Dear Reader,

My July 8th column in the Jerusalem Post, “Yad Vashem and Hillel Kook,” prompted a reply column by Yad Vashem’s Yehuda Bauer, to which I in turn respond. I include the exchange below.

Isi Leibler

Yad Vashem and Hillel Kook

by Isi Leibler
July 8, 2008

I was privileged to sign a petition to Yad Vashem with over a 100 leading Israeli intellectuals and public figures encompassing the entire political spectrum, from Moshe Arens to former Supreme Court Justice Meir Shamgar to Yossi Beilin. The petition appealed to Yad Vashem to emulate the recent decision of the Holocaust Museum in Washington and incorporate an exhibit relating to the valiant efforts of Hillel Kook (aka Peter Bergson) to rescue European Jews at the height of the Auschwitz inferno.

Regrettably, the Yad Vashem authorities responded that “Yad Vashem determines exhibits in its museum on balanced considerations rather than pressures and petitions.” They cynically added that the request could be reviewed 10 years hence.

Hillel Kook was the embodiment of tenacity and devotion, in stark contrast to the leaders of the American Jewish establishment of his time, whose deafening silence in the face of the Nazi extermination was scandalous. Yet, only over the last few decades has Kook’s role truly been appreciated.

The most powerful Diaspora Jewish leader at the time was Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the World Jewish Congress. On August 8, 1942, his Geneva-based Secretary General, Dr. Gerhardt Riegner, informed him of the systematic genocidal slaughter of European Jews. In an unforgivable lapse of judgment, acceding to a request of the US State Department, Wise failed to inform the world until November 25 of that year when a small item about Nazis murdering Jews appeared in the back section of The New York Times. When I was chairman of the WJC Governing Board, I was never able to obtain a satisfactory explanation from the late Dr. Riegner why this chilling telegram exposing the mass murders remained buried so long in a State Department file and why Jewish leaders failed to initiate a public campaign immediately.

When Wise, who prided himself on being a friend and confidante of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, finally asked the US president to intervene, Roosevelt said: “The only way to stop the slaughter is to win the war. Tell your Jewish associates to keep quiet.” Wise decided not to rock the boat.

Alas, not only did he remain silent, but he also brutally attacked and branded as extremists those who tried to raise the alarm, predicting that they would unleash unprecedented waves of anti-Semitism on American Jews. His attitude, which was shared by the majority of the Jewish establishment, was the most shameful failure of Jewish leadership in the 20th century.

This was the environment in which Kook found himself. Born 1915 in Lithuania, a nephew of the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Eretz Yisrael, the legendary religious Zionist leader Avraham Kook, Hillel arrived in Palestine as a child with his father, the first community rabbi of Afula. Kook became a disciple of Jabotinsky and was soon engaged in Etzel underground activities. In 1940, Jabotinsky sent him to New York to create a Jewish Brigade to fight the Nazis. He adopted the name Bergson after his favorite philosopher and linked up with Ben Hecht, the brilliant playwright and publicist.

When news of the Nazi genocide emerged and Kook witnessed the impotence of the Jewish leaders, he concentrated his efforts on raising alarm bells in a desperate effort to save the doomed European Jews.

Despite their shoe-string budget and pariah-like treatment, Kook and Ben Hecht launched an extraordinarily effective campaign of press releases, highly provocative full-page advertisements and even successful pageants, which for the first time made the American public aware of the horrors European Jews were undergoing.

Wise and his WJC co-president Nahum Goldmann spared no efforts to undermine Kook’s efforts, reviling his group as irresponsible fanatics. They tried to sabotage the effective 1943 march to the White House by 400 Orthodox rabbis who urged the administration to intervene to save Jews. In 1944 they even went as far as to call on the US administration to deport Kook, alluding to him as great an enemy to the Jews as Hitler.

But Kook was undeterred, dismissing his opposition as “the ghetto Jewish leadership” whose concept of “responsibility” amounted to doing nothing and keeping quiet. IN 1944, Kook’s efforts bore fruit when the administration set up the War Refugee Board which obliged Roosevelt to take action to save the surviving Jews, utilizing diplomatic intermediaries like Raoul Wallenberg. It may have been too little and too late but it is estimated that 200,000 Hungarian Jews owe their lives to Kook’s intervention.

Kook subsequently launched other projects, including the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation which unsuccessfully tried to present itself as a government of exile. Disappointed at having failed to save the majority of European Jews, Kook returned to Israel, became a member of the Knesset, and after parting from Menahem Begin, retired from active politics. He died in 2001.

In recent years, Kook has become a symbol for the Jewish activism and self-confidence which played such a crucial role in support of Israel and the freedom of Soviet Jewry. When Nachum Goldmann of the WJC tried to continue on the path of shtadlanut (silent diplomacy) in relation to Soviet Jewry, Kook was one of the role models who motivated Jews at the grass roots to override him.

