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VCU Menorah Review Winter 2004
Number 60
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

America and the Holocaust, Revisited: Notes on the Writing of A Race Against Death

A Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust
New York: The New Press

A Review Essay by Rafael Medoff

When David S. Wyman was working on the manuscript of what was to become his best-seller, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945, he spent several days in 1973 interviewing Hillel Kook who, under the nom de plume Peter Bergson, initiated political action campaigns to bring about U.S. intervention against the Holocaust. The Wyman-Kook interviews, preserved on a reel-to-reel tape recorder and occupying more than 400 pages in transcript form, provided Professor Wyman with crucial background information about the period as well as a unique insider’s perspective from someone who had been at the center of the struggle to influence American policy toward European Jewry. When the manuscript for The Abandonment of the Jews was completed, the interview transcript went into deep storage along with thousands of other documents used for the book.

There it remained for more than a quarter-century, until I approached David to contribute to an issue of American Jewish History that I was guest-editing. The issue’s theme was “America and the Holocaust: New Perspectives,” and it was inconceivable to me that such a collection could be published without a contribution from the author of the most influential book in the field. Although retired from teaching (at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst) and busy researching a book on a very different topic (minor league baseball), David graciously offered to prepare an annotated excerpt from his 1973 interview with Kook. Our discussions about the excerpt soon led us to the decision to prepare the full text of the interview for publication as a book.

Well, almost the full text. The bulk of the interview focused on Kook’s campaigns for U.S. rescue of Jewish refugees but a portion dealt with his post-Holocaust activity on behalf of the cause of Jewish statehood. In addition, as is the case in any interview of this nature, there were sections in which Kook digressed into subjects of lesser interest to potential readers. Opting to focus on the rescue battle rather than compose a full-scale biography of Kook, we decided to omit the post-1945 topics. David and I set to work editing the transcript, preparing a lengthy introduction to provide historical background and context, inserting explanatory comments in the text to make the subject matter more comprehensible to lay readers, and composing the extensive footnotes and endnotes.

While an oral history is by no means a task as arduous as researching and writing a conventional history book, it was nonetheless a complex and time-consuming endeavor. Sharing the burden with a co-author facilitated the process greatly. Having the good fortune to share it with a brilliant historian, consummate professional and true gentleman such as David Wyman made the work a pleasure. We were blessed with an editor of extraordinary talent and vision, Andre Schiffrin. As an editor at Pantheon in the 1980s, Andre had shepherded Abandonment through the publication process. In 2001, as founder and director of The New Press, Andre took the Kook interview project under his wing.

Work on the book proceeded quickly— so quickly, in fact, that it was nearing completion in the spring of 2002 before we had settled on a title. Some of the staff at The New Press preferred a different type of title, along the lines of “Peter Bergson and the Struggle to Rescue Europe’s Jews.” David and I thought otherwise. There was a variety of factors to consider and we spent many hours discussing them.

To begin with, should we use the name “Peter Bergson,” even though it was a pseudonym that he used for less than eight years of his life? (He adopted it when he arrived in America to shield his family in British Mandatory Palestine, including his uncle the Chief Rabbi, from embarrassment concerning his controversial political activity.) Or should we use his real name, Hillel Kook, even though he was far better known, then and now, as Bergson? (It happened that Kook passed away, after a long illness, while we were at work on the book and his family put both names on his tombstone, although that did not influence our decision.) Our compromise solution was to use Bergson in the title, where instant name recognition mattered most, and Kook as much as possible in the text, where we would have room to explain the circumstances surrounding his adoption of the pseudonym.

At the same time, because even the name Bergson is not widely known, we resolved to restrict “Bergson” to the subtitle and use in the title better known words that would indicate the nature of the subject matter — Holocaust, America, Jews, Hitler, European Jewry. But as we juggled various combinations, we found such terms to be more problematic than we had anticipated. They were too similar to the titles of existing books; or they were too broad and thus misleading as to our book’s content; or they were too dry to pique a reader’s curiosity.

In an attempt to stimulate new ideas, David shared with me a fascinating document from his Abandonment files: his notes on possible titles for that book. The title The Abandonment of the Jews is so well known and such an ingrained part of the public conversation about America and the Holocaust that it is difficult to imagine the book having been published under another title. But it almost was. Reading David’s notes was like discovering that the famous Beatle’s song “Yesterday” was originally called “Scrambled Eggs.”

David had settled on “America and the Holocaust” for his subtitle and was searching for a phrase for the title that would encapsulate the book’s theme. Among those he seriously considered were “Complicity,” “Years of Shame,” “Bitter Priorities” and “Acquiescence in the Murder of the Jews” — the latter derived from the title of a report prepared by Treasury Department officials who had uncovered the State Department’s secret sabotage of opportunities to rescue Jewish refugees. David’s notes indicate that several titles based on Biblical verses were also contenders, such as “None to Save Them” (Psalm 18:41) and “Thy Brother’s Blood” (Genesis 4:10). Two derived from famous quotations were also among the finalists: “The Frail Web,” from a 1940 John Dos Passos refugee fundraising appeal which declared, “Our only hope will lie in the frail web of understanding of one man for the pain of another”; and “The Anvil of Indifference,” from a 1943 speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury to the House of Lords in which he described Europe’s Jews as “caught between the hammer of the enemy’s brutality and the anvil of democracy’s indifference.” “The Abandonment of the Jews” was such a late entry that it did not even appear in David’s three-page list of possible titles. It was, as Elie Wiesel later noted, a “perfect reflection of [the book’s] content.” How could David and I now find a title that would perfectly reflect the contents of the Wyman-Kook interview?

As it turned out, the answer had been staring us in the face the whole time. One of the most important members of the Bergson group had been Ben Hecht, the playwright, journalist and Academy Award-winning screenwriter, a wordsmith if there ever was one, who designed many of the full-page newspaper ads that the Bergson group used to publicize the rescue issue. In fact, nine of those ads were scheduled to be reprinted in the book. Surely one of those eyebrowraising headlines of Hecht’s could give us a title that would both pack a punch and do justice to the manuscript: “Action — Not Pity — Can Save Millions Now” … “How Well Are You Sleeping? Is There Something You Could Have Done to Save Millions of Innocent People — Men, Women and Children — from Torture and Death?” … “Help Prevent 4,000,000 People from Becoming Ghosts.” As we scoured the headlines and sub-headlines for inspiration, two in particular caught our attention: “Time Races Death: What Are We Waiting For?” and “This Is Strictly a Race Against Death.” The image of someone desperately “racing” to save others from “death” — the sense of urgency that Hecht had been trying to convey in his ads — precisely captured the spirit of the Bergson rescue campaign that our book chronicled. A Race Against Death, subtitled Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust, was a perfect reflection of the book’s content. At last, the manuscript was complete.

Dr. Medoff is Director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, which focuses on issues related to America’s response to the Holocaust (www.wymaninstitute.org). He is also a contributing editor.

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