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September 6, 2013  RSS feed
Culture

Text: T T T

70 years later, Yom Kippur eve rabbi’s march written back into history books

By RAFAEL MEDOFF JNS.org


The beginning of the October 1943 march by more than 400 rabbis in Washington, D.C., three days before Yom Kippur. The marchers are pictured here at Washington’s Union Station. 
Photo courtesy of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. The beginning of the October 1943 march by more than 400 rabbis in Washington, D.C., three days before Yom Kippur. The marchers are pictured here at Washington’s Union Station. Photo courtesy of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. During the Holocaust years, there was only one march in Washington, D.C., to plead with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to rescue Europe’s Jews. As the 70th anniversary of that remarkable demonstration approaches, the protest is finally gaining mainstream recognition in the Jewish community.

In the autumn of 1943, the Jewish activists known as the Bergson Group teamed up with an Orthodox rescue group, Va’ad Ha- Hatzala, to bring more than 400 rabbis to Washington three days before Yom Kippur.

On the steps of the Capitol, the marchers were met by Vice President Henry Wallace and prominent members of Congress. Two of the rabbis 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!’ Millions have already fallen dead, sentenced to fire and sword, and tens of thousands have died of starvation… 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.”

They marched to the gates of the White House, expecting a small delegation would be granted a brief 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 daily schedule reveals that after lunch, he had no further meetings until the evening. The rabbis reached the White House at 2 p.m. But the president had no interest in giving the protesters the legitimacy and attention that a White House meeting confers. And it did not help that his Jewish advisers, embarrassed by the marchers, urged FDR to snub them.

If FDR thought he could avoid the rescue issue by avoiding the rabbis, he was mistaken. A headline in the next day’s Washington Times-Herald declared: “Rabbis Report ‘Cold Welcome’ at the White House.” A columnist for one Jewish newspaper angrily asked, “Would a similar delegation of 500 Catholic priests have been thus treated?”

In interviews over the years with rabbis who took part in the march, they invariably expressed the feeling they had failed. Since they had not been able to secure the president’s attention even for a few minutes, the rabbis felt the march had accomplished nothing. They were mistaken.

The march – combined with the Bergson Group’s campaign of newspaper ads and lobbying in Congress—helped attract much-needed attention to the rescue issue. It helped galvanize public support for a congressional resolution calling for the creation of a U.S. government agency to rescue refugees. That resolution, in turn, set off a battle between rescue advocates and the State Department that concluded with FDR being forced to create the War Refugee Board.

During the final 15 months of World War II, the Board helped rescue some 200,000 Jews in Europe.

For many years, however, there was no mention of the march, either in Jewish history books or Holocaust museums. But in recent years, that has begun to change. After a campaign of protests and petitions, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum added an exhibit about the Bergson Group, including a photo of the marching rabbis. The Encyclopedia Judaica and the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust now mention the march.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is the author of “FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith.”


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