The Day the Rabbis Marched (75th anniversary)

by Rafael Medoff

In an era that has seen more than 400,000 people take part in a Women’s March on Washington, it may not sound very impressive that 400 rabbis marched in the nation’s capital in 1943. But numbers alone don’t always tell the whole story.

This week marks the 75th anniversary of the rabbis’ march, which took place three days before Yom Kippur. The ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are among the most hectic periods for a pulpit rabbi, who has major sermons to prepare and countless logistics to arrange for the most well-attended services of the year.

So there was no small inconvenience involved for the rabbis who in the autumn of 1943 answered the call of the political action committee known as the Bergson Group and the Orthodox rescue advocates of the Va’ad ha-Hatzala, to come to Washington to plead for the rescue of Europe’s Jews.

And their journey likely was made more than a little jittery by the fact that just one month earlier, a new high-speed train on its way from New York City to Washington, DC had derailed, killing 79 passengers.

Nevertheless, more than four hundred rabbis put down their books, left their communities and congregations, and headed for Washington. Most came from the New York City area, but others traveled from as far away as Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Worcester, Massachusetts.

As the station master shouted, “Clear the way for those rabbis!,” the protesters emerged from Washington, DC’s Union Station and made their way toward the cluster of buildings known as the Capitol.

It was not only their numbers, but also their stature, that was noteworthy. The marchers were led by Rabbis Eliezer Silver and Yisroel Rosenberg, co-presidents of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis. There were notable hasidic rebbes, such as the Boyaner Rebbe, Rabbi Shlomo Friedman, and the Melitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchok Horowitz. And there were a number of younger rabbis who would soon become leaders of their generation, in particular Moshe Feinstein and Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

A columnist for the Yiddish-language newspaper Der Tog (The Day) was impressed by the reaction of passers-by. As the rabbis in their “long silk and gabardines and round plush hats, moved along Pennsylvania Avenue…there [were] absolutely no snickers, no smirks on the faces of the onlookers,” he wrote. “They did not gape or guffaw as almost any crowd in a Central or East European land most decidedly would have. They watched in wonderment and in respect. The traffic stopped, and here and there a burgher removed his hat. I myself saw many a soldier in snap in salute…”

Fear of East European-style antisemitic mockery actually was a large part of the reason that the rabbis’ march was so unusual. It was, in fact, the only march in Washington for the rescue of the Jews during the Holocaust years. Many American Jews, as immigrants or the children of immigrants, were extremely anxious to be seen as fitting in. They worried that noisy Jewish protests might be perceived as unAmerican.

In fact, one Jewish member of Congress, Rep. Sol Bloom (D-New York), reportedly sought to persuade the rabbis to cancel the march on the grounds that “it would be very undignified for a group of such un-American looking people to appear in Washington.” The Jewish communal leader Cyrus Adler once referred to that attitude as “the ghetto crouch”—the phenomenon of Jews walking with their heads bowed so as not draw the attention of non-Jews.

The rabbis were greeted on the steps of the Capitol by Vice President Henry Wallace and members of Congress. After brief remarks, the rabbis proceeded to the Lincoln Memorial to recite prayers and sing the national anthem.

Then they marched to White House. While most of the rabbis waited across the street in Lafayette Park, their leaders approached the gates of the White House to ask if President Roosevelt could “accord a few minutes of his most precious time.” They wanted to present him with a petition calling for creation of “a special agency to rescue the remainder of the Jewish nation in Europe.”

A White House staffer informed the rabbis that the president was unavailable “because of the pressure of other business.” Actually, FDR’s schedule was clear that afternoon. But a presidential meeting would have conferred legitimacy on the protesters’ pleasfor U.S. rescue action. And Roosevelt’s policy was that there was nothing that could be done to help the Jews except to win the war. So, in order to avoid seeing the marchers, the president quietly left the White House through a rear exit.

That move backfired. “Rabbis Report ‘Cold Welcome’ at the White House,” declared a Washington Times-Herald headline the next morning.  A leading Jewish newspaper columnist angrily asked: “Would a similar delegation of 500 Catholic priests have been thus treated?”  The editors of the Jewish daily Forverts (Forward) reported signs of a new mood among some American Jews: “In open comment it is voiced that Roosevelt has betrayed the Jews” —a shocking sentiment in a community that repeatedly cast 90% of its ballots for FDR.

The publicity from the march helped galvanize a congressional resolution urging creation of a rescue agency. A Roosevelt administration official gave widely misleading testimony at the hearings on the resolution. The embarrassing publicity that followed, combined with behind-the-scenes pressure from Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and his aides, convinced President Roosevelt to establish the War Refugee Board.

Although handicapped by the small size of its staff and the measly level of funding it received from the Roosevelt administration (private Jewish groups supplied 90% of its budget), the War Refugee Board accomplished near-miracles in its brief existence. It provided funds to hide Jewish refugees, bribe Nazi officials, and move tens of thousands of Jews out of the way of the retreating German armies. It also recruited Raoul Wallenberg to go to Nazi-occupied Budapest, and financed his rescue missions there. Historians calculate that the Board played a crucial role in saving the lives of some 200,000 Jews in Europe during the final fifteen months of the war.

There is no straight line from the rabbis’ march to Raoul Wallenberg pulling Jews off trains bound for Auschwitz. But the march was an important part of the series of events which eventually led to that outcome. Seventy five years ago this week, the rabbis proved that you don’t always need 400,000 people in the streets of Washington to have an impact—sometimes 400 will do the trick.

(October 2018)