Jewish Journal

‘Forgotten Hero’ of the Shoah Peter Bergson gets his due times two

by Tom Tugend

Posted on Jul. 30, 2008 at 10:58 pm

Steven Schub, left, and Morlan Higgins <br />
in "The Accomplices." Photo by Ed Krieger<br />

Steven Schub, left, and Morlan Higgins
in "The Accomplices." Photo by Ed Krieger

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, bowing to a high-profile petition campaign, agreed last week to include the story of the Peter Bergson Group in its permanent exhibit.

By coincidence, and at the same time, the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles presented the West Coast premiere of "The Accomplices," a play by Bernard Weinraub about Bergson and his World War II exploits.

Peter who?

Bergson was born in Lithuania in 1915 as Hillel Kook, nephew of the revered Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine, Avraham Isaac Kook. Ten years later, the family immigrated to Palestine, and in the 1930s young Hillel joined the underground military cadre of the right-wing Irgun, changing his name to Peter Bergson so as not to embarrass his family.

The Irgun battled both the British mandatory powers and the mainstream Jewish leadership, but in 1940 the Irgun dispatched Bergson to the United States, initially to agitate for the establishment of a Jewish army to fight against Hitler.

As word of the Nazi slaughter of Europe's Jews trickled out, Bergson threw his energies into arousing American Jewry and the U.S. government to rescue as many Jews as possible.

By all accounts, Bergson was a passionate, charismatic and persuasive advocate for his cause, who persisted in smashing his head against the wall of a timid Jewish leadership unwilling to make waves, an anti-Semitic State Department, and a President Roosevelt resenting any distraction from winning World War II.

Nevertheless, Bergson was able to persuade some influential allies in Congress and Hollywood, initiated massive pageants, a protest march and provocative full-page ads, all abhorred by the Jewish establishment. These combined efforts are largely credited with pushing the White House in early 1944 into creating the War Refugee Board, which helped save 200,000 Jews and 20,000 others.

The two-act play is a "dramatized" version of events, but the basic historical record is accurate, Weinraub said.

"Accomplices" has a couple of heroes -- Bergson and writer Ben Hecht -- and at least one villain -- Breckinridge Long, a key State Department official who systematically obstructed all rescue efforts.

But most of the historical figures fall between these poles as well-meaning but flawed characters, whose timidity, political calculations and not unreasonable fear of an anti-Semitic backlash prevented resolute action when there was still time.

From Bergson's view, the half-hearted men included Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom most Jews of the era worshipped as a semi-deity; his craven Jewish speechwriter Sam Rosenman; and Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, American Jewry's most influential figure as head of the American Jewish Congress and the American Zionist Emergency Council.

In the play, Wise is shown as a man anguished by the fate of his European brethren, but determined to stop public protests that might offend his non-Jewish countrymen, or worse, FDR himself.

There is little doubt that Wise's caution was shared then by the majority of Jews during a time of pervasive American anti-Semitism, fear of foreigners and Depression-triggered agitation against immigrants.

Arguments about Wise's role, and indeed the effectiveness of the entire Bergson enterprise, continued long after the war. In the early 1980s, such respected historians as Lucy Davidowicz and Marie Syrkin argued that militant Jewish agitation would have been counterproductive.

Just as Bergson found some of his strongest allies among Christians, so the non-Jewish David S. Wyman was the first to fully tell the Bergson story in his 1985 best seller, "The Abandonment of the Jews."

That the old controversy can still spark emotions is shown by last month's refusal by Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Authority, to include the Bergson story in its museum.

Wyman, and the Institute for Holocaust Studies bearing his name, led the campaign to persuade the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to accept the Bergson exhibit, and believe that his story must be remembered.

"Telling the story of the Bergson Group is extremely important not only because of its historical importance, but also because it sends a powerful message to today's younger generation that it really is possible to change history."

Steven Schub portrays Peter Bergson in the Fountain Theatre production. He brings the requisite passion and coiled fury to the demanding role, but occasionally escalates into shrillness and transmits little of the man's reputed charisma.

The strongest performances, in relatively minor roles, are by Dennis Gersten as Ben Hecht and James Harper as Roosevelt. Director Deborah LaVine adds immediacy to the production by inserting newsreel clips of refugees and of a Bergson-orchestrated march on the White House by 400 Orthodox rabbis.

Bronx-born Bernard Weinraub was a budding playwright in college, but put his ambitions aside during a 30-year career as a political, foreign and Hollywood correspondent for The New York Times.

While stationed in Washington in 1982, he covered the controversy over the documentary, "Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die?" which dealt with America's response to the Holocaust.

"I knew nothing about these happenings, but I was fascinated," Weinraub said in a conversation after the play.

During the next few years, he interviewed survivors of the Bergson Group and read up on the subject.

In the late '90s, when Weinraub was transferred to Los Angeles to report on the entertainment industry, he started taking evening classes on playwriting at UCLA. Out of this grew "The Accomplices," which had its premiere last year in New York and earned a Drama Desk Award nomination for best new play.

Bergson returned to Israel after the war and died there in 2001, at the age of 86, but his legacy still remains controversial.

"There are some Jewish organizations in this country that are still too embarrassed to talk about their roles during the Holocaust years," Weinraub


"The Accomplices" runs through Aug. 24 at the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25-$28, with discounts for seniors and students. For information and reservations, call (323) 663-1525 or visit www.FountainTheatre.com

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