When Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, stepped to the podium at a Knesset dinner during her visit earlier this month, she made history in more ways than one.
Not only was she the first woman Speaker of the House to address Israel’s lawmakers, Pelosi was also addressing the parliament of a country whose creation her own father championed, at the risk of his career – and perhaps her career, as well.
Speaker Pelosi’s father, the late US congressman Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr., of Maryland, was known as a Roosevelt Democrat. What is not widely known is that D’Alesandro broke ranks with president Franklin D. Roosevelt on the issues of rescuing Jews from Hitler and creating a Jewish State.
D’Alesandro was one of the congressional supporters of the Bergson Group, a maverick Jewish political action committee that challenged the Roosevelt administration’s policies on the Jewish refugee issue during the Holocaust, and later lobbied against British control of Palestine.
The Bergson activists used unconventional tactics to draw attention to the plight of Europe’s Jews, including staging theatrical pageants, organizing a march by 400 rabbis to the White House, and placing more than 200 full-page advertisements in newspapers around the country. Some of those ads featured lists of celebrities, prominent intellectuals, and members of Congress who supported the group – including D’Alesandro. D’Alesandro’s involvement with the Bergson Group was remarkable because he was a Democrat who was choosing to support a group that was publicly challenging a Democratic president. And D’Alesandro was not one of the conservative Southern “Dixiecrat” Democrats who sometimes tangled with FDR over various issues; he was a staunch supporter of Roosevelt and the New Deal. He even named his first son Franklin Roosevelt D’Alesandro.
UNTIL LATE in the Holocaust, the Roosevelt administration’s position was that nothing could be done to rescue Jews from the Nazis except to win the war. The Bergson Group was convinced that there were many steps the US could take to rescue refugees without impeding the war effort.
Bergson’s strategy for changing US policy was anchored in the hope that humanitarian-minded Democrats like D’Alesandro would break ranks with the White House over the plight of the Jews. Rallying Congress was a way to put pressure on the president.
The Bergson Group’s Holocaust campaign culminated in the introduction of a Congressional resolution, in late 1943, urging creation of a government agency to rescue refugees. Senator Tom Connally of Texas, a loyal FDR supporter and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, blocked the committee’s consideration o f the resolution. But when Connally was out sick one day, his replacement, Senator Elbert Thomas (D-Utah) quickly ushered the resolution through. In the House of Representatives, too, there was growing support for the rescue resolution.
This Congressional pressure helped influence President Roosevelt to do what the resolution urged – in early 1944, he establishe the War Refugee Board. Despite its small staff and meager funding, the Board played a key role in the rescue of more than 200,000 Jews from the Holocaust. Its many accomplishments included sponsoring the heroic life-saving activities of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg in Nazi-occupied Budapest.
AFTER THE war, D’Alesandro continued supporting the Bergson Group as it campaigned for the establishment of a Jewish State in Mandatory Palestine. That sometimes meant clashing with the Truman administration, which wavered back and forth on the issue of Jewish statehood.
Every member of Congress who supported the Bergson Group had his own particular reasons for doing so. Senator Thomas, for example, was a Mormon, and his kinship with the Jewish people had been forged by both his community’s experiences as a mistreated minority and his religious convictions about the Jew and the Holy Land. Rep. Andrew Somers (D-NY) was of Irish descent, and his resentment of British rule in Ireland strengthened his support for Bergson’s campaigns against the British shutdown of Palestine to Jewish refugees. Another important Bergson supporter, Rep. Will Rogers, Jr. (D-CA), son of the famous entertainer, was part Native American, and he attributed his interest in the plight of the Jews to his general concern for minorities.
Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr. was a Catholic and the son of Italian immigrants. Perhaps those factors fueled his sympathy for religious minorities and refugees. Or perhaps it was just the simple humanitarian instinct of every sensitive person who hears of innocents being persecuted and wants to help, regardless of political considerations.
Whatever his motives, D’Alesandro was taking a big risk. He knew that by defying Roosevelt and Truman, he might be making enemies in the White House. In 1947, at the very moment he was breaking ranks with Truman over Palestine, D’Alesandro decided to run for mayor of Baltimore. If the White House had chosen to retaliate against him for his dissent on Palestine, he might never have been elected. And if that had happened, his daughter Nancy might never have embarked on a political career of her own.
The 12 years that D’Alesandro served as mayor of Baltimore were the crucial formative years of Nancy’s political education. She “learned her politics at the elbow of her father,” a recent Washington Post profile of the House speaker noted. Throughout high school and into her college yea rs, Nancy was at the center of her father’s intense political world. As a result, she was a political veteran long before she even entered politics. And she was fortunate to have as her role model a man who courageously put his humanitarian principles above his narrow political needs.
The writer is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for HolocaustStudies. www.WymanInstitute.org