2018-09-12 / Editorial

Remembering the rabbis’ march to save European Jews

By RAFAEL MEDOFF For the Voice

In an era that has seen more than 400,000 people take part in a Women’s March on Washington, it may not sound very impressive that 400 rabbis marched in the nation’s capital in 1943. But numbers alone don’t always tell the whole story.

Next week marks the 75th anniversary of the rabbis’ march, which took place three days before Yom Kippur. The 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are among the most hectic periods for a pulpit rabbi, who has major sermons to prepare and countless logistics to arrange for the most well-attended services of the year.

So there was no small inconvenience involved for the rabbis who in the autumn of 1943 answered the call of the political action committee known as the Bergson Group and the Orthodox rescue advocates of the Va’ad ha-Hatzala, to come to Washington to plead for the rescue of Europe’s Jews.

Nevertheless, more than 400 rabbis put down their books, left their communities and congregations, and headed for Washington. Most came from the New York City area, but others traveled from as far away as Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Worcester, Massachusetts.

As the stationmaster shouted, “Clear the way for those rabbis!” the protesters emerged from Washington, DC’s Union Station and made their way toward the cluster of buildings known as the Capitol.

It was not only their numbers, but also their stature, that was noteworthy. The marchers were led by Rabbis Eliezer Silver and Yisroel Rosenberg, co-presidents of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis. There were notable Hasidic rebbes, such as the Boyaner Rebbe, Rabbi Shlomo Friedman, and the Melitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchok Horowitz. And there were a number of younger rabbis who would soon become leaders of their generation, in particular Moshe Feinstein and Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

A columnist for the Yiddish-language newspaper Der Tog (The Day) was impressed by the reaction of passers-by. As the rabbis in their “long silk and gabardines and round plush hats, moved along Pennsylvania Avenue…there [were] absolutely no snickers, no smirks on the faces of the onlookers,” he wrote. “They did not gape or guffaw as almost any crowd in a Central or East European land most decidedly would have. They watched in wonderment and in respect. The traffic stopped, and here and there a burgher removed his hat. I myself saw many a soldier in snap in salute…”

The rabbis were greeted on the steps of the Capitol by Vice President Henry Wallace and members of Congress. After brief remarks, the rabbis proceeded to the Lincoln Memorial to recite prayers and sing the national anthem.

Then they marched to White House. While most of the rabbis waited across the street in Lafayette Park, their leaders approached the gates of the White House to ask if President Roosevelt could “accord a few minutes of his most precious time.” They wanted to present him with a petition calling for creation of “a special agency to rescue the remainder of the Jewish nation in Europe.”

A White House staffer informed the rabbis that the president was unavailable “because of the pressure of other business.” Actually, FDR’s schedule was clear that afternoon. But a presidential meeting would have conferred legitimacy on the protesters’ pleas for U.S. rescue action. And Roosevelt’s policy was that there was nothing that could be done to help the Jews except to win the war. So, in order to avoid seeing the marchers, the president quietly left the White House through a rear exit.

The publicity from the march helped galvanize a congressional resolution urging creation of a rescue agency. A Roosevelt administration official gave widely misleading testimony at the hearings on the resolution. The embarrassing publicity that followed, combined with behind-the-scenes pressure from Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and his aides, convinced President Roosevelt to establish the War Refugee Board.

Although handicapped by the small size of its staff and the measly level of funding it received from the Roosevelt administration (private Jewish groups supplied 90% of its budget), the War Refugee Board accomplished near-miracles in its brief existence. It provided funds to hide Jewish refugees, bribe Nazi officials, and move tens of thousands of Jews out of the way of the retreating German armies. It also recruited Raoul Wallenberg to go to Nazi-occupied Budapest, and financed his rescue missions there. Historians calculate that the Board played a crucial role in saving the lives of some 200,000 Jews in Europe during the final 15 months of the war.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and the author of “The Jews Should Keep Quiet: President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the Holocaust,” forthcoming from The Jewish Publication Society in 2019.

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