by David Bedein

shake heaven


Title: Shake Heaven & Earth: Peter Bergson And The Struggle to Rescue the Jews of Europe
Hardcover: 292 pages
Publisher: Gefen Publishing House, Ltd;
       illustrated edition (May 1999)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 965229182X
ISBN-13: 978-9652291820
Review: "Louis Rapoport has left us a touching, passionate and well-documented account of the little-known efforts of Hillel Kook, a.k.a. Peter Bergson, and his small band of allies to save the Jews of the Holocaust at a time when the American government and the American Jewish establishment too often closed their eyes." — Glenn Frankel, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, The Washington Post

One of the drawbacks of longevity is that when that person dies, his impact on history may be lost on a new generation who did not know who he was. Such is the case with Hillel Kook, who died on August 18, 2001, at the age of 87.

On my 37th birthday, on August 31st, 1987, the day that I initiated a news agency, "Israel Resource", I interviewed and consulted with Hillel Kook, an older maverick who had made an imprint on Jewish and Zionist history. Hillel was introduced to me by the Jerusalem Post's late Louis Rappaport, whose book, published posthumously, "Shake Heaven and Earth: Peter Bergson and The Struggle to Rescue The Jews of Europe", by Gefen Publishers in Jerusalem, chronciled the amazing feats of this man.

At a time when so many books and museums have emerged of late concerning the destruction of European Jewry and its aftermath, Hillel Kook was one person which epitomized the question of that era: Could more have been done to save Jewry from the inferno of the death camps?

Hillel was the scion of the great Rabbinic Kook family. He made his mark on history when he arrived in the US in the late 1930's, to eventually assume the name of Peter Bergson, with the initial task of organizing a Jewish army for Palestine, in coordination with Z'ev Jabotinsky.

With the outbreak of the war and the gradual strangulation of the Jews under Nazi conquest in Europe, Kook/Bergson changed his goal to galvanzing a rescue and relief operation for Jews, to use any means possible to save Jews from Hitler's clutches.

The late Louis Rapaport, a journalist who spent more than 18 years with the Jerusalem Post until his untimely passing in 1991, spent many years chronicalling the untold efforts made by Bergson, whom Rapaport rightfully descibed as a man of with tremendous organizational agility, who operated under the worst of hostile circumstances.

The strains on Bergson were not only because of Hitler and the reports that streamed across the Atlantic about the mass murder of Jews. (Bergson never liked to use the term "holocaust", which connoted a Greek perception of sacrfice on an alter. Bergson preferred to simple describe what happened as "mass murder")

In his book, Rapaport published previously unseen documentation which showed how Bergson's self-appointed task of organizing rescue efforts for Jews in Europe were hampered and almost crippled by Jewish organizations in the US, by Jewish officials in the US government and even in the Zionist leadership of the time. US titular leader Rabbi Stephen Wise and the pre-eminent Zionist of the time, Nahum Goldman, joined forces with US congressman Sol Bloom and FDR confidante Felix Frankfurter to carry out a campaign to besmirch and denigrade Bergson's efforts, which all four thought to be counterproductive to the two goals at hand: the defeat of Nazi Germany and the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.

Rapaport obtained previously classified testimony which Bergson gave to the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired by New York Jewish congressman Sol Bloom, in which Bloom grilled Bergson and intimated that Bergson's activities were both un-American and anti-Zionist.

Undaunted, Bergson's tenacity of purpose led him to form an effective non-Jewish coalition in the US Congress that kept the issue of the Jewish plight in Europe on the agenda of the US media and constantly in front of world opinion.

The concrete accomplishment of what came to be known as the "Bergsonite lobby" in the US congress was the creation, in 1944, of the WRB, the War Refugee Board, which was credited with saving thousands of Jews in the waning days of World War II.

In a special citation from the US congress that Rapaport uncovered, both houses of congress gave direct and deserved credit to the activities of Peter Bergson which resulted in the creation of the War Refugee Board.

The work of Hillel Kook, operating under the name of Peter Bergson, remained virtually unknown and unrecognized for a full generation.

Jewish and Zionist organizations who had turned their backs on his efforts never wanted to admit that they had made an error in judgment.

Yet when I met Hillel he felt vindicated, with a good sense of humor.

It turned out that the late former US justice Arthur Goldberg and the eminent Zionist leader, Prof. Arthur Hertzberg, established a commission of inquiry in the early 1980's to determine if Jews in the US could have done more to rescue European Jewry. Their conclusion was yes. Goldberg and Hertzberg took the opportunity to specifically cite the efforts of Hillel Kook, alias Peter Bergson.

The question that Goldberg and Hertzberg posed and the question that those who take a moment to remember Hillel Kook will ask:

How many more Jews could have been rescued if a War Refugee Board had been established in 1942, instead of 1944. After all, Jewish organizations and the US state department had already been officially informed by mid-1942 that two million Jews had already been murdered.

In my last conversation with Louis Rapaport, shortly before his untimely death in 1991, Rapaport emotionally expressed to me his worry that his chronicle of Hillel Kook's life would not come out during Kook's lifetime, and may never ever be published, leaving another generation with little knowledge of the exploits of Peter Bergson.

Well, the book came out during Kook's lifetime, but not during the life of Rapaport.

Hillel Kook had a message: learn from history and what one man can do to affect it. He had specific advice about the attitude of Jewish organizations to issues of consequence and crisis in the Jewish people: Basically, not to trust them, because their survival as organizations always comes before the survival of far-away Jews.

David Bedein is an MSW community organizer and an investigative journalist. In 1987, Bedein established the Israel Resource News Agency at Beit Agron to accompany foreign journalists in their coverage of Israel, to balance the media lobbies established by the PLO and their allies. Since 2005, Bedein has also served as Director of the Center for Near East Policy Research. A focus of the center's investigations is The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). In that context, Bedein authored Roadblock to Peace: How the UN Perpetuates the Arab-Israeli Conflict - UNRWA Policies Reconsidered, which caps Bedein's 28 years of investigations of UNRWA. This article appeared October 17, 2016 and is archived at

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