The Day the Rebbe Marched

by Rafael Medoff

Hasidic rebbes are not typically found among protesters marching to the White House. So it came as a surprise when I recently received a message from a follower of the Bostoner Rebbe, Levi Horowitz, informing me that the rebbe was one of the four hundred-plus rabbis who traveled to Washington just before Yom Kippur in 1943, to plead with President Roosevelt to rescue Jews from Hitler. The information was all the more surprising because the rebbe’s name does not appear on the one extant list of participants in the march.

Last October, on the 62nd anniversary of the march, the newspaper Hamodia published an article about the event, and mentioned that my organization, The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies has been researching the march and seeking to contact the families of the rabbis who took part. Dozens of families subsequently contacted us after spotting their fathers’ or grandfathers’ names on the list.

The problem, however, is that the list is incomplete. It had been prepared by the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, better known as the Bergson group, a maverick lobbying organization that sought to bring about U.S. intervention on behalf of Jews trapped in Hitler Europe. The Bergson group initiated the march, and the Agudas Harabbonim and its rescue division, the Vaad ha-Hatzala, mobilized the participants.

The list was drawn up some days prior to the march, and included only those whose names were known at that point–about 250 rabbis. In the final days before the event, many more rabbis learned of the march and decided to take part; in addition, there were rabbis who joined the march but did not formally notify the Emergency Committee of their involvement. We know from a variety of documents that at least 400, and possibly as many as 500, rabbis participated.

Now we know that the Levi Horowitz, later to become the Bostoner Rebbe, was one of those unidentified additional marchers. In a series of telephone interviews with the Rebbe earlier this year, I had the opportunity to hear his vivid recollection of the event, learn previously unknown information about it, and identify him in one of the few existing photographs of the marchers.

Today he is an internationally recognized rabbinic sage and the spiritual leader of Jewish communities in the suburbs of Boston and Jerusalem, but in the autumn of 1943, Levi Horowitz was a recently-married rabbinical student at Mesivta Torah VoDaas, in Brooklyn, just getting ready to step out into the world. Certainly he knew full well that it was a world of crisis and tragedy for the Jewish people. News of the mass slaughter of European Jewry filled the New York Yiddish press that he read daily. The Vaad ha-Hatzala was active in the community, and in fact had recently conducted a campaign to which Rabbi Horowitz contributed $300 –nearly one third of the dowry his mother-in-law had given the young couple– which was the amount the Vaad estimated was required to save one Jew from Hitler.

When news of the planned march in Washington reached him, Rabbi Horowitz immediately decided to attend, although he never formally registered with the rally’s organizers; hence his name does not appear on the aforementioned list. But he is clearly visible in one of the photographs of the march (see elsewhere on this page).

The rabbis who traveled to Washington that day included some of the most prominent rabbinical sages in the American Jewish community, such as Eliezer Silver and Israel Rosenberg, co-presidents of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis; Solomon Friedman, president of the Union of Grand Rabbis; and Bernard Dov Leventhal, known both as the chief rabbi of Philadelphia and one of the leaders of the Orthodox rabbinate nationwide. There were also some younger rabbis who would soon become quite prominent, such as Moshe Feinstein, who would later come to be regarded as the leading authority in America on matters of Jewish religious law.

The fact that so many rabbis made the long trip to the nation’s capitol just a few days before Yom Kippur made the event all the more unusual, the Bostoner Rebbe noted in our conversations. “Going to Washington that week certainly made it more difficult for everyone, but we all understood how important it was to do something in that situation, so nobody was deterred by the fact that it was just a few days before Yom Kippur,” he recalled.

The rabbis marched solemnly from Union Station to the cluster of buildings known as the Capitol. They were met on the steps of the Capitol by Vice President Henry Wallace, who, Time magazine reported, “squirmed through a diplomatically minimum answer” to their plea. Wallace’s vague statement expressed “grief” at the plight of the Jews but made no reference to the possibility of rescuing any of them.

Two of the leaders of the march read aloud the group’s petition to the president, in Hebrew and English: “Children, infants, and elderly men and women, are crying to us, ‘Help!’,” they read. “Millions have already fallen dead, sentenced to fire and sword, and tens of thousands have died of starvation … And we, how can we stand up to pray 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 ask 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 in Hitler Europe, and then sang the national anthem. 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 disappointment, 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.

The real reason FDR declined to meet the rabbis was that he had been urged to avoid them by two of his closest Jewish advisers–his speechwriter Samuel Rosenman (a prominent member of the American Jewish Committee) and Dr. Stephen Wise (president of the American Jewish Congress). Rosenman and Wise feared the march might provoke antisemitism, and made it clear to the president that they were embarrassed by the protesters. Roosevelt decided to leave the White House through a rear exit.

“Today, for ordinary citizens to meet with the president is not as extraordinary as it was in those days,” the rebbe noted in his conversations with me. “Still, given the situation, we thought President Roosevelt would meet with us, even if just for a few minutes. I was very surprised and disappointed that he was not willing to meet with us. Years later, when we began to realize the extent of the Holocaust, I felt even more disappointed at the president’s response–or I should say lack of response–to us.”

