'What Did We Learn?'
New York Sun Staff Editorial
April 16, 2007
'What did we learn?" is the question that is asked at the end of "The Accomplices," Bernard Weinraub's play about Peter Bergson's mission to America to rouse the Roosevelt administration to save the Jews of Europe. We saw the play, which is at the Acorn on 42nd Street, over the weekend. Our own Eric Grode gave it a terrific review, while the New York Times dredged up a critic from the Village Voice who reacted to this play about the failure to rescue 6 million souls by complaining of its "humorlessness." Well, go with Mr. Grode, yet again. What we discovered was a gem of a play rippling with wit and sarcasm that tells a story that just couldn't be more timely as the world wrestles with a regime that is vowing to attack the millions of Jews now living in the land in which they or their parents sought redemption after the Holocaust.
Bergson was the nom de guerre of Hillel Kook, who came to America in 1940 on an assignment of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the leader of right-of-center Zionism. Early that year, Jabotinsky himself gave a famous speech in New York, where he called for the 6 million Jews of central Europe to be rescued and brought to Palestine. He died shortly thereafter at Batavia, New York. Bergson carried on with his work through the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe. He got Ben Hecht to produce at Madison Square Garden a famous pageant [footage of which can be found at ushmm.org/wlc/article. php?lang=en&Mo duleId=10007041]. Bergson organized a protest of 400 Orthodox rabbis in front of the White House.
With the help of the Treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau, Bergson managed to bypass the State undersecretary, Breckinridge Long, and a too-timid Jewish leadership personified by Rabbi Stephen Wise and put pressure on Roosevelt himself, played hilariously by John DeVries. Mr. Weinraub has, in the play, brilliantly imagined a meeting between Bergson and FDR. Historian Rafael Medoff believes the meeting would actually have taken place had Rabbi Wise and Roosevelt's speech writer, Samuel Rosenman, not blocked the encounter. The other elements of the play are, save for some of the dialogue, not imaginary. It was not all for naught. FDR finally created the War Refugee Board, which eventually played a role in saving a remnant of 200,000 Jews. But the administration's actions were too little, too late, and the play ends with a bitter recognition of failure.
At the end of the play, Bergson gives a short soliloquy about how one can exterminate 6 million people and there's no reaction. He speaks about Cambodia, too, and Uganda, Bosnia, Rwanda, the Sudan. It's a true enough lesson, but it doesn't tarnish Bergson's own example, which grows brighter with every passing season. It will no doubt come up at the conference called "Is It 1938 Again?" that will take place on April 22 and April 23 at Queens College and feature, among others, David Pryce-Jones, Michael Walzer, Alan Dershowitz, David Harris, Malcolm Hoenlein, our own Hillel Halkin, and Norman Podhoretz.
One of the points Mr. Podhoretz is apt to make is that in the formal sense of the word, the war hadn't yet started in 1938, whereas today, World War IV has already begun. The big early battles are now being fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is precisely the stage at which Bergson arrived in our city. The Bergson Group and the Jewish activists who shook the world will be the topic of a conference the David S. Wyman Institute has organized for June 17 at Fordham University Law School. Among those who have endorsed the conference is Rabbi David Ellenson, who is president of the same Hebrew Union College that was the base of Rabbi Wise. We take it as a sign that lessons can be learned.