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.
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