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Friday, March 30, 2007

Political Theatre (more pleeeaaasse!)

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


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.


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."

"The Accomplices,"

Bernard Weinraub

Ian Morgan


FDR And The Holocaust, On Stage

By Dr. Rafael Medoff --

The story of the Roosevelt administration’s response to the Holocaust has been chronicled in books and on film. Now, for the first time, it is coming to the stage.
“The Accomplices,” an off-Broadway play written by former New York Times correspondent Bernard Weinraub and directed by Ian Morgan, will be performed by The New Group with preview performances starting March 20. After meeting earlier this month with the author and cast for more than two hours, I have no doubt this is one play that will not be soon forgotten.
Weinraub recently retired from the Times after a long and distinguished career as a staff correspondent. He is best remembered in the Jewish community for his explosive front-page exposes in 1983 about the ill-fated American Jewish Commission on the Holocaust.

Chaired by former associate justice of the Supreme Court Arthur Goldberg, the commission brought together scholars and representatives of Jewish organizations, ostensibly to prepare an impartial review the American Jewish community’s response to news of the Holocaust. Instead, as Weinraub revealed, it fell apart, largely because some Jewish groups were not ready to acknowledge their predecessors’ failings.
Weinraub’s articles in 1983 stimulated some much-needed introspection among American Jews, and “The Accomplices” will help complete the process. There is no doubt that the American Jewish community’s view of its past has matured a great deal in recent decades. Most Jewish leaders today recognize the need to learn from, rather than attempt to deny, the mistakes that were made in the 1940’s. Those mistakes are addressed frankly, but soberly, in “The Accomplices.”
On one side of this drama stand President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the anti-Semitic Breckinridge Long, whom FDR put in charge of immigration affairs. The play shows how, with FDR’s approval, Long did everything possible to obstruct opportunities for rescue, and to keep the number of Jewish immigrants way below even what the restrictive immigration quotas allowed.
On the other side stands the American Jewish community – anguished over the suffering of Europe’s Jews but deeply divided as to how to respond. These divisions are exemplified through Rabbi Stephen Wise, the most prominent Jewish leader of the time, and Hillel Kook – better known as Peter Bergson – a maverick activist who led controversial protests against Roosevelt’s refugee policies.
Wise favored a cautious, low-key response to the news from Europe; Bergson led marches in Washington and sponsored full-page newspaper advertisements that rocked the Jewish community, Capitol Hill, and beyond.
Infusing the characters’ dialogue with their actual language, taken directly from historical documents, Weinraub succeeds in bringing these painful events to life.
Precisely because Weinraub strives to maintain historical accuracy, the story does not reflect well on FDR. That’s obvious from the play’s title. But then, one sometimes forgets that even at the time, Roosevelt was strongly criticized – including by some of his most loyal supporters – for his refusal to rescue Jewish refugees.
For example, a March 1943 editorial in the liberal political magazine The Nation declared: “You and I and the President and the Congress and the State Department are accessories to the crime and share Hitler’s guilt. If we had behaved like humane and generous people instead of complacent cowardly ones, the two million lying today in the earth of Poland ... would be alive and safe. We had it in our power to rescue this doomed people and yet we did not lift a hand to do it...”
In a similar spirit, the editors of The New Republic wrote in May 1943: “If the Anglo-Saxon nations continue on their present course, we shall have connived with Hitler in one of the most terrible episodes of history... if we do not do what we can, our children’s children will blush for us a hundred years hence.”
During the first week of rehearsals, I was invited to brief the cast of “The Accomplices” about the historical issues and personalities they are portraying. As it turned out, they needed much less briefing than I would have expected. They had been reading David Wyman’s 1984 best-seller The Abandonment of the Jews, Stephen Wise’s autobiography, transcripts of interviews with Peter Bergson, and the diaries of Breckinridge Long. They are likely one of the best-informed casts of any historical drama in recent memory.
I was not surprised to learn that an early version of “The Accomplices” won last year’s Plays in Progress Award. And I will not be surprised if this spring’s production wins a few awards of its own. But awards aside, it will no doubt serve its main, and very important purpose – to educate the public about a difficult chapter in our nation’s history.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies (


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