by Herbert Belkin
On October 6, 1943, 400 rabbis marched from the Washington, DC railroad station to Capitol Hill. The sight of 400 Orthodox rabbis marching up Pennsylvania Avenue in their black hats and beards blowing in the wind must have been astonishing to residents of wartime Washington. Also unusual was the date: October 6, two days before Yom Kippur.
Why would these rabbis leave their congregations two days before the holiest Jewish holiday to march in Washington? The rabbis came to Washington to follow the Talmudic injunction of pikuach nefesh, to save a life; indeed, they hoped to save thousands of lives. By 1943, it was known that Hitler was exterminating the Jews of Europe. Even with that knowledge, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill rejected the desperate cries for help with the pretext that the best way to save Jews was to end the war. The rabbis knew that European Jews were in grave danger. This was the urgent reason for the rabbis’ march on Washington two days before Yom Kippur. The rabbis’ march in Washington was just one of a continuing series of efforts to rescue their Jewish brethren; as early as 1939 the Union of Orthodox Rabbis had formed a rescue committee to help save Jews. The plan for the march was simple and direct: First to speak to members of Congress and then to President Roosevelt in an attempt to rescue their Jewish brethren from annihilation in German death camps.
The rabbis were met on Capitol Hill by Vice President Henry Wallace and members of Congress. At the meeting the rabbis read aloud, both in English and Hebrew, a petition calling for the creation of a federal agency that would both rescue European Jews and increase the number of Jewish immigrants to the United States. What they received from the vice president was described by Time magazine as “a diplomatically minimal answer.” Undeterred, the rabbis then marched to the White House and requested to meet with President Roosevelt. On the advice of his advisers the president refused to see the rabbis and left the White House by a rear door to avoid a confrontation. This rebuff was Roosevelt’s political calculation that most Americans did not want an increase in immigration and that supporting an increase might jeopardize his reelection.
Roosevelt’s refusal to see the rabbis had unintended consequences. The snub was picked up by the press and the next day the headline in the Washington Times-Herald read, “Rabbis Report ‘Cold Welcome’ at the White House.” A columnist for a Jewish newspaper went further when he asked, “Would a similar delegation of… Catholic priests have been thus treated?” And the Jewish newspaper, The Forward, commented that “it is voiced that Roosevelt has betrayed the Jews.”
After the rabbis’ march and the ensuing publicity, Congress introduced a resolution that called for a federal agency to rescue refugees. At first the Roosevelt administration objected to the resolution until, with the help of Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau and the realization that Congress was going to pass the resolution anyway, the President announced the creation of the War Refugee Board. The War Refugee Board has been credited with saving as many as 200,000 Jewish lives. When the 400 rabbis returned to their congregations that Yom Kippur, they did not know what their march in Washington would accomplish. But on October 6, they observed pikuach nefesh and helped save thousands of Jewish lives.
Herbert Belkin is a Jewish historian who writes and lectures on modern Jewish history and the Zionist movement.