Kook taught us not to place our faith in princes and in the last resort, to rely on ourselves. He demonstrated that silence in the face of evil and genocide is a crime and that quiet diplomacy achieves nothing unless accompanied by a concerted public campaign.

We are indebted to Hillel’s daughter, Dr. Becky Kook, who initiated the effort to encourage Yad Vashem to create an exhibit to honor her father. The negative response by their spokesman to the petition should not be considered the last word. Yad Vashem is not a private fiefdom.

Its management has erred previously, showing crass ill judgment in erecting a plaque which explicitly names and expresses gratitude to the president and office-bearers of the Claims Conference, for their “generosity” in passing German restitution funds on to them as though it was their money and not the revenue from unclaimed properties or reparations for Holocaust victims. It is inexplicable why this shameful plaque has not been removed. The Yad Vashem Board responsible for approving such an unedifying display should think twice before arrogantly rejecting out of hand Dr Becky Kook’s documented proposal to eternalize the name of Hillel Kook.

All of us have a share in Yad Vashem and wish to identify with it. It is not merely a museum perpetuating the memory of those murdered during the Shoah. It is also intended to convey a message for the future. Hillel Kook’s courageous struggle is an important reminder that Jews are responsible for one another and that we must never again stand by and permit a repetition of the shameful dereliction of responsibility displayed by Jewish leaders during that black era.

ileibler@netvision.net.il

This article can also be read at http://www.jpost.com /servlet/Satellite?cid=1215330891511&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull

Guest Columnist: Why Kook is out

Yehuda Bauer
Aug. 21, 2008

On July 8, The Jerusalem Post published an article by Isi Leibler, a Jewish leader of importance and a friend. Leibler attacked Yad Vashem’s refusal to incorporate into its Holocaust History Museum an exhibit relating to efforts by Hillel Kook to persuade the US government to rescue the Jews of Europe. Originally an emissary of the Irgun Zva’i Leumi in the US, Kook and his team later became independent actors.

Leibler also attacked the then leading personality of US Jewry, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, not only for hampering Kook’s efforts to bring the tragedy of European Jewry to the attention of the American people, but also for not making public the famous cable of August 8, 1942, of Dr. Gerhardt Riegner, the secretary of the Geneva office of the World Jewish Congress, who tried to alert the WJC in London and New York to the danger of a mass annihilation of 3.5 million-4 million Jews in the coming fall.

Leibler says that Wise finally asked president Franklin D. Roosevelt to intervene, and that Roosevelt said: “Tell your Jewish associates to keep quiet.” But Roosevelt did not speak with Wise between August and December 1942, so this is an error. Leibler says that Wise’s non-action was “the most shameful failure of Jewish leadership in the 20th century.” Unfair, and inaccurate.

IN THE summer of 1942, the Germans were racing toward Stalingrad. They were at El Alamein, and the danger to Palestine was obvious; the US had just barely managed to repulse the Japanese navy at Midway. The Germans were sinking more Allied ships in the Atlantic than the shipyards delivered replacements. Public opinion in the US, as Gallup polls showed, was increasingly anti-Semitic. This was the scene when Riegner’s cable was received. It ended with the words: “We transmit information with all necessary reservation as exactitude cannot be confirmed. Informant stated to have close connection with highest German authorities and his reports generally speaking reliable.” Riegner’s cable thus cast doubt on the accuracy of its own information.

Sumner Welles, the State Department undersecretary, asked Wise not to make the cable public because the information had to be verified, as the cable itself had implied. In any event, in the summer of 1942 there was no Allied army anywhere near the Jews, and the Allied air forces were incapable of reaching the Polish extermination sites. No one could have prevented the mass murder at that point. The situation changed in November 1943 – after that the Western Allies could have bombed the extermination sites, but refused to do so. In 1942 the Americans could not have rescued the Jews even if they had wanted to; in addition, they feared the accusation that they were fighting the war for the Jews.

Was Wise right in yielding to Welles, when the cable itself cast doubt on its own contents? As historians David S. Wyman and Raphael Medoff write (A Race Against Death, 2002, page 8): “Wise believed he had no realistic choice but to comply, for he could not risk alienating the one government department whose cooperation was most needed in the effort to help the European Jews.” He did inform Henry Morgenthau, the secretary of the Treasury, and Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, in the hope that they would reach the president. He informed his colleagues, and then he waited for confirmation, which arrived in November, from the American representative in Switzerland. He then arranged for a press conference to make the information public, and it was reported in The New York Times, on an inside page.

Wise’s fault? Should all this contradictory and controversial story, without any background and context, be shrunk into a panel in the Yad Vashem Museum?

