More than seven decades have passed since the 1943 historic Rabbis March on Washington, when over 400 rabbis tearfully approached the White House to entreat President Franklin D. Roosevelt to rescue the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.
As the 75th anniversary of that event approaches, one recalls both its electrifying drama and what one of the participating rabbonim described as “the tragedy of that day.”
Scorned by secular Jewish leaders who refused to join them, snubbed by the president himself who declined to meet with them, many of the rabbis felt that their desperate mission, carried out three days before Yom Kippur, 1943, had failed.
“We all expected that the end result would be a face-to-face meeting between President Roosevelt and a delegation from the march. We were very disappointed,” recalled Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Horowitz, the Bostoner Rebbe, more than 65 years later, in an interview with Dr. Rafael Medoff of the Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. The rebbe was in his twenties at the time.
Recalling the famous friendship between Reform Jewish leader Stephen Wise and President Roosevelt, Rabbi Horowitz had harsh words for Wise and FDR’s other Jewish advisors. They gave the president the impression the rabbis’ demonstration was “not important, so he had no need to pay attention to it.”
“That was the tragedy of that day,” commented the rebbe. “I can’t feel anything positive about President Roosevelt, after knowing the end result of his policies,” the Bostoner Rebbe said in a videotaped message to an annual conference of the Washington-based Wyman Institute.
“The president failed our cause, not just one time, but throughout the years of Nazi persecution. Nothing was done–not bringing refugees to the United States, not doing anything to protect the Jews that are being herded into freight cars and brought to annihilation in the death camps of Poland. As big a chosid as I [once] was of his, he failed our cause –terribly, terribly so.”
The consensus today is that FDR’s Jewish advisors egregiously failed their brothers and sisters facing annihilation in Nazi-occupied Europe. Their silence encouraged the president’s do-nothing approach. The Rabbis March on Washington was a streak of light against this bleak landscape of abandonment.
“The appearance of hundreds of rabbis in the streets of Washington mobilized new publicity for the rescue issue and made a deep impression on members of Congress. The march speeded up the introduction of a Congressional resolution calling for the creation of a U.S. government agency to rescue refugees,” noted Medoff.
Bergson Group Grabs The Government’s Attention
The March was the culmination of two years of intense lobbying by the Bergson Group led by Peter Bergson (Hillel Kook), an extraordinary activist who broke the wall of silence in this country about Hitler’s atrocities.
His organization campaigned to save the doomed Jews of Europe through rallies, relentless lobbying on Capitol Hill and hundreds of fiery, attention-grabbing ads in newspapers, calling attention to the horrors facing European Jews, and urging the American government to help.
The group began by raising money for illegal Jewish immigration to what was then the British Mandate of Palestine. But the mission abruptly changed in November 1942 after reports of the Nazi annihilation of two million European Jews surfaced, along with Hitler’s plan to annihilate the remaining Jews of Poland by the year’s end.
Like earlier reports of the mass killing of Jews, the news barely made the pages of leading American major newspapers. The Bergson group was appalled by the callous disinterest of the Roosevelt administration, as well as the fawning of the Jewish establishment over FDR.
While secular Jewish leaders detested Bergson and schemed to have him drafted or deported, the Orthodox community and Vaad Hatzalah, organized by the Agudas Harabonim, gave him their full support.
Although Bergson tried to enlist rabbis from across the religious spectrum in the Rabbis March, Reform and Conservative leaders all boycotted it. Only Orthodox rabbis participated.
“Why do you think you had more appeal to the Orthodox rabbis than to those in the other [religious camps]?” Wyman asked Bergson 25 years after the March.
“Orthodox rabbis were…more Jewish,” Bergson responded. “They operated on the old Jewish concept that he who saves one soul saves the whole world.”
Many registered for the march ahead of time; their names appear on a list preserved at the Wyman Institute of Holocaust Studies. These names were apparently given to Bergson’s public relations staff by the Vaad Hatzalah, which did the legwork of contacting individual rabbis and urging them to attend.
“They came from all parts of the country,” Bergson recalled in a series of interviews with historian David Wyman that later evolved into a book, Race Against Death. “The idea was to do something dramatic to mobilize public opinion, and overcome the passivity of the Jewish and Zionist establishments.”
