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NOT IDLY BY Peter Bergson, America and the Hololcaust
a documentary by Pierre Sauvage (55 min., Varian Fry Institute, 2011)

We said we didn't know.
We said we couldn't have done anything even if we had known.

Peter Bergson, a militant Jew from Palestine,
led a controversial American effort to fight the Holocaust.

This is his testimony.


This provocative film will open festering wounds that need to be pierced to form a scab of healing.  No one who witnesses this cautionary tale will leave unmoved.  
Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis

 A fascinating and powerful film about a man whose words and actions were, tragically, ignored.  Bernard Weinraub, author, The Accomplices.

Some 30 feature and short movies will explore the Jewish experience, across time and space, at the fourth Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, April 23-30, at Beverly Hills, Westside, Encino, Pasadena and West Hills theaters.  Noteworthy films include: Not Idly By—Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust, which documents the agonizing efforts by Bergson, a militant Palestinian Jew, to arouse America in the early 1940s to the Nazi extermination of Europe’s Jews.  Based largely on interviews with Bergson decades later, the documentary chronicles his rare triumphs, but mainly his inability to break through the don’t-make-waves mentality of the Jewish establishment, hostility of the U.S. State Department and political caution of President Roosevelt.  Director Pierre Sauvage (Weapons of the Spirit), noting current threats facing the Jewish people, observed “How can we meet the challenges of the future, if we don’t examine the failures of the past?”
Excerpt from article by Tom Tugend, the Jewish Journal, Los Angeles, April 15, 2009

Pierre Sauvage’s Not Idly By: Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust can be summed up by its press release “We said we didn’t know. We said we couldn’t have done anything even if we had known. Peter Bergson, a militant Jew from Palestine, led a controversial American effort to fight the Holocaust. This is his testimony.” In this unique form, we are treated to an insightful filmmaker’s vision of this legendary man.
All About Jewish Theatre: L. A. Celebrates Peter Bergson


Lessons and Legacies Holocaust scholars’ conference, Nov 1, 2009 (paper and excerpts from work-in-progress)
American Jewish University, Los Angeles, March 18, 2009 (full work-in-progress screening), under the auspices of Dr. Michael Berenbaum
, with Pierre Sauvage
Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, April 26, 2009,
with Pierre Sauvage,
Temple Valley Beth Shalom, Encino, CA, May 11, 2009, 7:30pm, followed by panel discussion with Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, and Pierre Sauvage
Association of Holocaust Organizations convention, June 8, 2009, Chapman University, Orange, CA, with Pierre Sauvage

The Accomplices, a play about Peter Bergson by Bernard Weinraub
Fountain Theatre production at the Odyssey Theatre, April 25-June 14, (323) 663-1525
Sunday, May 3, 2009, 2:00pm, Pierre Sauvage led a discussion with playwright Bernard Weinraub after the performance

    Also by Pierre Sauvage:
Weapons of the Spirit
Yiddish: the Mame-Loshn—DVD edition of the Emmy Award-winning documentary to be released in 2012
And Crown Thy Good: Varian Fry in Marseille—upcoming in 2013
long-in-the-making feature documentary about the most successful private American rescue effort of World War II


Peter Bergson in Not Idly By :

"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.'


We cannot resurrect the dead.  What we can do and what we must do is reexamine ourselves.  I am the last one on earth to condone the passivity of the political leadership of the United States—with President Roosevelt at the head—and of Great Britain, and of the Soviet Union, itself in a state of occupation by a tyrant.

But the people who should have dramatized, shook up, awakened the... otherwise busy, like Ben Hecht's ballad [see above and below]—'the world is busy with other news'—the otherwise 'unrealizing' world leadership to what's going on should have been the Jewish leaders.  They knew the Jews were being killed. But the grasp wasn't there.

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 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 castigated the group as fascist or terrorist—Bergson remains a controversial yet relatively obscure figure in the history of America and the Holocaust.

Not Idly By—currently nearing release—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 poignant, assertive 1943 Ben Hecht/Kurt Weill pageant We Will Never Die, 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.

As it happens, Bernard Weinraub's forceful play about Bergson and the American response to the Holocaust, The Accompliceshighly recommendedreopened on April 25, 2008 in Los Angeles at the Odyssey Theatre.  Bergson is also the posthumous star of the 2009 Simon Wiesenthal Center feature documentary, Against the Tide.  Has Peter Bergson's time come at last?  With his help, can we break through the taboos that shroud the American experienceand the American Jewish experienceof that challenging time in history?  How can we expect to meet tomorrow’s challenges effectively if we don’t probe our related failures in the past?

Both Bergson documentaries (Sauvage’s has 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?  Also featured in Not Idly By for the first time are extensive excerpts from the historic 1943 "pageant" We Will Never Die, the radio broadcast of which the Varian Fry Institute seeks to restore for future Holocaust commemoration.

An Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker (Yiddish: the Mame-Loshn"the mother tongue"—to be released in a 30th anniversary DVD edition in summer 2009), Pierre Sauvage, himself a child survivor of the Holocaust, is the president of the Chambon Foundation (www.chambon.org), which includes the Varian Fry Institute.  Upcoming in 2013 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, which will be rereleased in 2009 in a special 20th anniversary edition.  The film tells the story of a unique “conspiracy of goodness” during the Holocaust: in and around the Christian 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 on April 23, 2009, President Barack Obama reflected on the importance and meaning of the story of Le Chambon (see www.chambon.org.)

A popular university lecturer on the Holocaust and its continuing challenges, Sauvage has been a student for over twenty years of what he has called the American experience of the Holocaust.  His address Did Americans Fight the Holocaust? tackles this thorny subject, which is also woven into his video-accompanied presentation The Challenge To Us of Holocaust Rescuers.

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":

The upcoming DVD of Not Idly By will contain bonus materials: interviews with Peter Bergson's widow, Nili Kook, his daughter, Dr. Rebecca Kook, a lecture by Dr. David S. Wyman on The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945, as well as additional filmed interviews, audio recordings, information, photographs and documents.

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© Copyright 2011. Varian Fry Institute. All rights reserved.                    Revised: October 04, 2011