Part 4) of The Day the Rabbis Marched
Rabbi Zevulun Charlop:
What I remember about the Rabbis’ March to Washington–and I think quite vividly–was that my father, Rabbi Jechiel Michel Charlop, was one of two rabbis who read the petition on the steps of the Capitol, articulating the reason for the rabbis’ march, and presented a petition to then Vice President Henry Wallace.
I also recall that he was particularly instrumental in organizing this march, as he was probably the most prominent link between the Agudas HaRabbanim (Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada) and Peter Bergson, who was the moving spirit of this march.
From 1925 through 1972, when it closed, my father was rabbi of the Bronx Jewish Center, which, in its heyday, was probably the most attended synagogue in the Bronx, and its Talmud Torah had over 800 students (boys and girls).
(Rabbi Zevulun Charlop is Dean of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, the rabbinical seminary of Yeshiva University.)
I never had the privilege of meeting my grandfather, Rabbi Naftali Carlebach ztl. My father, the great Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, of blessed memory, spoke of him all the time, so I still always felt that I knew him. My grandfather was the kindest, most regal man, who always made everyone he met feel so important. He miraculously escaped from Europe with his wife and three children and, somehow, even in the aftermath of such pain and loss, always retained his incredible love for Hashem and all of humanity. He taught his children to be Jews who would always fight to be Jewish, but who would continue to love all people open heartedly, and to work to bring healing and holiness to this broken world. I know that my father’s unbelievable work was absolutely inspired by this great message, as my work is today.
I just recently learned that my grandfather had been a part of the Rabbis’ March. He had been in America for only four years. I know in my heart, he must have been so proud to be there on this important mission. I hope he knows that his efforts not only changed the lives of his children and all those who knew him, but the life of the granddaughter he would never meet…
When I had my Bat Mitzvah, my father gave me a blessing I would never forget. He said, “I bless you, that no matter where you walk, that you always feel so proud of who you are. Do you know how many thousands of Yidden died so that you and I could be? I bless you to carry this with you, around your heart and your soul, not like a burden, G-d forbid, but like a diamond, that is so precious, that you’re always so careful not to lose..” I carry my father’s words, around my heart and my soul, so proud of all he was, so proud of where he came from. I pray every day that I can somehow continue to heal the world as my father and grandfather did.
(Neshama Carlebach is a singer and songwriter, following in the tradition of soul singing and storytelling established by her late father, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. She performs frequently throughout the United States, Europe, and Israel, singing both her father’s Hebrew classics as well as her own original compositions.)
My grandfather, Baruch Rabinowitz, the Bergson group’s chief representative in Washington, always loved displays of Jewish strength, particularly when it involved speaking truth to power. His entire life was devoted to such efforts, and the “March of the Rabbis” was among his most interesting achievements.
The seed of the march actually may have germinated during a meeting my grandfather and Peter Bergson had with Vice President Henry Wallace in the spring of 1943. President Roosevelt kept Wallace at arm’s length and eventually replaced him with Harry Truman. But in 1943, Wallace – recently made aware of the mass murder of Europe’s Jews – was willing to help the Emergency Committee.
Before entering Wallace’s Capitol Hill office, my grandfather and Peter spoke with Wallace’s assistant Harold Young, who made a remarkable suggestion: their organization – the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe – should bring 500,000 people to the White House gates and refuse to leave until the administration agreed to take action to help the Jews. A stunned Bergson wondered aloud whether that many people could take up so much space on the trains from New York, given restrictions on travel during the war. “That’s the trouble with you Jews,” Young said. “You always want to appear as gentlemen.”
“I was shocked,” my grandfather told me a few years ago. “This [suggested course of action] would have been very embarrassing to the administration. I was hurt, because I knew we couldn’t do it. Jews couldn’t believe what was happening [in Europe].” But there was a group who did believe it: rabbis, particularly Orthodox rabbis, who my grandfather knew well. His own father had been the “Brownsviller Rebbe” and a direct descendant of the founder of the Chasidic movement, Israel Baal Shem Tov.
