View from America: Who were the 'real' accomplices?

A new off-Broadway play revisits both the heroism and disgrace of Americans during the Holocaust.

tobin 88 (photo credit: )
tobin 88
(photo credit: )
According to a growing number of academics and political extremists, the Jews have too much power in America. This backlash against the so-called "Israel Lobby" has predictably caused many to wonder whether the assertive voice of contemporary Jewish political activism is too loud, too brash and, most of all, too pushy in making its case. Those who wonder what the world would be like if only those pushy Jews listened to their critics need not engage in science fiction. All you need is a history lesson about how American Jewish organizations and leaders - the predecessors of the ones that are today considered the take-no-prisoners cornerstone of "the lobby" - acted during the Holocaust. And to do that, a visit to an off-Broadway theater this month will do nicely. IN BERNARD Weinraub's new play The Accomplices at the New Group's Acorn Theater on Manhattan's 42nd Street, the eminent Rabbi Stephen Wise is confronted by an obnoxious young foreigner. The young man, who goes by the name of Peter Bergson, is frustrated by the unwillingness of the most influential American Jew of his era to use his power to speak up to save European Jews slated for death by Hitler's Nazis. Explaining his reluctance to confront an American president whom he considers a "god," Wise says that American Jews are just too scared to make a stink about rescue. "We don't shout," says Wise. "We work quietly. We don't draw attention to ourselves." Bergson was the assumed name of Hillel Kook, a member of the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the pre-Israel underground resistance movement. And he'll have none of it. A stranger to America, he found the element of culture most foreign to him was the supine attitude of an American Jewry that was living in comparative security. He could not comprehend how deeply intimidated Jews and their leaders were by American anti-Semitism. While Bergson saw only a prosperous group who need not fear the assaults of Cossacks, even a powerful figure like Wise trembled at the thought of the hatred expressed by radio personality and anti-Semite Father Coughlin. "Don't judge me!" Wise implores as Bergson prepares to launch a noisy public campaign. SADLY FOR Wise, posterity has done little but that ever since. Weinraub, a longtime reporter for The New York Times who retired a few years ago to try his hand at playwriting, may be exploring familiar territory for those scholars who have been picking at this ugly scab on our communal conscience for decades, but his riveting play has the ability to tell this story to an audience that may never crack open a history book. In resurrecting this confrontation for the stage, he has tapped into a message that is as timely as it is dramatic. Set in New York and Washington during the years of World War II, the action of The Accomplices switches back and forth between scenes in a small New York apartment and the corridors of power in the capital. In New York, a couple of "nobodies from nowhere" - Bergson and his colleague, Samuel Merlin - try to organize a movement for rescue. At the same time, we see how president Franklin Roosevelt's appointment of undersecretary of state Breckenridge Long - a man hostile to Jews and opposed to any thought of allowing refugees into the United States - has made it an "accomplice" in some ways, to the desire of the Nazis to kill those who can't escape their clutches. But as much as the roles of FDR and Long in this scenario are central to understanding how events preceded, our attention is inevitably drawn elsewhere. It is the failure of Jewish leaders like Wise, the preeminent spokesman for Jewry of his era, and Jewish insiders like Samuel Rosenman, one of FDR's top advisers, to risk their own standing in the president's inner circle to advocate for rescue that seems to constitute the most shameful aspect of the story. THE WILLINGNESS of Bergson to go public with his frustration about indifference to the ongoing slaughter of Jews appalls Wise. He is willing to swallow any indignity and failure rather than challenge the president. Instead, he sees Bergson, the Jew who is willing to "shout," as more of an enemy than even the Germans. With the aid, at the time, of famed writer Ben Hecht, Bergson made just the sort of noise that Wise feared. But his Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe won many friends (mostly non-Jewish) in Congress. Bergson's push to create a War Refugee Board to aid rescue made progress in Congress despite the administration's opposition. At the same time, officials of the Treasury Department uncovered evidence of the perfidy of State Department policy. This moved the secretary of the treasury Henry Morgenthau, another Jewish insider, like Rosenman, who had nothing in common with Bergson, to act. Morgenthau presented this evidence to Roosevelt in a memo titled "Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews." Backing down quickly in the face of Morgenthau's threat to make the report public, FDR created the rescue agency. The War Refugee Board saved at least 200,000 Jews who might otherwise have been added to the toll of six million. But even this points out how much more could have been done had this poorly-funded and heavily obstructed agency been created sooner, or been given more support. THE PLAYWRIGHT'S decision to place Bergson in the room when Morganthau confronts FDR is, of course, an absurd historical misnomer. Bergson never got anywhere near the president, and the connection between the Treasury's actions and his activity was tenuous. But Weinraub is right in the sense that the two were ultimately part of the same campaign. The Accomplices manages to make for good theater almost in spite of Weinraub's determination to tell a rather complicated chapter of history. The rapidly-paced dialogue and scenes sprinkled liberally with humor, as well as irony, move the action along relentlessly. The ensemble cast (most of whom take multiple rolls in the spare production) ably assist in the writer's task of making the personalities portrayed on stage into living, breathing characters rather than wax figures in a historical tableau. Veteran character actor David Margulies (best known to television audiences as Tony Soprano's Jewish lawyer on the HBO series) deserves credit for bringing a nuanced humanity to the role of Stephen Wise. No cardboard villain this; he gives us a man who is keenly aware of his own egotism and jealousy, but also genuinely afraid of what will happen if Jews speak up. Daniel Sauli's Bergson is also no perfect hero. Like the real Hillel Kook, who spent the rest of his life tormented by the failure to save more lives, his triumph is as much a defeat as it was a victory. For him, the verdict on his activism was that the Germans may have lost to the Allies, but they won their war with the Jews. As he says in the play's final scene, subsequent genocides have shown that it is easy to get away with mass murder. IN POSING the question of whether Roosevelt and Long were literally accomplices to the Holocaust, Weinraub is bound to stir up anger among those who are defenders of these men. The ever-dwindling group of kibbitzers willing to defend Roosevelt's appalling record on the Holocaust still persist, like some modern-day, flat-earth society, in their willingness to ignore history. But more fair-minded observers are bound to ask whether the author has taken Wise's timorousness to act out of context. Can we really judge Wise's angst about anti-Semitism or that of other Jews of his time, such as the owners of The New York Times, which buried the news of the Holocaust in their pages? To that, the answer must be yes. As much as we may sympathize with the dilemma of World War II-era American Jewry, history's verdict on their failure is not in question. Just as the memory of that failure helped inspire a generation of Soviet Jewry activists, it needs to inform us today as we regard issues like genocide in Darfur. In the end, Weinraub and his audience have no choice but to "judge" Stephen Wise even as we identify with his fear of being singled out. As we approach another day of remembrance of the Holocaust this week, the obligation to remember the "accomplices," as well as those, like Peter Bergson, who had the courage to cry out against murder must not be obscured by time or political fashion. The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.