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Peter Bergson and Samuel Merlin - New York

Film | Accession Number: 1996.166 | RG Number: RG-60.5020 | Film ID: 3254, 3255, 3256, 3257, 3258

Peter Bergson and Samuel Merlin were activists in the United States during the war. They talk about conflicts with other Jewish groups, especially with Rabbi Stephen Wise. Bergson and his group organized the the We Will Never Die pageant and made other bold publicity moves aimed at influencing American policy in favor of helping the Jews of Europe.

FILM ID 3254 -- Camera Rolls #48-50-- 01:00:18 to 01:33:18
Roll 48
01:00:18 Claude Lanzmann, Peter Bergson and Samuel Merlin sit inside a small meeting room around a table in New York City. Lanzmann, off-camera, asks the men about how the general public in America reacted to news about the extermination of the Jews in Europe. Bergson says there is no such thing as "starting to be known," but that the news exploded into the public: all of a sudden The Washington Post printed an article stating that two million Jews had been exterminated. Bergson details his horror to learn this and his attempts to appeal to Rabbi Stephen Wise and to the Assistant Secretary of State to do something to stop these atrocities. However "we discovered to our horror that life went on without much change." Lanzmann probes Bergson about why nothing was done and Bergson answers that the Jews were petrified and the government did not want to be involved in a "Jewish war." Bergson and his friends formed the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, which drew negative attention and even threatened Bergson's citizenship.

Roll 49
01:10:55 Bergson asserts that no one can accuse others of not acting when the Jews need to re-examine themselves and wonder why they and the Jewish leaders were just as inactive. Lanzmann asks about this inaction and Merlin cuts in to describe the fear the Jews of America had at that time. They were highly concerned with maintaining their own welfare and their own status, and "for the first time as people who are not being persecuted because of race, that they were being treated with dignity, with equality." There was a belief that every generation dealt with persecution, but because God protected them for four thousand years that Jews would always prevail. Though books claimed there were many organizations formed to help the Jews of Europe, Merlin claims they were just fronts for the Zionists, and only their Emergency Committee, backed by religious people, was trying to save the Jews. Merlin cuts in and begins to talk about Jewish identity and how American Jews did not identify with European Jews. They continued to push the government and finally were able to get them to form the War Refugee Board, which was a win and a loss because its purpose was to help victims of the war, but the Board avoided any suggestion that they were saving Jews or that this was a Jewish issue. Bergson stresses the fact that Hitler was in power for eight years before anyone became aware of what was happening.

Roll 50
01:22:08 Lanzmann expresses surprise at Bergson's sharp criticism of Jewish leaders, and asks about what the average Jew in this country felt. Bergson talks about the discipline of the Jewish people and how they often follow their leaders. Bergson had hope for the common Jew when his committee organized a pageant at Madison Square Garden in 1943 and filled the arena twice in the same night, selling over forty thousand tickets. Bergson asserts that had Rabbi Wise called for a march on Washington a half million Jews would have taken part. Merlin cuts in to say that these people were not wicked in any way and that the issue goes much deeper than claiming that these particular Jews were in any way accomplices in the murder of millions. Lanzmann asks what they imagined when they heard about the destruction of the Jews. Bergson talks about the Jews that were saved and when he ceased being a Zionist. He says it was a political issue that was not answered properly. Resolutions introduced to help the people of Europe were stalled because Jewish leaders, including Rabbi Wise, said "it's not enough, because the big issue is opening the gates of Palestine."

FILM ID 3255 -- Camera Rolls #51-53 -- 02:00:19 to 02:33:57
Roll 51
02:00:19 Lanzmann, Bergson and Merlin sit around a table in a small meeting room in New York City. Bergson discusses how the remaining Jews of Europe could have been saved. There were proposals presented to the government that included bombing the crematoria at Auschwitz and threatening to use poison gas on the Germans if they continued to use it on the Jews. The Allies had previously used this threat on the Germans about using poison gas on the Poles, Greeks, etc. Though Roosevelt sent warnings to Germany regarding their actions, there was never specific mention of the Jews, about which Bergson says, "they joined the dehumanization of the Jews, because the Jews are not 'worthy' of retaliation." When Bergson suggested threatening the Germans with retaliation as Chairman of the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation, people were appalled. Other proposals presented by the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation included the establishment of a 25 square mile refuge in Turkey for people who could manage to get there. Bergson thinks the Jews were not saved because the Zionists became too caught up in their ideology. There was not enough focus on the Jews being exterminated and too much on what was going to be done with them as refugees. It should have been about the "physical salvation of human beings." Because of the lack of action to save the Jews, it became about just winning the general war. Had the Jews pushed the American people to support their cause, efforts to save the European Jews would have been mobilized.

Roll 52
02:11:35 Bergson describes the difficulties in rallying the Jews for this cause. It was easier to recruit prominent non-Jews than it was to rally prominent Jews. His committee was unable to be as effective as they wanted to be because they were seen as a radical group when in fact they were not. American newspaperman William Allen White told Bergson that they were not radical enough and that every window of any British office should be broken. The War Refugee Board symbolized a win and a loss; it was better than nothing and in the end it did manage to save several hundred thousand Jews. However, had there been more pressure many more Jews would have survived. Merlin says that in the mid 1930s there was a feeling of doom for the Jews in Eastern Europe, but Zionists believed an evacuation would mean the forfeiture of the rights of Jews in the evacuated areas.

