Dr. Alex Z. Grobman
Dr. Alex Z. GrobmanCourtesy

In “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” a new PBS Ken Burn’s documentary, he attempts to place America’s response in perspective.

There are many issues is this very flawed film that he fails to explain and clarify. One of them is the response of the American Orthodox community. One example was The Rabbis March on Washington D.C. on October 6, 1943, which was the only public demonstration by American Jews to highlight the issue of rescue of the Jews of Europe.

After the Bermuda Conference in April 1943 failed to solve the refugee crisis, rescue became a major concern for the American Orthodox Jewish community. The U.S. and British arranged the conference seemingly to address the crisis of wartime refugees, but this was a pretense to appease those demanding action.

Dressed in long, dark rabbinic attire, the rabbis walked from Union Station to the Capitol Building. There, Rabbis Eliezer Silver, Israel Rosenberg and Bernhard Louis Levinthal led a recitation of Psalms. Peter Bergson (Hillel Kook), who was head of the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, introduced them to Vice President Henry Wallace and a number of Congressmen.

Bergson enlisted the rabbis and the American Jewish Legion of Veterans for the march. He expected American clergy would join, but none did. Only the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the U.S. and Canada, the Union of Hassidic Rabbis and a commander of the Jewish Legion participated. The modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America sent Rabbi David Silver, Rabbi Eliezer Silver’s son.

White House adviser Judge Samuel Rosenman told the president that those “behind this petition” were “not representative of the most thoughtful elements in Jewry.” The “leading Jews” Rosenman knew opposed the march, but he admitted failing to “keep the horde from storming Washington.”

A number of Jewish congressmen had attempted to dissuade the rabbis from marching. This backfired when Congressman Sol Bloom, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, argued that “It would be undignified for these un-American looking rabbis to appear in the nation’s capital.”

At the Lincoln Memorial, the rabbis—who had declared a fast day—prayed for the welfare of the armed forces and the Jews of Europe and a quick Allied victory. Then they walked to the White House and prayed outside the gates. Though they expected to meet with the President, they were told he was unavailable. Later they learned he went to Bolling Field Air Force Base for a minor ceremony to avoid meeting them.

William D. Hassett, Roosevelt’s correspondence secretary, claimed that the newspaper correspondents, who left the march to accompany the president, deprived the rabbis of publicity. The Yiddish press disagreed.

Samuel Margoshes, editor of the liberal Yiddish daily Der Tog, noted that the enormous attention the rabbis received in Washington was important because “tens of thousands of bystanders… got to know, possibly for the first time, that millions of Jews were being killed in Nazi-held Europe and that millions more were in jeopardy. Also, that the Jews of America, profoundly agitated by what (was) happening to their kin, were appealing to the Government and people of the United States for help in saving their brethren from imminent doom.”

Margoshes said the procession of Orthodox rabbis in their Hasidic garb and round plush hats evinced such “interest, wonderment” and “respect.” There “was something of the quality of a religious procession that characterized the Rabbinical Pilgrimage and compelled the respect of every passerby.”

The Vice President accepted a Rescue Memorandum from Rabbi Silver on behalf of the Agudas Harabonim. The petition stated: In view of this tragic emergency, it is a holy obligation to take drastic steps to save the Jewish people. America was asked to:

1. To adopt immediate and practical measures of rescue and to use all possible means to end the murders committed by Nazi criminals.

2. To warn Germany and all that every atrocity and crime perpetrated against their Jewish residents, whether by governments or private individuals, will be held against them and that, likewise, every act of kindness toward their unfortunates will not pass unnoticed.

3. To send ships with food and medical supplies to the Jews starving in ghettos, under the supervision of a neutral commission or through the International Red Cross.

4. To influence and persuade neutral countries to allow the Jewish refugees who flee from the Nazi sword to seek security within their borders and to guarantee to these countries the means for the temporary maintenance of these refugees.

5. To open the gates of the United Nations to provide havens therein, and to facilitate the entry into our land, the United States of America, of those who can escape the Nazi terror.

6. To open the doors of Palestine immediately to these refugees.

7. To create a special intergovernmental agency to save the remnant of Israel in Europe with powers and means to act at once on a large scale.

Rabbi Aharon Kotler, one of the preeminent Orthodox rabbis of his generation, was probably the only major Orthodox rabbinic figure not to attend the march, but not because he was uninvolved . Dealing with the plight of the Jews in the public forum was inappropriate because he believed the nations of the world reveled in the Jews’ tragedies. The most suitable means of protest was to focus anger and frustration at the members of Congress. Only quiet diplomacy could succeed.

Without such prodding in this case, however, the American government might never have acted at all. John Pehle, who served as the first director of the War Refugee Board said, “Only when the matter [of rescue] was brought to the President forcefully did Roosevelt react.”

An excerpt from Alex Grobman, Battling for Souls: The Vaad Hatzala Rescue Committee in Post-War Europe (Jersey City, New Jersey: KTAV, 2004).

Dr. Alex Grobmanis the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society, a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, and on the advisory board of The National Christian Leadership Conference of Israel (NCLCI). He lives in Jerusalem