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American Jewish History 89.1 (2001) 3-34
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The Bergson Group, America, and the Holocaust: A Previously Unpublished Interview with Hillel Kook / Peter Bergson
David S. Wyman
Why did we respond the way we did? The question should be: why didn't the others. We responded as a human and as a Jew should.
Hillel Kook, 1973
Hillel Kook, born in 1915 in Lithuania, moved with his family to Palestine when he was a child. Before he was twenty, he had become an active member of the Irgun Zvai Leumi, a nationalist Jewish armed underground that was strongly influenced by the militant Zionism of Vladimir Jabotinsky. During 1938 and 1939, Kook worked in Poland for the Irgun, organizing the emigration of Jews from Poland to Palestine, in violation of British restrictions on Jewish immigration there. The outbreak of World War II in September 1939 halted his activities in Poland, and Kook, at Jabotinsky's suggestion, went to the United States, arriving in 1940. A few other Irgunists who had been working in Europe also moved to the United States, joining one member who was already there. 1
Over the next several years, this group of ten men constituted a small, American-based wing of the Irgun. They did not conduct underground activities in the United States, however, and throughout the war they were almost completely isolated from the Irgun in Palestine. Kook, who was the leader, adopted the name of Peter H. Bergson while in the United States. Consequently, these men and the broader movements they initiated were referred to as the Bergson group or the Bergsonites. [End Page 3]
In 1939, before Kook's arrival, the first tiny Irgun delegation to the United States had established an organization called American Friends of a Jewish Palestine. The original objectives were to raise money for arms for the Irgun and to help fund its program of moving Jews from Europe to Palestine. By mid-1940 the expanding war had stopped most Irgun activities in Europe and had severed the connections between Palestine and the group in the United States. Accordingly, Kook and his followers shifted the focus to plans to press for a Jewish army to fight in the war against Germany. In December 1941, with their ideas more fully crystallized, they replaced the American Friends of a Jewish Palestine with a new organization, the Committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews.
The Committee for a Jewish Army sought to exert pressure on the American and British governments to permit the formation of an independent Jewish army, based in Palestine, which would fight side by side with the other Allied armies under the Allied command. Its ranks would include Palestinian Jews, stateless Jewish refugees from Axis Europe, and Jews from nonbelligerent nations. Jews from America, Britain, or other Allied countries were expected to join the forces of their own nations.
An independent Jewish army would enable Jews, the people most victimized by Hitler, to fight back in their own units, under their own flag and leadership. In late 1941 and for much of 1942, the threat of German North African forces to Suez and the nearby Palestine Jewish community underscored the appeal and the logic of the proposal. Such a Jewish army would be immediately valuable in holding the Middle East; it could also permit transfer of some Allied forces from that region to other fronts. 2
The Committee for a Jewish Army, through its publicity efforts, especially full-page newspaper advertisements, through lobbying Congressmen and government officials, and through the support of many celebrities such as writers Ben Hecht and Pierre van Paassen, succeeded in attracting substantial support, Jewish and non-Jewish. In the process, it developed a very effective organization and many valuable contacts. Then, in late November 1942, when the news of Germany's systematic [End Page 4] extermination of the European Jews became known, the Army Committee rapidly changed its course.
The new approach was evident within ten days, in a large...