Hillel Kook was a young activist, and he did great work in trying to mobilize American opinion to influence the US administration to do something to save the Jews. He was hampered and attacked by the Jewish establishment of the day, with Wise at its head. Did he influence public opinion? Leibler mentions the big demonstration of supposedly 400 Orthodox rabbis in front of the White House on October 6, 1943, as proof of his effectiveness.

It was indeed impressive, although Orthodoxy was then a small minority among American Jews, and its influence was minimal. The rabbis did not see Roosevelt, of course, but they were received on Capitol Hill by the vice president and some senators. Their demonstration was reported in The New York Times, and that was it. The media did not mention it afterward, and the effect on American public opinion is very doubtful. American anti-Semitism was to reach a peak in 1944, with 48 percent of the population expressing anti-Jewish views.

Among members of Congress, the mood began to change later, in 1943, and part of that was no doubt due to the efforts of the Kook group; it was also partly the influence of Wise and his official Zionist group, which made contact with Morgenthau. Yet it was some intrepid non-Jewish Treasury staffers who persuaded Morgenthau to press the president, who then established the War Refugee Board.

Leibler claims, wrongly, that the WRB was initiated exclusively by Kook, and rescued 200,000 Hungarian Jews (Wyman and Medoff say that 120,000 were rescued in Budapest). This is demonstrably wrong: The rescue of the remnant of Hungarian Jews was the result of an interplay of many factors, only one of which was the WRB, which financed, for instance, Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest, but with money from the Joint Distribution Committee – opponents of Kook, and the heart of the non-Zionist Jewish establishment.

Leibler is right. Kook should be given an honorable mention, along with other Jews outside of Europe. But for that we need a different museum, as this one is devoted, by design, to what happened to the Jews of Europe, in Europe. The visitor will not find anything about efforts by world Jewry, or the lack of them, except for a comment by Jan Karski about his mission to the West. There is nothing there about the Yishuv, except for the parachutists; there is nothing there about the organization of Soviet Jews to support the Soviet war effort, almost nothing about Jews serving in Allied armies. Nor about Kook. Or Wise. Or David Ben-Gurion. Or Menachem Begin.

Yad Vashem’s Museum presents the story of the Holocaust – in detail. That is what people come to learn. Much even about what happened to the Jews in Europe had to be left out. If it introduced the story of world Jewish action and inaction during the Holocaust, and expanded on the attitude of the Allies and the neutrals, what does Leibler suggest should be kept out? Treblinka? Resistance? Judenrats?

Isi Leibler’s heart is in the right place. It is his analysis that is wrong.

The writer is the director of the International Center for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem.


Reply to Yehuda Bauer

Aug. 29, 2008
Jerusalem Post

I feel privileged to know Yehuda Bauer personally. He is the greatest living scholar on the Holocaust and his works were the formative influence enabling me to gain an understanding of the horror of the Black Years and the factors which created them.

I stand corrected that it was State Secretary Sumner Welles rather than President Roosevelt who pressured Rabbi Stephen Wise not to disclose the content of the Riegner telegram alerting the world to the Nazi genocidal campaign. Yet the acquiescence by Wise to suppress the information under these circumstances places him in an even worse light than had he done so under pressure from the President.

Besides, there is no disputing that Wise regarded himself as a close friend of Roosevelt who did tell him later that, “The only way to stop the slaughter is to win the war. Tell your Jewish associates to keep quite”.

Yes, there was much anti-Semitism and yes, American Jewish leaders were pressured and frightened. But having a personal appreciation of such leadership situations, I stand by my belief that the passivity and silence of the American Jewish establishment during those terrible years displayed a combined breakdown of courage and judgment and represented the most shameful failure of Jewish leadership in the 20th century. Worse, Wise and his associates tried to muzzle and demonize Hillel Kook (Peter Bergson) and went to the lengths of attempting to have him deported for his efforts to make Americans aware of the horrors European Jews were undergoing.

Whereas I concede Bauer’s assertion that the change of climate by the US government in 1944 was not exclusively due to any single individual, it is undeniable that the belated last minute interventions to save Jews were heavily influenced the extraordinarily effective public campaigns Kook had initiated..

I respectfully disagree with Bauer who feels that there is no space in Yad Vashem for reference to Kook. Surely if the US Holocaust Museum could find space, Yad Vashem can do likewise. I feel that those visiting Yad Vashem should be made aware that in times of crisis there is an obligation on Jews in free countries to follow the example of Hillel Kook rather than the failed Jewish establishment who feared to rock the boat and placed their faith in princes.

But even if the request is problematic, it is outrageous for Yad Vashem spokesmen to dismiss a petition from over 100 distinguished Jewish scholars and public figures ranging over the entire political spectrum saying that “we might review the situation in ten years time”.Yad Vashem is not a personal fiefdom and in lieu of such arrogance they should at least be willing to constructively discuss and review situations especially when raised by responsible and concerned citizens.

Isi Leibler

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