Young invited the two men into Wallace’s office. There, the vice president was sitting at his desk, speaking on the telephone in Spanish. When Wallace put down the receiver, Young introduced them. Wallace walked around his big wooden desk and shook their hands. Wallace, it turned out, was familiar with the writings of the Baal Shem Tov.
Wallace shook his head in respect. “What a great saint, great saint,” the vice president said. (I would not be surprised if, in the course of this conversation, mention was also made of Bergson’s own illustrious rabbinical family–his uncle had been the first chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine.) Bergson made the pitch, arguing that because a committee to save even the art treasures of Europe had been established by the White House, a similar committee should be established to save the Jews of Europe. Though sympathetic to their cause, Wallace gave no commitment.
But through his assistant, Wallace had planted the idea with my grandfather and Peter Bergson for a political rally. Later that year, it became the March of the Rabbis.
Rabbi Benjamin Blech:
Through the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, I now discover that my father, Rabbi Benzion Blech, took part in the historic march of the Rabbis on Washington. How remarkable, in retrospect, that he never spoke to me of it. But perhaps not strange at all. Although in 1943, my father had been in tne States less than two years and hardly spoke English, for him to participate on behalf of our people was not something to boast of or even to consider as worthy of comment–in his eyes, living up to our responsibilities to Klal Yisrael was as basic as breathing. In one sense, Iwas neverr aware of this part of my father’s life. Yet surely it must have been the reason why I later became what so many have called “an activist Rabbi” – a term that for me is simply redundant; to be a Rabbi by definition makes one an activist. I can’t tell you how much it meant to me to learn that I have inherited so much from the man I most admire.
Rabbi A. Morduchowitz, Ph.D.:
The Rabbis March on Washington did not impact upon my consciousness as I was very young at that time. My father, Rabbi Shimon Morduchowitz, spoke about it to me much later, after my grandfather died. My grandfather, who also took part in the march, was Rabbi Simcha Eliyahu Chipkewitz who had a pulpit in the East Bronx. He insisted on attending the march even though he was quite sick at the time. Both my father and grandfather knew about the “Final Solution” and felt that they had to try to do anything in their power to help save Jewish lives. My father was very active in the Vaad Hatzalah and was away on numerous occasions to work for that worthy organization. I believe that I was told that the march was organized by the Agudas Harabbonim (Union of Orthodox Rabbis) very quickly. All those rabbis that participated felt that they had to show solidarity and make the effort to try and influence President Roosevelt to do something to help save Jewish lives. All the participants went on this trip at their own expense with a sense of urgency.
Michla Pomerance (Slonim):
My father, Rabbi Jacob Meir Pomerance, was a disciple of the Chafetz Chaim. He studied in the Yeshiva of Radin, and for five years after his marriage, also in the Kollel Kodshim there. When the war broke out, he was serving as the Rabbi of the town of Brok in Poland. The town is in what is called “Congress Poland”, and lies along the Bug river. As I later learned, it shared a train station (Malkin) with Treblinka. Before the war, one of its “industries” was supplying Matzos to Warsaw. It was also a resort town, due to its forests and clean air. My sister, Dr. Vera Zimbalist (a clinical psychologist), and I, the youngest in the family, were both born in Brok, and today reside in Israel (in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, respectively). Our two older siblings, Rabbi Aaron B. Pomerantz (of Brooklyn) and Professor Ruth Adler (of Manhattan, who teaches Hebrew Language and Literature at Bernard Baruch College) were born, respectively, in Grajewo and Kulish. (The latter was the site of my father’s first rabbinical position.)
Brok was invaded by the Nazis in September 1939, one week after the outbreak of war. The town was heavily bombarded; and a mortar shell landed in our house, in which, at the time, our family, along with many of the townspeople, were huddled. Miraculously, the mortar shell fell into a pail of water and did not explode. We were rounded up in the churchyard, our houses were set on fire; and then we were driven from the town. Immediately, many of the Jews (especially the men) were murdered in cold blood, and my father was very nearly one of them. At the last second, the Nazi soldier, who held a rifle to my father’s chest, did not pull the trigger. At that early stage in the war, it seems, children were not yet being shot directly; and because of the thick smoke created by the burning of the town, our family was split up, and my sister Vera (not yet four years old at the time) was left with my father. Since there was no one around to whom to hand my sister, the Nazi soldier decided not to shoot my father, but only to kick him and let him continue to flee the town. A few days later, our family was reunited in a Polish town which, in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, was
then under Soviet control. Eventually, we made our way to Bialystok (where my aunt and her family resided, and which was in Russian hands); and shortly thereafter, my parents decided to leave Bialystok and go on to Vilna – which was then still under an independent Lithuanian government. The city was, at the time, flooded with Jewish refugees, all seeking some escape route to safety.
