On October 6, 1943, a delegation of some 400 rabbis, most of them Orthodox, poured into Washington, D.C., to make a public appeal to the United States government to do more to rescue European Jews from the Germans. Although the protest, which was unusual for the period and which was controversial within the Jewish community, did not produce any obvious dramatic results, it is believed to have played an important role in pushing the Roosevelt administration to form the War Refugee Board the following year.
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The Rabbis’ March on Washington was the brainchild of Peter Bergson, the nom de guerre of Hillel Kook.
Fearful of 'uppity Jews'
Kook (1915-2001) was a Lithuanian-born Jew who had immigrated to Palestine in 1924. He came to the United States in 1940 to work clandestinely for the Revisionist underground militia Irgun. Once in the U.S., as news began to seep out of Europe about the Nazis’ genocide, he shifted the focus of his activity to Jewish rescue.
As the scion of a distinguished rabbinical family, Kook took on a pseudonym so as to spare his relations embarrassment.
Indeed, Hillel Kook’s willingness to create dramatic provocations to publicize the cause did not have unanimous support in the American Jewish community, particularly among some of its leaders. It is not that they were indifferent: but many were concerned that making noise would draw unfavorable attention upon the Jews.
America was at war, and its president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, argued that the best way to save Jews was to defeat Hitler and Nazism. But anti-Semitism was far more conspicuous at the time, and the American public had almost no tolerance for the idea of admitting Jewish refugees. Furthermore, non-Orthodox Jewish leaders like Reform Rabbi Stephen A. Wise, head of the American Jewish Congress at the time, who had unusual access to the president, were afraid that “uppity” Jews would jeopardize their influence in the halls of power.
So it was that nearly all of the rabbis who emerged from Union Station, in Washington, on October 6, wore the garb of the ultra-Orthodox, and were themselves immigrants from Eastern Europe. As alien as that look may be today to Americans, in 70 years ago, it was many times more so.
Sorry, the president is busy
The recruiting of the protesters had been handled by the Va’ad Hahatzala (Rescue Committee), an Orthodox body that was mainly involved in attempting to bring rabbis and other scholars out of Europe. In this case, however, they involved themselves in a more general effort, in what turned out to be the only such demonstration in Washington, D.C., during the entire period of the Holocaust.
Participants in the rally included Eliezer Silver and Israel Rosenberg, co-presidents of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis, and Moshe Feinstein, who later came to be one of the country’s top rabbinical authorities.
Their first stop after leaving Union Station was the Capitol building nearby. There, a number of key congressmen came out to greet them, including the Senate majority and minority leaders, and the Speaker of the House. From there, they marched to the far end of the Mall, to the Lincoln Memorial, where they offered up prayers for the war effort and the welfare of European Jewry. Finally, they came to the White House.
There, instead of even a handful being brought inside, a presidential aide, Marvin McIntyre, emerged, and told them that the president was all booked up for the day.
In fact, it later was learned that Roosevelt had several free hours that afternoon, but that he had been advised by both Rabbi Wise and Samuel Rosenman, the latter the head of the American Jewish Committee, that the protesting rabbis “were not representative” of American Jewry. Wise also accused them of “offending the dignity of [the Jewish] people.”
In the long run, however, the Rabbis’ March was fruitful. It was one of the factors that led to a Senate resolution requesting of the president that he find a way to have the country save refugees. Three months later, Roosevelt established the War Refugee Board, which is said to have helped find refuge for some 200,000 Jews, most of them in countries other than the United States.