Rabbis urge Yad Vashem to add museum exhibit on WWII rescue group

Bergson Group's tactics to raise Holocaust awareness drew fire from mainstream US Jewish leadership.

yad vashem 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
yad vashem 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In a rare display of Jewish unity, more than 400 rabbis from every major stream of Judaism have signed a petition urging Yad Vashem to include a display about a World War II rescue organization known as the Bergson Group. The rabbis' appeal to add information about the Bergson Group to Jerusalem's Holocaust museum came months after Yad Vashem rebuffed earlier requests to do so by a group of Holocaust scholars as well as by a cross-section of political and cultural figures. The Bergson Group was a maverick activist group in the US in the 1940s that sought to raise public awareness of the Holocaust and campaigned for US action to save European Jews. American Jewish leaders at the time viewed the organization - led by Hillel Kook, a nephew of Israel's first chief rabbi, who worked under the alias "Peter Bergson" - as too direct in its criticism of the Roosevelt administration's failure to rescue Jewish refugees. The group actively campaigned to save the doomed Jews of Europe through theatrical pageants, lobbying on Capitol Hill, newspapers advertisements and organizing a march in Washington by 400 Rabbis, which was the only rally for rescue held in the nation's capital during the Holocaust. The Bergson Group is credited with helping to persuade Roosevelt in 1944 to establish the War Refugee Board, which ultimately saved 200,000 Jewish lives. For decades after the war, information about the Bergson Group was routinely left out of textbooks, encyclopedias, and museums, but in recent years most Jewish leaders and Holocaust scholars have come to recognize the group's crucial contribution to the infamously belated rescue effort. "Visitors to Yad Vashem need to know that although too many people were silent during the Holocaust, there were some who spoke out. Publicizing this fact can help inspire future generations to speak out against injustice," the petition reads. "Yad Vashem cannot ignore the fact that such a wide range of American Jewish religious leaders feel so strongly about the omission of the Bergson Group from Yad Vashem's museum. When was the last time four hundred rabbis, from across the religious spectrum, joined hands?" said Dr. Rafael Medoff, director of the Washington DC-based Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, which spearheaded the petition. "Today's rabbinical leaders recognize the mistakes of the past and want the historical record to be set straight, so that we can all learn from it." The petition was signed by religious leaders from the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements, including Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism; Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College; Rabbi Daniel S. Nevins, dean of the Rabbinical School The Jewish Theological Seminary of America and Yeshiva University Chancellor Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, and presented to Yad Vashem Council Chairman Rabbi Meir Lau, who is currently in New York to mark International Holocaust Day at the United Nations. The great-grandson of president Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Joshua Boettiger of Vermont, is also among the signatories. Lau, a Holocaust survivor and former chief rabbi, is expected to take up the issue with the leaders of Yad Vashem upon his return. Yad Vashem spokeswoman Iris Rosenberg said Tuesday that she was unaware of the latest petition. "Yad Vashem does not approach historical issues or set policy according to petitions or pressure tactics," she said. Last year, on the heels of a similar public campaign, the US Holocaust Museum in Washington DC added information about the Bergson Group to its display.