Dr. David Ellenson in the NY Sun editorial -- April 16, 2007
'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
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.
Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion is the nation’s oldest institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR’s scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement’s congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR’s campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish history, identity, art, and archaeology, and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.