Roll 53
02:22:45 Merlin claims the Zionist leadership gave the impression that their aim was to liberate and rescue the Jewish masses when in fact they wished to transform a small minority of young people through education so they would be prepared to go to Palestine and "live a life which is not plagued and degraded by the life of the Jews in Europe." Merlin describes their attempts to save the Jews as early as 1935 through illegal immigration. The Zionists disagreed with this because it was not selective and because it threatened the monopoly they received from the British government. Merlin discusses the lack of proper coverage of Jewish news in newspapers, saying that any story relating to Hitler or Jewish suffering was either printed in the Obituary page or the Religious page, especially in The New York Times. It did not make any sense that such important news was not printed on the front page. Merlin realized that any type of Jewish organization was located around 14th Street because Jews were afraid to bring the Jewish problem out in the open.

FILM ID 3256 -- Camera Rolls #54-56 -- 03:00:07 to 03:30:20
Roll 54
03:00:12 CU of Merlin in his NY office as he describes the major differences between his organization and the Zionists. One major difference was that the Zionists did not identify with the Jews of Europe. One of the greatest Zionist leaders, Dr. Chaim Weizmann, stated before the war that "'in our generation only a minority, the young ones, should be thought of to be saved. The old ones will pass, they will bear their fate or they will not. They are dust, economic and moral dust... only a remnant shall survive. We have to accept it.'" Merlin goes on to state that "they despised the Jewish masses, and their aim was not to rescue their lives, their aim was to create a transformation of Jews in a new social and ethical framework." CU on Bergson as he disagrees with Merlin's wording on the subject and says that human emotions are too complex to make this kind of summation. Bergson then reads from documents to try and prove his point. He reads a statement from the chairmen of the Rescue Committee of the Jewish Agency which reads, "I am afraid we have to take it for granted that the extermination of the Jews of Europe will be completed and only remnants will remain." Merlin then states that the Zionists wanted to do something, but "their emotional identification was very weak." Bergson contends that these people should be pitied. Lanzmann and Merlin disagree with this statement.

Roll 55
03:11:23 [CLIP 1 BEGINS] Bergson explains what he did during the war. The task was to save as many Jews as possible and because they did not control the armies they had to get the American government to act. In order to get government action they had to reach out to as many Americans as they could, especially influential figures who could help to mobilize the cause. Bergson gets out of his seat and walks to a wall entirely covered with the newspaper advertisements they printed. There were over ninety ads placed in various newspapers across the country. One reads "Action, Not Pity!" and another details a plan for a 25 square mile camp in Turkey where Jews could go for safety. Bergson tells of a specific ad that was a ballad written by Ben Hecht about the Jews of Europe being murdered. The word Christmas was used in the ad, which caused Jewish leaders to call an emergency meeting to ask them to not run the ad for fear of antisemitism. While in this emergency meeting Bergson agreed to pull the ad if the Jewish leaders would agree to sit down and talk about an actual plan of action to help the Jews, and for a moment Bergson thought he had finally gotten through, but then they would not return his phone calls so he ran the controversial ballad. Bergson sits back in his chair and talks about the march of the rabbis on Washington [CLIP 1 ENDS].

Roll 56
03:22:36 [CLIP 2 BEGINS] Bergson describes the arrival of five hundred rabbis for the march in Washington and how effective it was. They walked from Union Station to the Capitol. Members of the Senate, led by Vice President Henry Wallace, suspended their session to come out and meet the rabbis. Merlin then reads the prayer that the rabbis read that morning. Bergson describes how they then walked the distance to the White House. CU on Bergson as he discusses how dangerous fear can be. "When fear is not justified, it becomes anxiety, and this is even more deadly." [CLIP 2 ENDS] The camera slowly pans out so both men can be seen sitting at the table in silence. CU of Merlin and then of Bergson.

FILM ID 3257 -- Camera Rolls #50A -- 04:00:11 to 04:05:09
Roll 50A
04:00:11 CU of Merlin touching his face, deep in thought. Camera pans out and back in as Merlin puts his glasses on. Merlin takes off his glasses as he speaks to someone off camera. CU of Bergson in front of a bookshelf in an office in NY. Camera pans out and back in as Bergson looks straight into the camera. CU of Bergson talking to someone off camera. Camera pans out so both men can be seen. Camera pans in on Merlin's face. Camera goes back and forth between Merlin and Bergson. 04:06:07

FILM ID 3258 -- Camera Rolls #56A,57 -- 05:00:16 to 05:06:41
Roll 56A
05:00:17 CUs of advertisements from the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe: "ACTION-NOT PITY Can Save Millions Now!" which features a drawing of a yelling soldier standing over toppled Jews; "FOR SALE to Humanity 70,000 Jews"; "Ballad of the Doomed Jews of Europe"; "32 United Nations- and One Forgotten People"; "Once Again Too Little... But Not Yet Too Late"; "The People Have Spoken But Their Officials Are Still Mute!"; "25 Square Miles or 2,000,000 Lives". 05:03:39

Roll 57
05:03:41 CUs of specific parts of advertisements from the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe. CU of small paragraphs about the 70,000 Romanian Jews able to leave for fifty dollars apiece. CU of a headline about the failings of the Bermuda Conference. CU of a cartoon showing politicians interested in news about everything but the Jews. CU of two rabbis. CU of pictures of the march of the rabbis in Washington. 05:06:42

Event:  November 15?, 1978
Production:  1985
New York, NY, United States
Created by Claude Lanzmann during the filming of "Shoah," used by permission of USHMM and Yad Vashem
Record last modified: 2021-06-03 12:47:12
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