- Shake Heaven and Earth: Peter Bergson and the Struggle to Rescue the Jews of Europe, and: America Views the Holocaust, 1933-1945: A Brief Documentary History (review)
- American Jewish History
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 88, Number 1, March 2000
- pp. 141-145
- View Citation
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Louis Rapoport's Shake Heaven and Earth is a welcome addition to the thirty-year-old debate over the response of the free world and its Jews to Nazi genocide. Shortly after government archives opened to researchers in 1967, Arthur Morse published While Six Million Died, an iconoclastic indictment of the much-revered American President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Since then, a host of scholars have pored over State Department documents, personal memoirs, correspondence, and newspaper microfilm trying to understand how official policy was framed in that terrible era. Most agree with what has been dubbed the "Powerless [End Page 141] School," claiming that America's Jews were too weak to accomplish more than they had during the Holocaust. A handful believe differently. They acknowledge that American Jews, many of them recent immigrants from Europe, were poor and insecure in their new homeland, concerned about jobs and fearful of inciting greater anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, opponents of the "Powerless School" (they don't even have a proper name) have pointed out a number of ways where American Jews and the Allies might have ameliorated the suffering of Europe's doomed Jews. Discussed at length in the Goldberg-Finger Commission Report (of the American Jewish Commission on the Holocaust, 1984), these included: bringing refugees to America on the returning troop ships which shuttled Axis prisoners of war; contributing funds to humanitarian relief agencies like the International Red Cross and the Vatican; sending food and medical supplies through the blockade to neutral or occupied nations; conducting ransom negotiations with the Axis allies of Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary; forming a Jewish army to assist the British in the defense of North Africa and especially Palestine; bombing the railway lines leading to the death camps, bombing the camps, or at least issuing threats of retaliation against German civilians unless the Nazis stopped murdering innocents; bribing Nazi leaders (cf. the Europa and Brand schemes) to halt the deportations; demonstrating publicly and calling for Allied leaders to denounce the mass murder of Jews; opening Palestine and parts of North Africa as temporary havens for Jews who managed to escape from Europe; and, most importantly, in this desperate moment of Jewish history, the setting aside of competition and jealousy among different agencies for the sake of rescue.
These are not criticisms offered from the hindsight of fifty years as some members of the "Powerless School" suggest. Even as events unfolded in Eastern Europe, a handful of Jewish spokesmen--Hayim Greenberg, Abba Hillel Silver, Ben Hecht, Vladimir Jabotinsky, Samuel Merlin, and Peter Bergson--advocated more active measures. Rapoport is especially fond of Bergson who organized rescue efforts on behalf of the Revisionist Zionists and the Irgun between 1937 and 1945. A onetime editorial writer for the Jerusalem Post, Rapoport met Peter Bergson/Hillel Kook (the nephew of the chief Ashkenazic rabbi in Palestine) who detailed his wartime experiences in America. The activities of the Bergson group constitute the heart of this book.
It is a tale of commitment and frustration. When, in 1940, Jewish militants called for the creation of an army of stateless and Palestinian Jews modeled on the Jewish Legion of World War I, Chaim Weizmann countered with a more modest proposal of a single unit. When Hecht, Stella Adler, Kurt Weill, and others created dramatic stage productions [End Page 142] telling of extermination (We Will Never Die, 1943) or of the need for a Jewish state (A Flag is Born, 1946), they received no encouragement from Hollywood's Jewish moguls. When Eleanor Roosevelt endorsed a protest march of Orthodox rabbis to Washington and the creation of special havens in rural America, her husband...