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American Experience | America and the Holocaust | Article

The "Bergson Boys"

On the morning of November 25, 1942, a small but shocking article in "The Washington Post" grabbed the attention of Peter Bergson, a young Jewish Palestinian who was staying in Washington, D.C. The headline read "Two Million Jews Slain." The story went on to explain that World Jewish Congress Chairman Rabbi Stephen Wise had confirmation from the State Department that the Nazis were planning to annihilate the entire Jewish population of Europe. The 32-year-old reader was not only dismayed at the content of the article, he was also extremely distressed that it had been buried on page six of the paper. It made such an impact on him that it would drastically change his mission in the United States, making him take a course of action that would ultimately play a decisive role in President Roosevelt's decision to create a government agency devoted to saving Jews. 

Bergson and a handful of other young Palestinian Jews associated with the Zionist, right-wing Irgun organization had arrived in the United States in 1940 hoping to create a Jewish Army. This separate Jewish fighting force, made up of Palestinian Jews, stateless Jewish refugees, and Jews from non-belligerent nations, would fight alongside other Allied armies under supreme Allied command. "JEWS FIGHT FOR THE RIGHT TO FIGHT" ran one of their "New York Times" advertisements at the beginning of 1942. But reading about the horrifying news from Europe, Bergson changed his focus: now the rescue of Europe's Jews became his top priority. 

Almost immediately, Bergson and his followers' unorthodox methods caught the attention of the public and caused tension within the Jewish community. In response to a report that the Rumanian government was prepared to ship 70,000 Jews to a safe haven as long as the Allies covered the expenses, the Bergson group took out an attention-grabbing advertisement. Under the shocking headline FOR SALE TO HUMANITY 70,000 JEWS, GUARANTEED HUMAN BEINGS AT $50 A PIECE, the group demanded that the Allied countries "immediately appoint an inter-governmental committee" to devise plans to end the Holocaust. The established American Jewish leadership, Zionists included, was horrified: they accused the "Bergson Boys", as the young men were known, of sensationalism and recklessness; and they argued the foreigners had no mandate to speak for American Jews. 

Bergson and his followers remained undeterred. On March 9, 1943, with the help of the renowned scriptwriter Ben Hecht, they mounted a huge pageant in New York City's Madison Square Garden called "We Will Never Die." The performance was dedicated to the 2,000,000 European Jews who had already been murdered. Forty thousand people saw the pageant that first night. It went on to play in five other major cities. When the drama came to Washington, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, six Supreme Court Justices and some 300 senators and congressmen watched it. 

Despite the number of people who saw the pageant, it failed to make any difference to U.S. policy. At the end of April it became clear that the closed-door Bermuda Conference, called to consider the plight of Jews in Europe, had failed to adopt any concrete measures to help the primary victim's of Nazi atrocities. In response, and in complete disregard of the advice of more mainstream Jewish activists, the Bergson group took out a full-page advertisement in the "New York Times" calling the conference a "cruel mockery" of the millions of Jews caught in the "Nazi death trap." The U.S. government's continuing inaction convinced the group that they needed to step up both their propaganda campaign and their lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill. In July of 1943 they co-sponsored a six-day conference that took place in New York City. Fifteen hundred people took part, some of them influential non-Jews like New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. At the conclusion of the meeting, participants formed the Emergency Committee which was charged with launching a national publicity campaign and lobbying Congress to create an independent agency devoted to saving Jews. 

The "Bergson Boys" were successful in drumming up the support of some influential public figures. Press baron William Randolph Hearst, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, and Democratic Congressman Will Rogers, Jr. were among those who got behind their campaign. The group's efforts culminated on November 9, 1943 with the presentation in the House and Senate of two identical resolutions that urged the president to set up a rescue commission. After the measure went through particularly difficult hearings in the House, the Emergency Committee kept the issue in the public eye with provocative large newspaper advertisements under headlines such as "HOW WELL ARE YOU SLEEPING?," "ONE VICTORY FOR HITLER?" and "TIME RACES DEATH." 

In January 1944, before Congress could vote on the resolution, President Roosevelt made it irrelevant by establishing the War Refugee Board, an agency charged with rescuing the victims of Nazi oppression. He did so in part because the Treasury Department had just presented him with a searing indictment of the State Department's continuous obstruction of all rescue efforts. But the mounting pressure the Bergsonites had helped create on Capitol Hill for an independent rescue agency produced a political climate that also encouraged him to act. 

Although the War Refugee Board suffered from inadequate funding and lack of cooperation from other government agencies, it probably saved about 200,000 lives. Scholars say the "Bergson Boys" deserve some credit for that. They had arrived in the U.S just a few years earlier without a network of followers or any financial support. Within months of hearing about the Nazis' plan to destroy European Jewry, they had created a mass movement -- the Emergency Committee itself would ultimately boast more than 125,000 active members and supporters. The Bergsonites enjoyed greater success than most American Jewish activists because they were unfettered by allegiances to existing political organizations. And, unlike American Jewish leaders who were at times hesitant to be too vocal for fear of exacerbating anti-Semitism, they had no qualms about whom in America they offended. Ultimately, Bergson and his followers were driven by one belief: the need to act with all haste to save the remaining Jews in Europe. They never questioned their right to agitate within the U.S. for government action. When others asked with what authority they did so, they would reply we have "the mandate of conscience." 

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