"My father, Rabbi Shimon Morduchowitz, and my grandfather, Rabbi Simcha Eliyahu Chipkewitz both took part in the march. My grandfather 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."
--Rabbi A. Morduchowitz, Ph.D.
(Click here to read the complete text of Rabbi Morduchowitz's testimonial
about the participation of his father and grandfather in the march.)
"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 ... 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."
(Click here to read the complete text of Neshama Carlebach's testimonial
about her grandfather's participation in the march.)
"Like most American Jews at that time, my father was 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."
(Click here to read the complete text of Jack Greenwald's testimonial
about his grandfather's role in the march.)
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The Day the Rabbis Marched
Also present to greet the marchers were a number of prominent Members of Congress, among them the Senate Majority Leader (and later vice president), Alben Barkley of Kentucky; the Senate Minority Leader (and unsuccessful 1940 vice-presidential candidate), Charles McNary of Oregon; and the Speaker of the House, U.S. Representative Sam Rayburn of Texas; and U.S. Senator W. Warren Barbour, Republican of New Jersey, a strong proponent of U.S. action to aid refugees. (Sadly, Barbour would die in office, at age 55, just six weeks after the march.)
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 his speechwriter and adviser Samuel Rosenman (a prominent member of the American Jewish Committee) and Dr. Stephen Wise (president of the American Jewish Congress), who were embarrassed by the protesters and feared the march might provoke antisemitism.
In his diary, presidential aide William D. Hassett noted that Rosenman "said the group behind this petition [is] not representative of the most thoughtful elements in Jewry. Judge Rosenman said he had tried--admittedly without success--to keep the horde from storming Washington. Said the leading Jews of his acquaintance opposed this march on the Capitol." Rosenman reportedly characterized them as "a group of rabbis who just recently left the darkest period of the medieval world." Wise condemned "the orthodox rabbinical parade" as a "painful and even lamentable exhibition." He derided the organizers as "stuntists" and accused them of offending "the dignity of [the Jewish] people." Roosevelt decided to leave the White House through a rear exit.
The problem was not only the advice that prominent Jews gave FDR; it was also that the pleas for rescue clashed with the administration's entire approach to the plight of European Jewry. During the 1930s, Roosevelt had barely said a word about Hitler's persecution of German Jews. He refused to consider taking any diplomatic or economic steps to pressure Germany on the Jewish issue. Not only did he reject appeals to liberalize America's strict immigration quotas, but his administration implemented such cumbersome procedures for immigration visas --procedures described by David Wyman as "Paper Walls" in his book of that name-- that only a small portion of the quotas were used each year.
Even after the news of the Nazi genocide was confirmed in late 1942, Roosevelt refused to alter his policy. He almost never mentioned the Jews when condemning Nazi atrocities. Immigration quotas remained unfilled--sometimes 90% unfilled. The refugee conference that his administration and the British staged in Bermuda in April 1943 was designed as a cover for the Allies' policy of indifference. This was based on a cold political calculation. FDR knew that most Americans were opposed to letting in more refugees, and he assumed that any other steps taken by the U.S. to help refugees, even short of bringing them to the U.S., would be equally unpopular. Thus the president claimed there was nothing that could be done for the Jews until after the U.S. and its allies defeated Germany in the war. Administration officials described their approach as "rescue through victory." But Jewish leaders feared if they waited until victory was attained, there might be no Jews left in Europe to rescue.
If the president thought he could avoid this controversy by avoiding the rabbis, he was mistaken. The next day's newspapers told the story. "Rabbis Report 'Cold Welcome' at the White House," declared the headline of a report in the Washington Times-Herald. A columnist for one Jewish newspaper angrily asked: "Would a similar delegation of 500 Catholic priests have been thus treated?" The editors of another Jewish newspaper, Forverts (Forward), reported that the episode had affected the president's previously-high level of support in the Jewish community: "In open comment it is voiced that Roosevelt has betrayed the Jews."
