a medium” and that he did not wish to make “smug, self-righteous judgments.”  He welcomed screening it in forums such as at the Center for Jewish History, where a panel discussed the facts afterwards.  He suggested that he’d like his film balanced by a “study guide,” which he urged that others fund and develop. 

Aside from Sauvage, the panel included Laurel Leff, a professor of journalism who wrote Buried in The Times, on the New York Times’ understated coverage of the Holocaust, and historian Richard Breitman, known for arguing that the U.S. did all it could to rescue Jews.  Dr. Breitman indicated that a restraint on doing more was the risk of alienating “millions of Muslims” in the Allied forces—an odd statement, since this vastly overstated their numbers.  But there was what Bergson characterized as “paranoia” among American Jewish leaders, and a general concern in the Allied camp, about an anti-Semitic backlash if their cause came to be regarded as a “war for the Jews.”

Prof. Leff observed that the Jewish establishment believed in influencing the Roosevelt administration from within.  Rabbi Wise was especially close to FDR.  Bergson activists were archetypical outsiders, led by “pushy” immigrants who pressured through the court of public opinion. 

Panelists agreed that the Bergson Group was helpful in establishing the War Refugee Board in January 1944, but it was primarily Treasury Secretary Morgenthau’s internal campaign that won out.  It was literally too little, too late, but this executive agency saved about 200,000 Jewish lives. 

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