Hillel Kook traveled from Mandatory Palestine to the United States in 1940 to create a Jewish legion to fight against the Nazis. But when he arrived and found out about the mass slaughter of European Jewry, he devoted himself to informing the American public about what was happening and pressing for political action to stop it.
His style clashed with that of American Jewish leaders, who preferred a backroom approach, but it succeeded in raising awareness and pushing US President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create the War Refugee Board. That agency, in turn, tasked Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg with rescuing Hungarian Jews, some 100,000 of whom he was able to save.
Rebecca Kook, daughter of Hillel Kook and great-niece of former chief rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, told her father's story to the audience gathered to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day in Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood Monday.
It is a tale largely unknown to Israelis and Diaspora Jewry despite the preponderance of Holocaust education and memorializing. And that, charged Kook and those who arranged for her to speak Monday night, is due to willful neglect on the part of the Jewish establishment.
"When you tell the story of those who acted, you also have to tell the story of those who didn't act. And the context of the Jewish leadership in the United States during the Holocaust who didn't act is a problematic one," she said to The Jerusalem Post
ahead of her speech. "It's easier to forget what happened."
Kook and the Jerusalem Working Group for Recognition of Major Jewish Rescuers During the Shoah, which brought her to the event in Gilo, are pushing for greater education about Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust. They would like to see figures like Kook honored in the way that "Righteous Gentiles" have been by the State of Israel and Holocaust institutions.
They are not the only ones who think these Jews have been ignored. So does the niece of Raoul Wallenberg, one of the most prominently honored Righteous Gentiles.
"Very few people know about them. I have noticed that. And I think it's very important to be proud of your own people," Louise von Dardel told the Post
. She was supposed to speak at the Gilo ceremony via speakerphone but technical problems interfered.
"If you only speak about my uncle, you couldn't have the global vision of what he did," she said. She pointed to Kook's role in forming the War Refugee Board as well as other Jews' acts to raise awareness of what was happening in the concentration camps. "It's a whole chain. If he hadn't been conscious of what was going on and the war refugee board didn't have the resources, my uncle wouldn't have done what he did."
She suggested that perhaps the stories of Jewish rescuers weren't known because "people are humble," especially in the face of overwhelming tragedy, and because of "a belief system that it's normal or expected for people to do good, so one shouldn't talk about it."
Bill Mehlman of the Jerusalem Working Group, however, offered more sinister explanations. He touched on theories that had to do with the level of religiosity or political affiliation of individuals like Kook - a member of the Jabotinsky Revisionist school, which was at odds with the other, more powerful Zionist leaders. And, he said, "there are people who felt that the Jewish Agency, which was the governing body in pre-state [Israel], was far more interested in the future establishment of a Jewish State than in getting involved in the rescue of European Jewry."
"That's a question we're asking - why have their stories been ignored?" he said. "Why aren't there films? Why aren't there streets named after them? Why aren't they taught in the curriculum?"
Whatever the answer, Larry Pfeffer, also of the Jerusalem Working Group, said that all of those memorializing acts needed to occur - and then some. "Just like there was apathy during the Holocaust, I think there was apathy and some obstruction of this history, and we're trying to overcome that," he said. "It's okay to say that and it must be discussed. Because if we don't learn our lessons, we're only amplifying the tragedy."