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NOT IDLY BY Peter Bergson, America
and the Holocaust
a documentary by Pierre Sauvage (58 min., Varian Fry Institute, 2017)
Winner, documentary award, Toronto Jewish Film Festival
We said we didn't know.
We said we couldn't have done anything even if we had known.
Meet Peter Bergson!
Jew from Palestine, Peter Bergson (Hillel Kook)
led a controversial American effort to fight the Holocaust.
This is his testimony.
Comments about Not Idly By
Past screenings of the work-in-progress
Peter Bergson in Not Idly By:
"We cannot resurrect the dead. What we can do and what we must do is re-examine ourselves. 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.'
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 [American] Jews.
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 went so far as to castigate the group as fascist or terrorist—Bergson remains a controversial yet still relatively obscure figure in the history of America and the Holocaust, as was underscored in a August 7, 2011, article in the Sunday New York Times: Belatedly Recognizing Heroes of the Holocaust.
Not Idly By—to be released at last in 2017—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 fiery 1943 Ben Hecht/Kurt Weill pageant We Will Never Die (Madison Square Garden, Hollywood Bowl)—heard extensively for the first time since 1943!—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!
Bergson was also the posthumous star of the 2009 Simon Wiesenthal Center feature documentary, Against the Tide. Both Bergson documentaries (Sauvage’s had 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 ground-breaking 1982 documentary Who Shall Live and Who shall Die?
Has Peter Bergson's time come at last? With his help, can we break through the taboos that shroud the American experience—and the American Jewish experience—of that challenging time in history? Do Americans—Jewish and non-Jewish—not need to consider and probe further our share of responsibility in the massacre of the Jews of Europe? So many years later, are we at last willing to probe not only what happened here then, but our many evasions today about that experience? If we do not fully and forthrightly—and without smugness—acknowledge and dissect our share in past failures, are we not limiting our ability to act effectively in meeting the challenges of today and tomorrow?
An Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker (the pioneering 1979 Yiddish: the Mother Tongue), Pierre Sauvage, himself a child survivor of the Holocaust, is the founder and president of the Chambon Foundation (www.chambon.org), which includes the Varian Fry Institute. Upcoming 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, also to be released in September 2014 in a new 25th-anniversary edition of the film. That film tells the story of the unique “conspiracy of goodness” that occurred in a tiny Christian area of France that defied the Nazis and turned itself into the very haven of refuge that America refused to be: in and around the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in France, 5,000 Jews found shelter, including Pierre, who was born there. At the Holocaust commemoration at the U.S. Capitol in 2009, President Barack Obama invoked the example of Le Chambon to encourage Americans to "strive each day, both individually and as a nation, to be among the righteous."
Sauvage's own life has thus inescapably taught him that collective will and action can be startlingly imaginative and dynamic even under the most trying circumstances. Where there's a will there is indeed often a way.
For over thirty years the Chambon Foundation's mission has been "to communicate and explore the necessary lessons of hope intertwined with the Holocaust's unavoidable lessons of despair." The Varian Fry Institute was founded as a division of the Chambon Foundation to explore and communicate the American experience of the Holocaust. Pierre Sauvage seeks to implement these ambitious goals both both through his documentary work and through his popular video-accompanied presentations, which currently include Learning Hope From the Holocaust: The Challenge To Us of Holocaust Rescuers and Did Americans Fight the Holocaust: Varian Fry and Peter Bergson?
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":
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© Copyright 2014. Varian Fry Institute. All rights reserved. Revised: April 1, 2014