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A Rescuer Who Deserves to Be Lauded for Deeds

July 10, 2008 By:
Isi Leibler
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I recently signed a petition with more than 100 Israeli intellectuals and public figures encompassing the entire political spectrum -- from the Likud's Moshe Arens to Meretz's Yossi Beilin. The petition appealed to Yad Vashem to emulate the recent decision of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and add an exhibit relating to the valiant efforts of Hillel Kook -- also known as Peter Bergson -- to rescue European Jews during the Holocaust.

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. Wise, who prided himself on being a confidante of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, decided not to rock the boat and advocate for rescue.

Not only did he remain silent, but he also brutally attacked and branded as extremists those who tried to raise the alarm. 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 in 1915 in Lithuania, a nephew of the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Eretz Yisrael -- the legendary religious Zionist leader Rabbi Avraham Kook -- he arrived in Palestine as a child. Kook became a disciple of Zionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky. In 1940, Jabotinsky sent him to New York to help promote the campaign to create a Jewish army to fight the Nazis. He adopted the name Bergson and linked up with the journalist Ben Hecht.

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

Despite their shoe-string budget and pariah-like treatment, Kook and Hecht launched an effective campaign that made the U.S. public aware of the horrors European Jews were undergoing. Yet Wise and his WJC co-president, Nahum Goldmann, spared no efforts to undermine Kook's efforts. 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 administration to deport Kook.

But Kook was undeterred, and in 1944 his 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 the Swedish diplomat 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.

Disappointed at having failed to save the majority of European Jews, Kook returned to Israel, became a member of the Knesset. He died in 2001.

In recent years, Kook has become a symbol for the activism that played such a crucial role in support of Israel and the freedom of Soviet Jewry. He taught us not to place our faith in princes and, in the last resort, to rely only on ourselves. He demonstrated that silence in the face of genocide is a crime, and that quiet diplomacy achieves nothing unless accompanied by a concerted public campaign.

All Jews have a share in Yad Vashem. 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.

Isi Leibler is a Jerusalem-based columnist.

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