Yad Vashem rejects rescue activist exhibit

Wyman Institute head disappointed by reluctance to show work of US Holocaust awareness group.

peter bergson 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
peter bergson 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A prominent American Holocaust institute said Thursday that its attempts to persuade Yad Vashem to include an exhibit about the Holocaust rescue activists known as the Bergson Group in Israel's Holocaust Museum had been unexpectedly rebuffed. The heads of the Washington DC-based David S. Wyman Institute, which met with Yad Vashem's chief historian, Prof. Dan Michman, and presented Israel's Holocaust Authority with a petition signed by more than one hundred Israeli political and cultural leaders from across the political spectrum to add to its exhibits material about the rescue group, said that they were "deeply disappointed" by Yad Vashem's response. "They were adamant they would not change anything in the exhibit as a matter of principle," said Prof. David S. Wyman, a leading international authority on America's response to the Holocaust, and author of the highly acclaimed The Abandonment of the Jews. The Bergson Group was a maverick activist group in the US during the 1940s that raised public awareness of the Holocaust and campaigned for US rescue action to save the Jews of Europe during World War Two. The organization, which was led by Hillel Kook (a nephew of Israel's first chief rabbi) who worked under the pseudonym of Peter Bergson, was viewed by mainstream American Jewish leaders during World War Two as being too direct in its criticism of the Roosevelt administration's blatant failure to rescue Jewish refugees, although in recent years most Jewish leaders and Holocaust scholars have come to recognize the group's crucial contribution to the infamously belated rescue effort. For decades after the war, information about the Bergson Group was routinely left out of textbooks, encyclopedias and museums as a result of leftover animosity dating back to the 1940s among the established American Jewish leadership, who opposed the Bergson Group and clashed with it. The meeting at Yad Vashem came just one year after the American Holocaust Institute had successfully lobbied the US Holocaust Museum in Washington DC to include material about the Bergson Group in its museum by a similar petition of scholars, historians and Jewish leaders such as Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel. "In view of the decision of the US Holocaust Museum, it is particularly surprising and disappointing that Yad Vashem is still clinging to an attitude that reflects the thinking of the 1950s and 1960s," said Rafael Medoff, Director of the Wyman Institute. "We are disappointed to see that Yad Vashem is lagging so far behind in recognizing these important historical facts, and hope it will reconsider its surprisingly inflexible condition," he said. Israel's Holocaust Authority said that it could not include all the events and activities pertaining to the Holocaust and World War Two in one museum, as encompassing as it may be, adding that some of these find expression in a variety of activities at Yad Vashem outside the museum, such as education, documentation, and research. "It should be emphasized that Yad Vashem did not plan and does not plan its exhibits based on public pressure or petitions but by balanced decisions," Yad Vashem spokeswoman Iris Rosenberg said in a written response. The Bergson Group is credited with helping to persuade the president in 1944 to establish the War Refugee Board, which ultimately saved 200,000 Jewish lives during the Holocaust. "Omitting the saving of 200,000 lives is a mistake," Wyman said. At the end of their Yad Vashem meeting, Michman told the group that the decision would be reviewed in 10 years, Wyman said. The presentation of the petition, written by former president of the supreme court Meir Shamgar, was marred after Yad Vashem officials barred members of the press from accompanying the small delegation of historians and Kook family members who were delivering it, since the Wyman Institute had not coordinated the event with Yad Vashem's spokesperson's office. Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev, who was out of the country when the group presented the petition to his office, had previously said that the context of the Bergson group's activities was outside the primary purview of the museum, which deals with the story of victims and perpetrators. "We leave to other institutions, such as the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, to recount additional important, yet corollary stories such as those of the Allies and of Jewish communities in Allied nations during the Holocaust period," Shalev wrote Medoff in an e-mail last year. But the petition states that including the Bergson Group in Yad Vashem's museum exhibit is important for the sake of historical accuracy. "It is also important because the Bergson's Group's work demonstrates the possibility of ordinary citizens taking action through the democratic process, to change government policy for the better," the petition says. "The Israeli public, and especially young people need to hear that message."