We were among the few lucky ones to find such a route. After a stay of about a year, we received “non-quota immigration visas” to the United States (a long and miraculous story on its own), and were able to get transit visas through the Soviet Union, and Japan (Sugihara visas). We landed in Seattle in October 1940, and made our way to New York. My father served as a Rabbi in Brooklyn until the end of 1962. (For a period, he also taught in the Chafetz Chaim Yeshiva of Manhattan, which was set up by the son-in-law of the Chafetz Chaim, Rabbi Mendel Zaks.) At the end of 1962, my parents settled in Jerusalem, where my father passed away in 1974. (My mother passed away in 1982.)
My father’s report on the destruction of Brok, detailing Nazi cruelty to the Jews, appeared, in the Yiddish press very early on. It was published in the “Morgen Journal” on November 30, 1939, on page 3, and was entitled “Der `Eichah’ Oif dem Churban foon A yiddishe shtetel in Poilen” [A “Lamentation” on the destruction of a Jewish town in Poland].
It later appeared in abbreviated form, in English translation, in Contemporary Jewish Record, January-February 1940, pp. 18-20, under the title: “Poland Under the Nazi Heel: Eyewitness Stories of the Invasion. I. Rabbi Jacob Pomerantz of Brok”.
From the time of our arrival in the U.S., I know that my father tried desperately to do whatever he could toward rescue and arousing Jews to be aware of the dire need for them not to be silent. He did not speak much about these efforts. It was too painful. I found among his papers a notice of a trip which he made in May 1941 to Detroit, together with Rav Aharon Kotler, and Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak Lewin (Nat’s father) to report to Jews there about the plight of the Jews in Europe.
About the march of the Rabbis I heard some references from time to time, and there was always a bitter tone to them. My father could not get over the fact that President Roosevelt had refused to even meet with the Rabbis, so many of whom were in frail health, and some of whom, like my father, had witnessed Nazi horrors first-hand. He could not forgive the President for exhibiting such callousness when the fate of millions hung in the balance. I always thought he said that Roosevelt had found time to meet with a delegation of priests that day. But he may have been misinformed about that; or perhaps I misunderstood him, and he said that he did not doubt that Roosevelt would not have treated a delegation of priests in the same manner. In any event, when Roosevelt died, my father could not bring himself to mourn his death in the same way that so many other Jews did. He always felt that Roosevelt was imbued with no small measure of anti-semitism.
The last 11 years of my father’s life, which he spent in Jerusalem, were his happiest. But the memories of the Nazi horrors never really left him. Often, he would have nightmares in which the Nazis were still in pursuit. I am sure that the failure of efforts to galvanize more support for rescue was part of the nightmares as well.
(Michla Pomerance (Slonim) is Von Hofmannsthal Professor of International Law
in the Department of International Relations of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.)
My father, Rabbi David Talansky, of blessed memory, was a man deeply concerned about Klal Yisrael. He never spoke about the march in Washington, however, he had two sons who were of military age at the beginning of World War II. His oldest son, Abraham, of blessed memory, enlisted in the US Army in the early part of 1942, while his second son, Kalman, entered military service in June of 1943. Even though my father already had five children, he went to the draft board and attempted to enlist. He was strongly moved by the horrors being perpetrated on the Jews in Europe and felt that it was the obligation of all Jews of military age to fight the Nazi war machine.
(His concern was evident to me when, in 1947, the vote to establish the State of Israel was taking place, he became so distressed over the fate of the Jews that he fainted and fell on the floor.)