Meanwhile, just as the Bergson campaign of pageants, newspaper ads, and demonstrations was reaching its peak, several senior aides to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. discovered that State Department officials had been secretly obstructing rescue opportunities and blocking transmission of Holocaust-related information to the U.S. The State Department did not want them to be rescued, because that would increase pressure on the Allies to give them shelter. Although his aides urged Morgenthau to take the matter directly to the president, he hesitated, hoping that polite appeals to the Secretary of State might suffice to change U.S. policy toward Europe's Jews.
The pressure of Morgenthau's aides finally convinced him to go to the president, armed with a stinging 18-page report that they titled "Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews." At the same time, on Capitol Hill, the Bergson group used the public pressure it had built to launch a major new initiative in Congress--a resolution calling for the creation of a U.S. government agency to rescue refugees. The Roosevelt administration opposed the resolution, fearing it 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 opened the door to Morgenthau's pressure on the president. With the rescue resolution already having passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Morgenthau bluntly told FDR that "you have either got to move very fast, or the Congress of the United States will do it for you." Ten months before election day, the last thing FDR wanted was an embarrassing public scandal over the refugee issue. Within days, Roosevelt did what the Congressional resolution sought--he issued an executive order creating the War Refugee Board, a U.S. government agency to rescue refugees from Hitler.
During the final fifteen months of World War II, the Board played a crucial role in saving the lives of some 200,000 Jews. Approximately 15,000 were evacuated from Axis territory (as were more than 20,000 non-Jews). At least 10,000, and probably additional thousands, were protected within Axis Europe by Board-financed underground efforts and by the board's steps to safeguard holders of Latin American passports. The Board's diplomatic pressures, backed by its program of psychological warfare, were instrumental in bringing about the transfer of some 48,000 Jews in Transnistria to safe areas of Rumania.
Similar pressures eventually helped put a stop to German deportations of Jews from Hungary the Hungarian deportations, and ultimately, 120,000 Jews survived in Budapest. The Board assisted and financed the work of rescue hero Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who sheltered Jews in Budapest (including future U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos and his wife-to-be, Annette.) The Board helped save additional lives --although it is impossible to estimate how many-- by engineering war-crimes warnings by the Allies and the shipment of thousands of food parcels into Nazi concentration camps near the end of the war.
When the rabbis set out for the White House on that chilly October afternoon, they had no way of knowing if their effort would have any impact. When they recited their Yom Kippur prayers three days later, all they knew was that they had fulfilled their moral obligation--to try. But as the months passed and the successes of the War Refugee Board became known, they could feel proud that they had played a role in making it possible.v
For Further Reading:
Alex Grobman, Battling for Souls: The Vaad Hatzala Rescue Committee in Post-War Europe (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav, 2003). See pp. 35-52.
Rafael Medoff, The Deafening Silence: American Jewish Leaders and the Holocaust (New York: Steimatzky-Shapolsky, 1987). See pp. 130-131.
Rafael Medoff, Militant Zionism in America: The Rise and Impact of the Jabotinsky Movement in the United States, 1926-1948 (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2002). See pp. 97-98.
M. J. Nurenberger, The Scared and the Doomed: The Jewish Establishment vs. the Six Million (Ontario: Mosaic Press, 1985). See pp. 197-204.
Louis Rapoport, Shake Heaven and Earth: Peter Bergson and the Struggle to Rescue the Jews of Europe (Jerusalem: Gefen, 1999). See pp. 109-111.
David S. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945 (New York: Pantheon, 1984). See pp. 152-153.
David S. Wyman and Rafael Medoff, A Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America, and the Holocaust (New York: The New Press, 2002). See pp. 41, 112-114.
Efraim Zuroff, The Response of Orthodox Jewry in the United States to the Holocaust: The Activities of the Vaad-ha-Hatzala Rescue Commitee, 1939-1945 (Yeshiva University Press, 2000). See pp. 257-264.