Hillel Kook, aka Peter Bergson. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images
The FBI’s secret file on the Zionist militiaman who raised funds from Jewish gangsters
How an Israeli professor discovered surprising information linking ‘Peter Bergson’ – who worked during the 1940s in the U.S. to help the Irgun underground in Mandatory Palestine, as well as European Jewry – to some notorious Jewish gangsters
By Maya Guez Jul 17, 2018
A young Jew arrives in the United States from Mandatory Palestine and tries to obtain weapons and recruit fighters for an army to fight the Arabs. He gets funds from Jewish gangsters, and even though he changes his name and conceals his identity, the FBI finds out about his efforts, places him under surveillance and tries to get him deported. This heroic story started during World War II and continued afterward as well.
In 1940, Hillel Kook, a member of the underground Irgun militia in pre-state Israel, arrived in New York. To avoid being identified as the nephew of the late Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi during the period of British rule in Palestine, he changed his name, taking on the nom de guerre Peter Bergson.
In November 1942, he learned about the scale of the annihilation of European Jewry from an article in The Washington Post. He then revised the aims of the small Irgun delegation, and instead of obtaining equipment and raising funds for the Yishuv – the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine – he rechanneled his efforts to the rescue of Europe’s Jews. To that end, he enlisted his Irgun colleagues in the United States, together with entertainers and members of Congress, to get out the message of what was happening to European Jewry.
The FBI became very suspicious of Bergson’s activities and how he raised funds. Indeed, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover contacted the agency’s Philadelphia office in 1946 and demanded to know, within 10 days, what was being done to deport him. Nothing was done.
“Bergson finally returned to Palestine on his own,” says historian Robert Rockaway, who located the extensive FBI files about Bergson and the Irgun. “He was fed up with being constantly under surveillance. His lawyer had to report constantly to the FBI and the immigration services. He was always being sent documents and harassed relentlessly. He and the people who worked with him knew that they were being checked and watched all the time.”
Rockaway, 79, emeritus professor of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University (and my partner in researching how Jews fleeing the Holocaust were saved in the Philippines and Vichy France) came across the FBI files on Bergson by chance during his years of research on Jewish gangsters in the United States. Rockaway is the author of books including the 1993 work (revised in 2000), “But He Was Good to His Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters.”
“I knew that representatives of Yishuv organizations received money from them. When I interviewed them and their representatives, they told me about it,” Rockaway says. “They underwrote the purchase of weapons, planes and machine guns for them with which to fight the Arabs and the British after World War II.”
In addition, there were also non-Jewish mafiosi, who controlled the port of New York, who helped facilitate arms shipments to Israel.
The files showed that the FBI’s surveillance of what was commonly known as the Bergson Group went on from 1941 to 1948. During that period, the security agency eavesdropped on telephone conversations of members of the group, opened their mail, sifted through their trash, and even planted informers.
The Bergson file thus consists of hundreds of pages that detail the wiretapping, correspondence between senior FBI people, and reports of arrests, searches and surveillance. But despite all the legal efforts and bureaucratic attempts to curtail the group’s activities, it still strived to influence American public opinion. It established the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, which lobbied for legislation, and also organized the musical pageant “We Will Never Die,” which, Rockaway notes, was seen by Eleanor Roosevelt in Washington.
The script of the production was created by the popular stage- and screenwriter Ben Hecht, with a score by Kurt Weill. It was Hecht who drafted the full-page advertisements that the Emergency Committee published in The New York Times and The Washington Post to shock the American people into pressuring the administration to act to stop the Holocaust.
One such ad, which appeared in The Times on February 16, 1943, stated: “‘For sale to humanity: 70,000 Romanian Jews, guaranteed human beings at $50 apiece. Romania is tired of killing Jews …. Seventy-thousand Jews are awaiting death in Romanian concentration camps – Act Now.” According to the ad, Romania, having already murdered 100,000 of its Jews over two years, was now ready to ransom the rest for a pittance.
“The leaders of the American Jewish community were afraid that all this noise would stir up anti-Semitism,” Rockaway notes.
