The New Group presents the world premiere of The Accomplices by Bernard Weinraub, directed by Ian Morgan. Hillel Kook arrives in the United States at the beginning of World War II, fresh from the underground resistance to the British in Palestine. Under the alias Peter Bergson, he leads a small group of activists seeking aid for the rescue of Jews in Europe. Bergson is shocked to find his efforts blocked by both the Roosevelt administration and the Jewish establishment. Undaunted, Bergson and his colleagues organize a bold campaign in a desperate race against time and fear of reprisal. Based on actual events, Bernard Weinraub's new play The Accomplices is the true story of one man's fight on American soil to shatter a conspiracy of silence and inaction.
By Bernard Weinraub
Directed by Ian Morgan
with CATHERINE CURTIN / JON DEVRIES / ROBERT HOGAN / ZOE LISTER-JONES / DAVID MARGULIES / In 1940, Hillel Kook, a.k.a. Peter Bergson, arrives in the US fresh from the underground resistance in Palestine. He seeks aid for the rescue of European Jews from the Nazis. Bergson is shocked to find himself blocked by both the Roosevelt administration and the Jewish establishment. Veteran NY Times reporter Bernard Weinraub writes a blistering account of the fight to save millions, and the conspiracy of silence and inaction that continues to haunt us to this day.
ANDREW POLK / DANIEL SAULI / MARK ZEISLER / MARK ZIMMERMAN
Bernard Weinraub's play about Peter Bergson, Ben Hecht and their work during WWII is profiled in today's New York Sun by Gabrielle Birkner, who neglects to mention the title of the controversial documentary in question (FYI, it's Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die?):
Addressing American Complicity
By Gabrielle Birkner
In the opening scene of "The Accomplices," the inaugural play of Bernard Weinraub, a former entertainment reporter for the New York Times, a Holocaust-era Jewish activist named Peter Bergson begs an American immigration officer to stamp his passport.
"You have the greatest country in the world. With the greatest President," Bergson, a member of the clandestine Jewish army in British Mandate Palestine, says. "You have the most powerful Jews here in New York."
The officer stamps Bergson's passport, and welcomes him on behalf of President Franklin Roosevelt. So begins the young visitor's campaign to convince the president and American Jewish leaders to do more to save European Jews.
"The Accomplices," which opens March 20 at the Acorn Theatre, provides an ultimately damning look at President Roosevelt's response to the Holocaust. It also casts a critical eye on American Jewish leaders many of them dismissed Bergson as a renegade for failing to press the administration to rescue Jews from Nazi Europe.
Preparations for the play's six-weekrun coincide with a burgeoning public interest in Bergson, and his small band of collaborators known as the Bergson Group. In addition to Mr. Weinraub's play, the group's wartime efforts will be the focus of a first-of-its-kind conference at Fordham Law School in June.
Mr. Weinraub's own fascination with Bergson, who was born "Hillel Kook" into a family of rabbinic scholars, goes back a quarter century. At that time, the playwright was reporting for the Times on a controversial television documentary about America's tepid response to the Holocaust. "Through the story, I became interested in the whole issue of American complicity — of what America did, and didn't do, and what Jews here did and did not do," Mr. Weinraub told The New York Sun.
He added: "People obviously didn't know the full scale of what was happening, but there was also a lot of shutting your eyes to the realities."
The Bergson Group did not flinch. It tirelessly pleaded its cause — lobbying Congress, taking out advertisements in the New York Times, organizing a rabbis march on Washington, and, with playwright Ben Hecht, producing a Madison Square Garden pageant dedicated to the Jews who were being murdered overseas.
Indeed, the group's work was an impetus for the Roosevelt administration to establish the War Refugee Board in January 1944. That board ultimately rescued 200,000 Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe. But with a Jewish body count of 6 million, the activists regarded their efforts as failed. "They never thought they accomplished much, and that their efforts were insignificant given the scale of what happened," Mr. Weinraub, who has interviewed some of the activists and their family members, said.
Until recently, historians have largely ignored the Bergson Group.
That's changing, the director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, Rafael Medoff, said. "A new, young generation has arisen in the Jewish community — a generation, unencumbered by old political rivalries and biases of the 1940s, interested in looking objectively at how the American Jewish community responded to the Holocaust," he said.
Mr. Medoff, the co-author with Mr. Wyman of "A Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America, and the Holocaust," briefed the "The Accomplices" cast members on the historical figures and events they will bring to the stage. He called the play, produced by the New Group and directed by Ian Morgan, a powerful and historically accurate account of "young activists who devoted themselves exclusively to the mass slaughter of the Jews in Europe." Mr. Medoff contrasted their efforts with "establishment Jewish leaders who did not devote themselves exclusively to that cause."
Historian Steven Bayme, the director of Contemporary Jewish Life at the American Jewish Committee, said it would be a mistake to "assume that the Jewish community in the 1930s and 1940s had as much leverage as they did later on."
"The real question is not ‘Why the American Jewish community was so divided?' or ‘Why did it remain relatively silent?'" he said. "The real question is, ‘Why was the Jewish community so powerless?'"
Mr. Bayme, added that Roosevelt, despite his failure to help more Jewish refugees, succeeded in moving America from isolationism to interventionism. He said the president convinced the populace that "American Jews did not get us into this war, and that American democracy could not coexist with Nazi Germany."
Today Jewish communal leaders are more outspoken about anti-Jewish bias and communal suffering. But in Hollywood, residual fear among Jews of calling too much attention to Jewish issues lingers, Mr. Weinraub said, citing the response to Mel Gibson's drunken, anti-Semitic tirade last summer. "It wasn't like the Jews in Hollywood came down on him," the playwright said. "I don't want to name names, but there are lots of famous Jewish directors and stars who could have criticized him. There weren't any profiles in courage there."
FDR And The Holocaust, On Stage
By Dr. Rafael Medoff -- Wednesday, March 21, 2007