A Rally Unprecedented, Unforgettable
The rabbis who traveled to Washington that day included some of the most prominent rabbonim in the American Jewish community. They included Rav Eliezer Silver, and Rav Yisroel Rosenberg, co-presidents of Agudas HaRabonim; the Boyanor Rebbe; Rav Mordechai Shlomo Friedman who was the president of the Agudas Ho’admorim; and Rabbi Bernard Dov Leventhal, the chief rabbi of Philadelphia.
There were also some younger rabbonim who would soon become quite prominent, such as the godol hador and Halachic authority of the generation, Rav Moshe Feinstein.
Several rabbis later described the experience as unforgettable.
One of the participants was the young Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. In a sefer, Rav Soloveitchik later wrote that he “could not forget” the day “when the Agudas HaRabbonim brought to Washington some 500 hundred rabbis who asked to be received by President Roosevelt in order to express their anguish, and propose concrete steps for rescue. I, too, was among this large rabbinic group that arrived at the White House just before Yom Kippur,” he wrote.
Another participating rabbi was the young Rabbi Binyomin Kamenetzky, founder of the Yeshiva of South Shore. At a 2007 conference held by the Wyman Institute of Holocaust Studies, Rav Kamenetzky was a featured speaker. He spoke of how his decision to attend the Rabbis March was influenced by his experiences as an immigrant from Poland in 1939.
“I was able to come to America, but so many of my friends were left behind and were murdered by the Nazis,” he said. “They were my closest friends–we learned together, we lived together. I carried their photos in my wallet on the day I went to that march, and I still do.”
“As we marched from Union Station to the Lincoln Memorial,” Rav Kamenetzky reminisced, “I remember one old rebbe, walking slowly with a cane and crying as he marched. It is something I can never forget.”
Although today it is commonplace for Jewish groups to hold protest rallies in Washington, the rabbis’ march was unprecedented, the only Jewish demonstration held in the nation’s capitol during the Holocaust, attests historian Wyman.
The rabbis marched solemnly from Union Station to the steps of the Capitol. They were met there by Vice President Henry Wallace, who, Time magazine reported, “squirmed through a diplomatically minimum answer” to their plea for help. Wallace’s vague statement to the rabbis expressed “grief” at the plight of the Jews but made no mention of rescuing any of them.
Rabbis’ Petition: Al Taamod al Dam Rayacha
Two of the leaders of the march read aloud the group’s petition to the president, in Hebrew and English.
“Rabbi Eliezer Silver first recited a prayer while many of the rabbis cried emotionally,” recalled Bergson in the Wyman interview. “The words of the petition began with, ‘In the name of G-d, Creator of the Universe, Blessed is He. Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor. I am the L-rd.’”
“Children, infants, and elderly men and women are crying out to us for help,” the petition went on. “Millions have already been slain, sentenced to fire and sword, and tens of thousands have died of starvation! As for us, how can we stand in prayer on the holy day of Yom Kippur, knowing that we haven’t fulfilled our responsibility? So we have come, brokenhearted, on the eve of our holiest day to entreat you, our honorable President Franklin Roosevelt … to form a special agency to rescue the remainder of the Jewish nation in Europe.”
The protesters proceeded to the Lincoln Memorial, where they offered prayers for the welfare of the president, America’s soldiers abroad, and the Jews caught in the Nazi inferno. Then they marched to the gates of the White House, where they had expected a small delegation would be granted a meeting with President Roosevelt.
Instead, to their surprise and dismay, they were met by presidential secretary Marvin McIntyre who told them the president was unavailable “because of the pressure of other business.” In fact, the president’s schedule was remarkably open that afternoon. His daily calendar listed nothing in between a 1:00 lunch with the Secretary of State and a 4:00 departure for a ceremony at an airfield outside Washington.
FDR’S Jewish Advisors
Little wonder that FDR had no compunctions about snubbing the rabbis. His Jewish advisors, who encouraged him in his ignoring requests from Jewish organizations to increase refugee immigration, to press Britain on Palestine policy and rescue Jews from Hitler, dissuaded him from meeting the rabbis.
“These are not the kind of Jews you should associate with,” the president was advised by advisor Samuel Rosenman, as recorded by a presidential aide in a book of memoirs. Rosenman, an assimilated Jew and a justice on the NY Supreme Court, served as one of Roosevelt’s senior speechwriters as well as his closest advisor on Jewish affairs.