Nonetheless, the pressure applied by the Bergson Group and its allies was effective and was in part responsible for the administration’s establishment in January 1944 of the War Refugee Board, which helped with the escape and resettlement of some 200,000 Jews.
“The documents show that from 1942 until 1945 the FBI tried to deport Bergson and harassed him,” says Rockaway. They tailed him everywhere, listened to his phone calls, repeatedly sent agents to check the organization’s books.
“Eventually the bureau grew desperate and wanted to draft him into the U.S. Army,” Rockaway says. “He was young and strong [Bergson was born in 1915] and could have been a soldier. But there are laws in the United States, and the FBI is subordinate to them. Bergson had lawyers who defended him for two years, until 1945. He knew he was being followed.”
According to Rockaway, Jewish leaders including World Jewish Congress co-founders Nahum Goldmann and Reform Rabbi Stephen Wise, called Bergson and the Irgun “Jewish terrorists from Palestine.” Goldmann reportedly told State Department officials in 1944 that Wise considered Bergson “equally as great an enemy of the Jews as Hitler.”
One surprising source of aid to Bergson were two FBI agents who were following the money trail between Jewish gangsters and the Irgun – before themselves making contributions to the Emergency Committee in 1943.
As Rockaway puts it, “It was at the end of their shift, in the Irgun’s offices. They told the staff, ‘We are taking part in your struggle.’”
Bergson returned to Israel in 1948, after the state’s establishment, and once again going under the name Hillel Kook was elected to the first Knesset for Menachem Begin’s Herut party. He went back to the United States in 1951, became a Wall Street broker (Rockaway says Kook told him that “any fool can make a lot of money in America”), and remained there until 1970, when he returned to Israel again. Kook was married twice, and died in 2001.
Rockaway met him in 1996. “I invited him to talk to my students about what he did in America,” the professor says. “He was no longer a young man, he was in his 80s. My students very much enjoyed the conversation with him. In Israel no one knew him, and he didn’t like the leadership here. He said that everything here was chaotic and confused. He was a good man and wanted to rescue as many Jews as possible. It was clear to him that the Americans could have saved more Jews – ‘hundreds of thousands,’ he said – but they didn’t. They did nothing.”
During his investigations, Rockaway discovered that the Haganah, too, received funds from Jewish gangsters in the United States. “One of the [Haganah] emissaries was Reuven Dafni, a founder of Kibbutz Ein Gev on Lake Kinneret, who had parachuted into Yugoslavia in mid-1944 with Hannah Szenes,” Rockaway says. Dafni worked for the Haganah in the United States beginning in 1946, and also attracted the attention of the FBI, he says.
According to Rockaway, Dafni persuaded the gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel to make a large donation to the Haganah.
“They were introduced by Siegel’s assistant, Allen Smiley, who was a Jew himself. Siegel asked him, ‘What are you doing here?’ Dafni told him he was raising funds for the Haganah, because the Jews were fighting the Arabs in Israel. Siegel asked, ‘Hold on, do you want to tell me that the Jews are fighting?’” Rockaway says.
“Dafni said they were, and Siegel, who was sitting across the table, drew closer to him and asked in astonishment, ‘Fighting like to kill?’ Dafni said yes. ‘Then I’m with you,’ Siegel replied. He liked killing and agreed to take part in everything that involved killing. He didn’t know that Jews were capable of engaging in a blood fight.”
Siegel – a close friend and associate of Meyer Lansky, Abner “Longy” Zwillman and other famous Jewish gangster leaders, as well as of Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Italian mafia bosses – met with Dafni every week in 1946 in the back of a Los Angeles restaurant.
“Bugsy would show up with a suitcase stuffed with bills of $5 and $10. In this way, Dafni received about $50,000 during the year, before leaving Los Angeles,” Rockaway says. “The day after he arrived in San Francisco, in June 1947, Dafni went down to his hotel dining room for breakfast. On the front page of a newspaper was a report that Bugsy Siegel had been murdered at the home of his girlfriend, Virginia Hill. Dafni told me, ‘Thank God I took cash and not a check.’”