Arthur Hertzberg: A Rabbi Who Marched for Justice

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, who passed away on April 17, will be remembered both as a prominent Jewish leader and as a civil rights activist who took part in the famous 1963 March on Washington with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But twenty years earlier, Rabbi Hertzberg took part in another extraordinary march in Washington–to urge President Franklin Roosevelt to rescue Jews from the Holocaust.

Hertzberg recently wrote about that experience, in the introduction to an online exhibit about the march, sponsored by The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. There he described how, at age 22, he accompanied his father, Rabbi Zvi Elimelech Hertzberg of Baltimore, to the march.

Organized by the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe (the Bergson group) and the Union of Orthodox Rabbis, more than four hundred rabbis marched from Washington, D.C.’s Union Station to the Capitol on October 6, 1943, just three days before Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Hertzberg recalled:

“I saw their tears and heard their sobs … I cried among them and I could not stop–not that day and nor for many days to come.

“This was a different kind of rabbinic gathering. These rabbis were not clean-shaven or well-dressed. They were avowedly East European. They represented not ‘American types’ from the posh synagogues. On the contrary, they might just as well have been the rabbis whom Hitler was then putting in death-camps along with their congregants. They were standing at the gate of the White House begging the president to see them and to do something for the Jews who were being slaughtered by the tens of thousands.

“I could not get up to the fence of the White House so I had to look on from the park across the road. Eventually someone came out of the White House. He took a letter from the rabbis to the president, but the president himself never greeted them. We were soon told that several of his Jewish advisers had told FDR that these immigrant rabbis were not the official leaders of the Jewish community …

“All of us who had been there that day left feeling very bitter; America was our last great hope. If the president of the United States could not take the lead in this effort, or more precisely, if he chose not to be identified with the kind of activist effort that the rabbis were requesting, where could we now go? … The rabbis were right to go that day in 1943 to the gate of the White House. They were right. Those who advised Franklin D. Roosevelt not to see them continue to bear their shame.”

The experience haunted Hertzberg. In 1971, he was invited to a state dinner at the White House for the first time. “Walking up the stairs toward the dining room, I found myself speaking in Yiddish to [presidential aide] Leonard Garment,” he recalled. “My wife turned around with a look of surprise. I told her later that, as we were ascending the stairs to the formal dining room, I suddenly remembered the scene thirty years earlier, when [the rabbis] had not been admitted to the White House. [The dinner invitation in 1971] did not really help the grief that I remembered. In 1943, when it mattered, a Yiddish-speaking Jew was not acceptable in the White House.”

What the marchers did not realize was that their activism did have an impact. The march publicized, and speeded up, the introduction of a Congressional resolution that the Bergson group had initiated, calling for creation of a U.S. government agency to rescue refugees. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously adopted the resolution, and hearings in the House of Representatives shed embarrassing light on the administration’s refugee policy.

Meanwhile, senior aides to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. had uncovered evidence that the State Department had been obstructing attempts to rescue refugees and suppressing information about Nazi atrocities against Jews. Confronted by this pressure from Congress and Morgenthau, Roosevelt agreed to establish the War Refugee Board in early 1944. Although given very little federal funding, the Board played a crucial role in saving more than 200,000 Jews in Europe. (Among other things, the Board helped finance the work of rescue hero Raoul Wallenberg. Arthur Hertzberg and his fellow-marchers could feel justifiably proud of the role they played in the process that led to the creation of the Board.

Rabbi Hertzberg will be remembered as an activist who spoke out for the oppressed, whether he was marching for the rescue of Jews from the Holocaust in 1943, or for the civil rights of African-Americans in 1963. In the face of injustice, he refused to be silent.

April 2006