Despite the Bergson Group’s high profile in the 1940s, it was almost entirely ignored as the narrative of the period began to take shape in the postwar years. Mainstream Jewish leaders who clashed with the Bergson Group, such as Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and Nahum Goldmann, omitted any mention of it when they published their autobiographies. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise did not mention of the Bergsonites in their autobiographies.Bergson Group veterans, for their part, did not do a good job of countering this trend. They were slow to write their own memoirs, and when several finally did, they were either self-published or published by very small presses and were not widely distributed. Yitshaq Ben-Ami’s Days of Wrath, Years of Glory (1982), M.J. Nurenberger’s The Scared and the Doomed (1985), and Alex Rafaeli’s Dream and Action (1993) received insufficient attention to make them a part of the conventional historiography of the period.
Mainstream Jewish organizations also enjoyed a significant financial advantage in the effort to shape public perceptions of American Jewry’s response to Nazism and the Holocaust. They had the resources to sponsor histories of their groups, while the Bergson Group, having voluntarily dissolved in 1949, did not. Thus the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee were able to enlist two of the most prominent scholars of modern Jewish history, Naomi Cohen and Yehuda Bauer, respectively, to author the histories of their organizations. Both studies portrayed their subjects’ wartime record in a strongly favorable light.
As scholars began to delve into the period in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Bergson Group finally received its first mentions. Arthur Morse (While Six Million Died, 1968) called Bergson “an extraordinary firebrand [whose] attention-getting techniques were in dramatic contrast to those of the more conventional Jewish spokesman.” Henry Feingold (in a 1969 essay, and in his The Politics of Rescue, 1970) noted the Bergson Group’s “special skill in mobilizing public opinion” and credited it for the taking action in Congress that “set off a series of events that changed the direction of the flagging rescue effort.” Saul Friedman (No Haven for the Oppressed, 1973) acknowledged that Bergson’s “gigantic rallies packed Madison Square Garden and Carnegie Hall,” increasing “the pressure to force the government to take more decisive action to rescue the Jews of Europe.” In 1981, Monty N. Penkower published (in the journal American Jewish History) the first fruits of his pioneering research in the new collection of Bergson documents at Yale University.
At about the same time, two additional developments stimulated the first major public discussions of the group. In 1979, film student Laurence Jarvik completed Who Shall Live, Who Shall Die, a 90-minute survey of America’s response to the Nazi genocide, with the Bergson Group in a central role. In 1981, a group of Jewish leaders and communal activists established a commission, under the leadership of former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, to study American Jewry’s response to the Holocaust. The film and commission were the subject of widespread commentary in both the Jewish and general press, including multiple front-page stories in the New York Times.
Sociological factors played an important role in this reassessment process. By the 1980s, many of the participants in the intra-Jewish battles of the 1940s had passed on, and Jewish organizations were governed by an entirely different leadership. The younger generation of American Jewry did not share the partisan passions of the Bergson Group’s opponents. The new scholarship on the subject therefore was received with open minds.
That scholarship took a leap forward with the publication of David S. Wyman’s The Abandonment of the Jews. Wyman was the first to present the Bergson rescue campaign of 1943 in its entirety. He chronicled the intersection of the Treasury Department staff members’ efforts to expose the State Department’s obstruction of rescue, and the Bergson Group’s lobbying on Capitol Hill to promote rescue. Utilizing the newly accessible Morgenthau Diaries, which contain verbatim transcripts of the meetings between Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and his staff, Abandonment showed how Morgenthau used the spiraling rescue controversy that Bergson provoked in Congress to convince Roosevelt that he faced an election-year scandal unless he took preemptive action.
As Wyman’s book emerged as the definitive study of the U.S. response to the Nazi genocide, his treatment of the Bergson Group became an accepted part of the new scholarly and popular consensus regarding America and the Holocaust. The impact of The Abandonment of the Jews was reinforced by the film America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference, by Martin Ostrow, aired by PBS in 1994 as part of its series, The American Experience. Closely following the themes of Abandonment and featuring Prof. Wyman as its most prominent interviewee, America and the Holocaust included Bergson in its narrative as an important part of the history of the period.
Additional studies followed: Shake Heaven and Earth by the American-Israeli journalist Louis Rapoport (1999); A Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust, by David S. Wyman and Rafael Medoff (2002), an oral history in which Kook presented his story through lengthy annotated interviews; The “Bergson Boys” and the Origins of Contemporary Zionist Militancy, by Judith Tydor Baumel (2005); and Millions of Jews to Save, Medoff’s edited version of Samuel Merlin’s account of those years. A 2008 film by Rick Trank and the Simon Wiesenthal Center about America’s response to the Holocaust, emphasized the role of the Bergson Group.
Entries about the group appeared in such major reference volumes as the Encyclopedia Judaica (which omitted the Bergsonites from its first edition, in 1972), the Encyclopedia of American Jewish History (2007), the Columbia History of Jews and Judaism (2008), the Encyclopedia of the Diaspora (2008), and the Cambridge Dictionary of Jewish History (2011).
Beginning in the early 2000s, a number of Jewish museums and historical societies also began recognizing the Bergson Group’s achievements. The Museum of Jewish Heritage/A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, in New York City, held teacher training sessions about the Bergson Group; Holocaust museums in Texas, Rhode Island, and Illinois included the Bergsonites in various ways; and the Brooklyn Holocaust Memorial Park added a memorial plaque about the activists. The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington and the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland sponsored programs and exhibits about the Bergson Group, and their parent body, the American Jewish Historical Society, included the Bergson story in some of its literature.
After five years of petitions and discussions, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2007 redesigned its panels on America’s response to the Holocaust to incorporate acknowledgment of the Bergson Group’s role in publicizing the Holocaust and bringing about the creation of the War Refugee Board. The revamped Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and National Museum of American Jewish History, in Philadelphia, both of which opened in 2010, also included sections about the Bergson Group.