I asked the Rebbe how he viewed the significance of the march, in retrospect. He replied by citing a passage from the Sefer HaChinuch about the purpose behind performing mitzvahs. “He explains that the mitzvahs are required, and are fulfilled, in order –as he puts it– ‘to have an effect on the person who does them.’ To have an effect requires action, it requires us to physically do things–to be active, not to be passive.” An action like participating in the 1943 march “is important especially if it is done for a special purpose and a special reason, not just for getting your name in print or having your organization mentioned. If it’s done l’ishma, then the idea of the mitzvah affecting you is fulfilled. That’s how it affected us as individuals. It affected the Jewish community as a whole in a different way–it made people realize that there is an obligation to take action to save the life of a fellow-Jew.”

The impact of the march was felt not only by its participants and the American Jewish community at large, but in the political struggle over America’s refugee policy.

The march –and FDR’s snub– brought important new public attention to the plight of Europe’s Jews, and speeded up the introduction of a Congressional resolution that the Bergson group had initiated, calling for the creation of a federal government agency to rescue refugees. The Roosevelt administration opposed the resolution, fearing the rescue campaign would increase pressure to let refugees come to the U.S. But its effort to block the resolution foundered when the State Department’s top immigration authority, Breckinridge Long, gave wildly misleading testimony at the hearings on the rescue resolution. The embarrassing publicity from the hearings, combined with behind-the-scenes pressure from Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and his aides, convinced President Roosevelt to establish the agency the resolution had demanded–the War Refugee Board.

During the final eighteen months of World War II, the Board played a crucial role in saving the lives of more than 200,000 Jews in Europe. Among other things, the Board helped finance the work of rescue hero Raoul Wallenberg.

Of course the marchers had no way of foreseeing any of this. “We had no idea what the march might accomplish, and we certainly did not yet appreciate the full extent of what was happening in Europe, but we simply felt it was very important that we protest,” Rabbi Horowitz noted.

Sadly, however, the march was also the occasion for yet another airing of intra-Jewish conflicts. Dr. Wise not only urged the president to stay away from the rally, but also publicly criticized it. In an editorial in his journal, Opinion, Wise denounced the rally as “a painful and even lamentable exhibition,” organized by “stuntists” who had no regard for the “dignity” of American Jewry.

Perhaps Wise’s anger helps illustrate another of the Bostoner Rebbe’s remarks:

On the train ride down to Washington, Rabbi Horowitz found himself sitting next to another marcher, Dr. Hirsh Leib Gordon, a psychiatrist and columnist for the Yiddish press. A d’var Torah which Gordon told him still remained fresh in the Rebbe’s memory, more than six decades later. How is it possible, he asked, that the Gemara could go so far as to compare an angry person to an idol worshipper?

A man who stumbles over a chair in a darkened room might well become so upset that he angrily hurls the chair across the room, Dr. Gordon said. Logically, such a response makes no sense, since the chair is not at fault. But the man’s emotions are so consuming that he treats the chair as if it had the power to cause him to stumble. And to ascribe such power to a chair, even unconsciously, is like idol worship.

Dr. Gordon was not connecting his d’var Torah to the march or other events of those days, but in retrospect perhaps it is possible to see such a connection. Wise and other mainstream Jewish leaders often accused Bergson of “unhealthy emotionalism.” They charged that his newspaper advertisements and rallies were so vociferous as to be irresponsible and even dangerous. These Jewish leaders saw themselves as representing a cautious, calm style that would make the proper impression on America’s leaders and public.

Yet the events of 1943-44 demonstrated otherwise. The Bergson activists’ unorthodox tactics were precisely what was needed to bring the rescue issue wide public attention. Mobilizing broad public support for rescue was the critical prerequisite to changing U.S. government policy. The Roosevelt administration initially insisted that nothing could be done to help the refugees–but ultimately changed its position when pressure from the public, media, and Congress reached the boiling point in early 1944. Thus while the Bergson group, and its rabbinical allies, were not as experienced in the realm of diplomacy as the established Jewish leadership, their instinctive response was in fact the more effective political strategy for that situation, while the mainstream Jewish leaders’ calm approach had proven wholly ineffective.
The irony, then, is that it was the Jewish leaders themselves who soon came to resemble that angry man in Gordon’s parable. In the spring of 1944, they repeatedly tried to convince U.S. officials to deport or draft Bergson. So consumed were they with anger and resentment over Bergson usurping the Jewish establishment’s position that World Jewish Congress co-chair Nahum Goldmann went so far as to tell State Department officials that his co-chair, Dr. Wise, “regarded Bergson as equally as great an enemy of the Jews as Hitler, for the reason that his activities could only lead to increased anti-Semitism.”

* * *

After completing his studies at Torah VoDaas, Rabbi Horowitz moved to Boston, and later succeeded his father as the leader of the Bostoner hasidim. Like the other participants in the 1943 march, he never wrote or spoke about the event, except on rare occasion in private conversation. But its impact lingered. When the 1967 Arab-Israeli war broke out, his response was to begin organizing buses to bring Jews from Boston to Washington for a rally to urge U.S. support for Israel. “Thinking back now, I am sure that my experience in 1943 played a major role in the way I reacted in 1967,” he noted. “That was the lesson I took from 1943.” As the buses began the long journey to Washington, “the mood was desperate–almost hopeless–we thought Israel could be losing the war.” When they reached the nation’s capitol, the protesters marched through the streets of Washington to the rally site, at the Lincoln Memorial. “But when we arrived, the crowd that had already gathered there told us the news that the Arabs had surrendered, and Israel had won the war. Spontaneously, a huge dance erupted. We all joined hands, hundreds and hundreds of people, Jews of every kind, celebrating. It was a beautiful Kiddush HaShem.”

(Published in Hamodia – March 1, 2006)

March 2006