In his diary, presidential aide William D. Hassett noted that Rosenman told FDR that “the group behind this petition is not representative of the most thoughtful elements in Jewry.”
“Judge Rosenman said he had tried–admittedly without success–to keep the horde from storming Washington, and that the leading Jews of his acquaintance opposed this march on the Capitol,” Hassett recorded in his memoirs. Rosenman characterized the rabbis as “[people] who just recently left the darkest period of the medieval world.”
Stephen Wise in turn condemned the “Orthodox rabbinical parade,” calling it a painful, lamentable exhibition.” He derided the organizers as “stuntists” and accused them of offending “the dignity of [the Jewish] people.”
Roosevelt’s pointed snub of the rabbis would later boomerang against the administration and its policy of inaction and indifference. The event unleashed a flood of media spotlight about the purpose of the Rabbis March, and speculation over the reason for FDR’s no-show.
FDR Surrenders to Pressure
Bergson’s agitation on behalf of rescue, culminating in the Rabbis March, led to steady escalating congressional pressure on President Roosevelt.
“Peter Bergson was gathering support in Washington to pressure the government to do something about rescue,” Wyman told an audience after the publication of Race Against Death. “Ultimately, he had about 163 congressmen and about 40 senators backing his Emergency Rescue resolution. This was before the era of a Jewish lobby in Washington, when the concept did not yet exist.”
With a Bergson-inspired Emergency Rescue Resolution about to pass the Senate, and an explosive report delivered to him by Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau accusing the State Department of “acquiescing in the murder of European Jewry,” FDR finally surrendered to pressure.
The War Refugee Board was created in January, 1944 by executive order—FDR’s tactic of saving face by bypassing Congress.
Although badly underfunded and continuously thwarted by the State Department, the WRB was directly responsible for saving the lives of some 200,000 Romanian and Hungarian Jews. Much of this was accomplished through the heroic efforts of Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, whose work was financed by the WRB.
Even at this late hour, with millions slaughtered, the Jewish establishment under Stephen Wise continued to sabotage and thwart Bergson’s ideas for rescue.
‘The Famous Jewish Unity Did Not Stand the Test’
Till the end of his life, Bergson lamented the abandonment of Europe’s Jews by the American Jewish establishment. He was convinced that a united community could have saved saved millions of Jews.
“In all human decency,” Bergson said years later, “one has to ask, what did the Jewish leaders do to shake Roosevelt? When 12,000 Jews were being killed every day, the famous Jewish unity didn’t hold, it didn’t pass the test.”
Many decades later, American Jewish leaders expressed regret at the misguided actions of their predecessors, publicly censuring the once revered Stephen Wise and prominent Jews of the period.
In a foreword to a book by Samuel Merlin, Bergson’s right hand man, Seymour D. Reich, a veteran leader of major Jewish organizations, wrote, “The time has come to acknowledge, unequivocally, that Rabbi Wise and his colleagues were wrong. Instead of attacking Mr. Bergson, they should have focused on the rescue mission, he wrote, adding, “That was their obligation, and they failed.”
But it is FDR whose legacy and reputation have perhaps suffered the most damage from the newest research into his administration’s policies.
“Over the three decades since Prof. Wyman’s book, The Abandonment of the Jews, was published,” Dr. Medoff noted in correspondence with Yated, “there has been substantial new research by younger scholars. All of that research has produced additional evidence that the Roosevelt administration had opportunities to rescue Jews but deliberately refrained from taking action.”
In response to the new findings substantiating Roosevelt’s secret bigotry against Jews, and his conscious squandering of rescue opportunities during the Holocaust, pushback has come from FDR defenders who have written books whitewashing his inaction.
The effort to exonerate FDR by suppressing unflattering information and misrepresenting the evidence had been on display for many years in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Since its inception in 1993, the Holocaust museum had excluded from its permanent exhibit the entire Bergson saga, including all mention of the historic Rabbis March that proved so instrumental in the creation of the War Refugee Board.
Only after a five-year campaign by the Wyman Institute that included petitions from Jewish leaders, historians and congressmen, as well as from 185 children and grandchildren of the rabbis who marched, did the museum in 2008 institute significant changes (in its permanent exhibit) that reflect a more truthful account of those seminal events.
Part 2 will recount the untold story of the persistent campaign to halt the revision of history at the Holocaust Museum where millions of visitors have been, and continue to be, misled.