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Not Idly By
Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust
a documentary short by Pierre Sauvage (40 min., Varian Fry Institute, 2009)

Peter Bergson, a militant Jew from Palestine,
led a controversial American effort to fight the Holocaust.

This is his testimony.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009 7:30 pm
Gindi Auditorium, American Jewish University, Los Angeles
15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air, California 90077  Directions

first public screening of the full work-in-progress
followed by discussion with Pierre Sauvage and Dr. Michael Berenbaum

presented by the Sigi Ziering Institute and the Varian Fry Institute 
To RSVP, please call Tosha at 310-440-1279
or email tpetronicolos@ajula.edu

The Sigi Ziering Institute, Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the
Holocaust, is a division of the Center for Jewish Ethics at American Jewish University.

We said we didn't know.
We said we couldn't have done anything even if we had known.


Peter Bergson in Not Idly By :

"We cannot resurrect the dead.  Eighty-five or ninety percent of those that Hitler wanted to kill were killed.  What we can do and what we must do is reexamine ourselves.

I am the last one on earth to condone the passivity of the political leadership of the United States—with President Roosevelt at the head—and of Great Britain, and of the Soviet Union, itself in a state of occupation by a tyrant.

But the people who should have dramatized, shook up, awakened the... otherwise busy, like Ben Hecht's ballad [see above and below]—'the world is busy with other news'—the otherwise 'unrealizing' world leadership to what's going on should have been the Jewish leaders.  They knew the Jews were being killed. But the grasp wasn't there.

You couldn’t have stopped the massacre.  You could have slowed the massacre.  You could have made it an inefficient massacre.  The people who made it efficient were the Allies who didn’t interfere.  And the people who didn’t urge them to interfere were the Jews.

Jews should begin not by screaming, 'While they're murdering six million Jews, the Gentiles stood idly by.'  They should say, 'We stood idly by.'"


Most Americans—even many American Jews—believe that we didn’t know.  Many assume that we couldn’t have done anything even if we had known.  Meet Peter Bergson!

Until 1941 Nazi Germany had persecuted and sought to expel the Jews.  But the doors of the West had remained closed to them.  It was only then that the free nations of the world had faced a new Nazi policy: mass murder of the Jews of Europe.

A Palestinian Jew who had served with the nationalist Irgun organization in pre-Israel Palestine, Peter Bergson (born Hillel Kook, 1915-2001), had come to the U.S. in 1940.  In America, this firebrand led what came to be known as the Bergson Group, whose strenuous efforts from 1942 to 1945 underscore just how much was known—and how much was attempted during those difficult years.

Vilified at the time—American Jewish leader Rabbi Stephen Wise reportedly characterized him as “equally as great an enemy of the Jews as Hitler,” while others castigated the group as fascist or terrorist—Bergson remains a controversial yet relatively obscure figure in the history of America and the Holocaust.

Not Idly By—currently nearing release—provides the riveting first-hand testimony of the charismatic and eloquent Bergson, who comments on the response to the crisis by non-European Jews and describes his determined efforts to fight the Holocaust: the innovative and provocative full-page political ads in major newspapers, the poignant, assertive 1943 Ben Hecht/Kurt Weill pageant We Will Never Die, the rabbis’ march in Washington before Yom Kippur 1943, the creation of various activist committees and the energetic and productive lobbying of American government officials that ultimately helped lead to the establishment at last of a U.S. rescue agency.  This is a one-sided view of those times: Peter Bergson’s.

As it happens, a play about Bergson, The Accomplices, is scheduled to be revived in Los Angeles in 2008, and Bergson is also the posthumous star of the Simon Wiesenthal Center feature documentary, Against the Tide.  Has Peter Bergson's time come at last?  Do we not need to consider further and discuss our share of responsibility in the mass murder of the Jews of Europe?  May this not have relevance in the world today?

Both Bergson documentaries (Sauvage’s has been in the works since 2007) draw on the unused interview shot by Claude Lanzmann in 1978 for his epic 1985 Shoah.  In addition, Not Idly By exclusively benefits from the passionate and detailed interview Bergson granted to filmmaker Laurence Jarvik for the latter’s 1982 documentary Who Shall Live and Who shall Die?  Also featured in Not Idly By are materials that have not been seen or heard since the war years.

An Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker (Yiddish: the Mame-Loshn"the mother tongue"—to be released this year on DVD), Pierre Sauvage, himself a child survivor of the Holocaust, is the president of the Chambon Foundation (www.chambon.org), which includes the Varian Fry Institute.  Upcoming in 2010 is Sauvage’s long-in-the-making feature documentary about American rescuers during the refugee crisis of 1940-41, And Crown Thy Good: Varian Fry in Marseille.

Sauvage is best known for his acclaimed feature documentary Weapons of the Spirit, which will be rereleased in 2009 in a special 20th anniversary edition.  The film tells the story of a unique “conspiracy of goodness” during the Holocaust: in and around the Christian village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in France, 5,000 Jews found shelter, including Pierre, who was born there.

A popular university lecturer on the Holocaust and its continuing challenges, Sauvage has been a student for over twenty years of what he has called the American experience of the Holocaust.  His address Did Americans Fight the Holocaust? tackles this thorny subject, which is also woven into his video-accompanied presentation The Challenge To Us of Holocaust Rescuers.

a Varian Fry Institute production

On Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust

a few of the  advertisements taken out in major newspapers by the "Bergson Group":

The upcoming DVD of Not Idly By will contain bonus materials: interviews with Peter Bergson's widow, Nili Kook, his daughter, Dr. Rebecca Kook, a lecture by Dr. David S. Wyman on The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945, as well as additional filmed interviews, audio recordings, information, photographs and documents.

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© Copyright 2009. Varian Fry Institute. All rights reserved.                    Revised: May 20, 2010