The Day the Rabbis Marched on Washington

Four hundred rabbis marched together to bring to President Roosevelt's attention the atrocities being committed by the Nazis in Europe.

“Clear the way for those rabbis!” It was probably the first time the station master at Washington, D.C.’s Union Station had shouted those words. But then, the crowd before him was unlike any that had ever been seen in the nation’s capital. Four hundred rabbis converged on Washington just before Yom Kippur in 1943, in a stirring display of unity to rescue European Jewry from Nazi extermination.

The march was the brainchild of 33-year-old Hillel Kook, a Jerusalem-born nephew of Abraham Isaac Kook, former chief rabbi of Palestine. Kook arrived in the United States in 1940 brimming with ideas on how to aid the Jews trapped in Hitler’s Europe. His first step was to change his name to Peter Bergson. He then purchased full-page advertisements in major U.S. newspapers calling for the creation of a Jewish army, criticizing British limits on Jewish immigration to Palestine, and pleading for Allied action to rescue Jews from Hitler. It was quintessential American political activism: utilizing the mass media to arouse the public’s interest and thereby influence the Roosevelt administration to act.

One of Bergson’s most spectacular initiatives was the march of the rabbis. Although a member of a prominent rabbinical family, Bergson himself was not observant, nor was most of the activists in his group. They understood, however, the visual impact of hundreds of Orthodox rabbis, with their beards, black frock coats and black hats converging on the U.S. Capitol.

Gaining access to America’s Orthodox rabbinical leadership was no simple task. The elders of the Orthodox community in America were mostly European-born scholars who still retained their European ways. Many spoke little or no English, were generally unfamiliar with the cultural and political ways of the New World, and had limited contact with non-Orthodox segments of the Jewish community. Bergson and his aides Samuel Merlin and Eri Jabotinsky used their fluent Yiddish and a good dose of name-dropping — that is, the names of Bergson’s prestigious relatives — to gain entree to the leadership circles of the Orthodox rabbinate. Their proposal for a march on Washington found a surprisingly wide range of support from disparate and sometimes conflicting groups such as the Union of Grand Rabbis, which was largely Hasidic, and the misnagdim of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis.

On October 6, 1943, two days before Yom Kippur, more than 400 Orthodox rabbis organized by the secular Bergson group and accompanied by marshals from another secular Jewish organization, the Jewish War Veterans of America, marched solemnly from Union Station to the Capitol building to plead for U.S. government action on behalf of the Jews being murdered by Hitler. As passersby gawked and newspapermen snapped photos, the rabbis recited prayers of mourning for the dead, sang the traditional prayer for the nation’s leaders to the tune of the Star-Spangled Banner and read aloud a petition urging the creation of a special governmental agency to rescue Jews from the Holocaust.

The delegation then marched to the gates of the White House. On the advice of his aides, President Roosevelt avoided the rabbis by leaving the White House through a rear exit to attend an Army ceremony, and from there Roosevelt left for a long weekend in the country. Disappointed by FDR’s failure to meet with them, the rabbis refused to read their petition aloud. The perceived snub of the rabbis added a dramatic flair to press coverage of the event, transforming it from an exotic protest rally into a full-fledged clash between the Orthodox community and the administration over America’s policy toward Hitler’s victims.

The march helped set in motion a series of events that would change American policy. Capitalizing on the publicity from the rally, Bergson’s friends in Congress introduced a formal resolution asking the president to create an agency to rescue the Jews. The Senate hearings on the resolution then ignited a new controversy when State Department official Breckinridge Long presented wildly inflated statistics regarding European Jewish immigration to the United States that were demonstrated by contrary testimony to be false. Galvanized by the escalating scandal, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau and his aides drew up a stinging report to the President about the State Department’s stonewalling on rescue possibilities. Within days, FDR announced the establishment of the War Refugee Board, which during the final year of the Holocaust was responsible for rescuing tens of thousands of Jews from Hitler. Among other things, the Board sponsored the heroic rescue efforts of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.

Historians have noted the unfortunate religious and political conflicts within American Jewry that delayed a unified response to news of the Nazi atrocities. To the contrary, the collaboration between non-religious rescue activists and Orthodox rabbis in 1943, at least, offers a graphic example of how cooperation between different segments of the Jewish community helped advance a common, life-saving goal.

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