When World War II was over, our home was open to survivors who came to live with us and stayed with as long as 2-3 years until they could establish themselves. My mother cared for them as if each was her own child. Of course, my parents would not accept any remuneration. Our guests ate and slept as if they were real family members. Thankfully, many of them went to become successful and today they have their own children and grandchildren, thank G-d.
What distinguished my father from the rest of the Jewish community was his anti-Roosevelt stance. In 1940, my father, who spoke a perfect English, campaigned for Wendell Wilkie who was a candidate for the presidency of the United States against Roosevelt. My father always felt that Roosevelt was deeply anti-Semitic. Even though Roosevelt was responsible for the economic recovery after the Depression from which the Jews benefited, my father believed that the president had a deep antipathy for Jews. My father was very unpopular due to his views on Roosevelt. Nevertheless, he urged the Jewish community in Brooklyn to vote for Wilkie.
Time unfortunately proved that my father was 100% right about Roosevelt. He did very little to inaugurate policy that would save hundreds of thousands of European Jews caught in the Nazi war machine. He refused to bombs the rails to Auschwitz.
My father’s love for Israel was evidenced by two acts: 1) His first visit to Israel was in 1949, which was extremely difficult to do at the time; 2) in 1962 my parents made aliyah. Today, over 100 of their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren live in Israel. The period of the ‘40s and ‘50s were periods of descent and ascent and I thankl the Almighty that my father helped form my own commitment to the Jewish people and, of course, to Judaism.
I remember well how my father, Rabbi Leopold Greenwald, went to Washington, D.C. just before Yom Kippur with a number of other Orthodox rabbis, in a desperate effort to lobby President Roosevelt to do something to save the remaining Jews of Eastern Europe.
My father was, as most American Jews at that time, of the firm conviction that FDR was the great savior of the Jewish people. Roosevelt’s refusal to meet with the rabbis truly shocked my father.
On the other hand, the delegation of rabbis was greatly impressed with Vice President Henry A. Wallace, who greeted them at the Capitol. My father returned to Columbus, Ohio, very disillusioned, first over the refusal of FDR to meet with the rabbis and second, over the general apathy of most government officials, other than Vice President Wallace, whom the rabbis saw as a champion of the Jewish cause.
(Jack Greenwald is an attorney in Denver.)
My father, Rabbi Israel Snow, was one of the rabbis who participated in the 1943 Rabbis March on Washington.
My father was born in 1913 in Brooklyn, New York. He attended Yeshiva Torah Vodaath for elementary school. Then he learned in Mesivta Torah Vodaath, concurrent with going to Eastern District High School in the evening. At the same time, he sold candy, gum, and newspapers in the subways of New York to help support his family. He diverted part of this money to buy boat passage to the British mandate of Palestine in order to study at the Hevron Yeshiva. He learned in Hevron from 1928 to 1932, and was there during the pogrom of 1929. Then he went to the Mirrer Yeshiva in Poland for the years 1932-1936. During 1935-6, he traveled to other European cities to obtain semicha from various Roshei Yeshiva and Rabbanim. On one of his trips a judenreinigen was taking place, but he was allowed to continue his ride because of his American passport.
In 1936, he returned to the USA [and] in early 1937, he was hired as a rosh yeshiva in Mesivta Rabbi Chaim Berlin. He married my mother, the former Esther Miriam Goldberg, later that year. He taught in Chaim Berlin until 1955, when ill health caused him to leave. During some of the time he was in Chaim Berlin, he was also Rabbi of the Young Israel of Brownsville.
In reference to the March on Washington, I recall years later my father telling me that they were met by Vice President Henry Wallace. The significance my father attached to this was that FDR refused to meet with them. My father attributed this to FDR’s callous indifference to Jewish life and to FDR’s Jewish advisers, such as Stephen Wise, who told FDR that these rabbis were from the Middle Ages.
FDR’s refusal did not augur well as to what the American Government was going to do for the Jews in peril. Furthermore, when my father and others collected money for the Vaad Hatzala, they were met with skepticism asserting that this cannot be because FDR would not allow this mass slaughter to take place without at least saying something.
The Day the Rabbis Marched
Part 1) Introduction
Part 2) History and Impact of the March
Part 3) Documents
Part 4) Testimonials from relatives of those who marched
Continue to Did your father / relative march? »