On Wednesday evening, May 13, Dr. Rafael Medoff, Founding Director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington, D.C., completed a three-part webinar lecture series on America’s Response to the Holocaust: New Research; New Controversies. The final lecture, sponsored by Mrs. Helen Weg in honor of the yahrtzeit of her mother and titled The Day the Rabbis Marched, was exceptionally well-received.
Below is a sampling from the many positive reactions we received.
“Thank you for organizing these informative webinars and lectures. I just hope that young people … not just survivors and children of survivors … are accessing and taking advantage of these opportunities to learn more about various aspects of the Shoah, including America’s response (or lack of).
The MC for the program was Mrs. Blimie Twerski, Project Witness Conference Coordinator. In her opening remarks, Mrs. Twerski spoke about the expanded availability (without charge) of Project Witness documentaries, webinars, lectures, seminars and educational materials during the COVID-19 period. Access to these materials is available on the website, Projectwitness.org.
Dr. Medoff opened his fascinating lecture by addressing the issues of how much American Jewry knew about the Holocaust: When did they know it, and once they did, could they have swayed governmental and public opinion? Interestingly, the only Jewish protest rally in Washington during World War II was the march of between 400 and 500 Rabbis that took place three days before Yom Kippur 1943. Nowadays, rallies are not unusual events, but in those days such a rally was unique. Jews were still not totally comfortable in America, and the idea of coming out against President Roosevelt’s lack of action was inconceivable. Yet this courageous band of Rabbis did just that.
The march was a direct challenge to the Roosevelt Administration, although it was conducted respectfully. However, to many Jews it appeared to be unpatriotic. The idea of criticizing President Roosevelt’s policies was horrifying to many, even though by the fall of 1943, it was clear that European Jewry was in dire straits and that something had to be done. In addition, it was also becoming quite clear that the Roosevelt administration was not willing to become involved. In response to multiple requests, the government consistently responded that the only way help could be attained was through Rescue by Victory, meaning that only through an Allied victory could the Jews of Europe be helped.
Stephen Wise, a Reform clergyman who had a friendly relationship with President Roosevelt and who was the leader of major Jewish organizations at that time, was not willing to challenge the President’s negative attitude regarding helping the Jews of Europe. Wise was such an ardent supporter of President Roosevelt that he was not prepared to contest the administration’s abandonment of the Jews. Since Wise was not willing to rock the boat, dissident activist groups stepped in, in particular the Bergson Group, led by Hillel Kook of Palestine, who arrived in the U.S. in 1940 and changed his name to Peter Bergson to avoid embarrassing his family in Palestine. The Bergson Group actively pursued American action to save the Jews of Europe by inserting full-page advertisements in newspapers, lobbying in Washington and organizing public rallies. Wise was very strongly opposed to what he considered to be the challenging and harassing of the President by this group, so Bergson turned to the Vaad Hatzalah, an organization founded by the Agudas Harabonim and connected to Agudas Yisroel to help Jews of Europe escape Nazi rule.
Bergson understood that hundreds of long white-bearded rabbis with black hats marching to the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, and the White House would accomplish his goal of attracting attention to the cause. Three days before Yom Kippur 1943, mobilized by Agudas Harabonim, 400 to 500 Rabbis traveled to Washington to carry out the only public demonstration by Jewish leaders held in the American capital during the war. It should be noted that traveling in those days was very different from today. There was no Amtrak, and the journey was not an easy one. It was deliberately scheduled at that time of year for maximum effect, even though it was the busiest time of year for the Rabbis, many of whom came from further afield than New York. Sadly, some of our own brethren strongly discouraged Roosevelt from meeting with the Rabbis. They viewed the Rabbis as a horde trying to storm the Capitol and advised the President accordingly. While it is not known whether Wise actually advised Roosevelt not to meet with the Rabbis, it is known that he strongly opposed the march, as did Judge Samuel Rosenman, the President’s speechwriter.
The Rabbis were received at the steps of the Capitol by the Senate majority and minority leaders and the Speaker of the House. After prayers for the war effort at the Lincoln Memorial, the Rabbis went to the White House to plead with President Roosevelt and were told that the President was busy all day and Vice President Henry Wallace met them instead. It was later learned that Roosevelt was advised not to meet the Rabbis. In fact, he had three free hours during which he could have met with them. Indicative of his determination not to meet with the Rabbis is the fact that he left the White House through the back entrance to avoid having to meet with them because he was afraid that by so doing he would give legitimacy to their cause.
The march attracted much media attention. Its reception, seen by the press as a cold and insulting dismissal, garnered headlines and public attention, not all of it positive. Wise, in an editorial in the magazine that he headed, titled his article “Propaganda by Stunts,” and called the march “lamentable and painful.” In an interesting aside, Dr. Medoff described an interview he conducted with the Bostoner Rebbe, zy”a, who attended the march as a young man. He and other march participants felt that they had failed, but in later years it became apparent that one of the things the Rabbis requested — an intergovernmental agency — was indeed achieved, leading possibly to positive results.
The Rabbis’ petition that was read at the Capitol contained an important request: to create an intergovernmental agency that would oversee the rescue of the Jews remaining alive in Europe. Although at the time the march was deemed unsuccessful due to the fact that the President refused to meet with the Rabbis, this request eventually came to fruition when Secretary of the Treasury Henry S. Morgenthau Jr. (prodded by 10 activist Christian lawyers who worked in the Treasury Department) convinced a reluctant Roosevelt to create the War Refugee Board 15 months before the end of the war.
Since an election year was upcoming, Morgenthau felt that it was worthwhile to create the War Refugee Board in order to quell the rising storm in Congress about America’s role when it came to saving the Jews of Europe. The War Refugee Board did not receive much funding from the government. Most of its funding came from the Joint, the World Jewish Congress and other Jewish sources, but thankfully, the War Refugee Board played a significant role in saving 200,000 Jewish lives.
The request for the Board’s establishment can indirectly be traced back to the Rabbis’ March, as such a request was in their petition. Even more fascinating is the trail that leads from the march to Raoul Wallenberg and the rescue of thousands of Jews via the newly-established War Refugee Board. Dr. Medoff explained that while we cannot draw a direct line of cause and effect between the Rabbis’ March, the establishment of the War Refugee Board, and the activities of Raoul Wallenberg, there is much that indicates that a connection could be made between them. It is indeed therefore doubly sad that the Rabbis who participated in the march thought that they had failed in their mission.
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Originally published in the Hamodia print edition.