Challenging the President

Dear Friends,


In the previous letter, we mentioned that Rav Aharon Kotler guided the Vaad Hatzalah – The Rescue Committee – which grew to embrace virtually the entire spectrum of the Torah-observant community. During that period, Stephen S. Wise was an influential American Jewish leader with close ties to President Roosevelt; nevertheless, he refused to use his personal connection with the President to press for the rescue of Jews from the Holocaust. Irving Howe, the author of “World of Our Fathers,” is very critical of Roosevelt’s cold attitude towards the saving or admission of Jewish refugees in Europe, and he writes: “For the truth is that, with regard to the Jewish refugees in Europe, the record of the Roosevelt administration is shameful. Historical evidence concerning this matter has been accumulated in two careful and heavily documented works of scholarship, David S. Wyman’s Paper Walls and Henry L.Feingold’s The Politics of Rescue.”  Irving Howe’s book was published in 1976, and since then, additional documented material supporting this criticism of Roosevelt has been published, including, “The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-45,” by David S. Wyman.


Wise’s continuing defense of Roosevelt’s lack of response, even after reports of the genocide in Poland reached America, eventually drew the ire of one of his allies, the Jewish Labor Committee. Adolph Held, the Jewish Labor Committee Chairman, told Wise: “To hell with your President if he won’t do anything to save Polish Jewry.” (Cited in “Role in Relief and Rescue” by David Kranzler) 


Wise did not approve of the rescue efforts of the Vaad Hatzalah, and as we mentioned in the previous letter, he advised President Roosevelt not to meet with the rabbis who marched on Washington. Rav Aharon Kotler and his associates strongly opposed Wise’s passive policy with regard to rescue work, for the halacha of Torah required that saving lives should be the main priority of the entire Jewish community during the Holocaust. Rav Aharon and his associates therefore decided to find a way to reach President Roosevelt through finding someone who was powerful, had easy access to Roosevelt, and – unlike Wise – would unequivocally plead the cause of the suffering Jewish people. They thought of Henry Morgenthau, the Secretary of the Treasury. The following report on their meeting with Morgenthau appears in the book, “Fire In His Soul” – a biography of Irving Bunim who worked closely together with Rav Aharon Kotler in rescue work. It begins by mentioning that they faced a real challenge, for Morgenthau, an assimilated Jew, had never taken a strong stand on Jewish issues; moreover, he hardly raised his voice during the terrible firestorm befalling the Jews of Europe. It then states:




Still, Bunim made the call. He relied on the gravity of the times and the purity of their cause. After some initial hesitation, Morgenthau agreed to see a delegation. It was decided that Rabbi Kotler, Rabbi Kalmanowitz, and Bunim should go. [Irving Bunim, who lived in the United States since childhood, would act as the spokesman, as the two Yiddish-speaking sages from Eastern Europe were not fluent in English.]


The three men walked through the Treasury Department maze and finally found Henry Morgenthau’s large, imposing office. They had discussed strategies on the train until Rabbi Kotler declared in his sharp and decisive manner that it was wisest to appeal to Morgenthau’s conscience and approach him in a straightforward way.


…Bunim saw that Morgenthau was impressed by the very presence of Rabbi Kotler and Rabbi Kalmanowitz. So Bunim told him of the reverence in which these two Torah luminaries were held by the Jewish people, so many of whom were perishing needlessly. Then he appealed to Morgenthau’s conscience.

“We know that you  cannot go against Allied policy,” he said gravely, “but please help change American policy which has done so little to prevent the deaths of so many of our brethren. Please ask the President for relief and rescue.” Morgenthau nodded, visibly moved. He reached for the phone and began by calling Secretary of State Cordell Hull. When Morgenthau told Sumner Welles, an under-secretary and Hull’s assistant what he wanted, Welles said that Secretary Hull was out of town and incommunicado.


“Tell Mr. Hull,” said the tight-lipped Morgenthau, “that I am waiting at the telephone for an answer, I want a meeting with the President concerning the Nazi murder of the Jews of Europe.”


Welles said he would see that the Secretary received the message and then hung up. Shortly thereafter he called Morgenthau back and told him Hull had said that “very delicate negotiations are in process with Germany, and at this particular time it would not be advisable to jeopardize them by introducing an extraneous matter.”


Bunim and the others saw the Secretary’s mounting anger. Remaining outwardly clam and speaking with great dignity, Morgenthau replied, “Tell Mr. Hull,” he said to Welles, “that this is the first time in my service to the government that I have ever asked the President for a meeting on a personal matter, one regarding my relationship with my people. If I do not get the meeting as requested, my resignation will be on Mr. Roosevelt’s desk in the morning.” …A few minutes later Welles called again to say that Hull had approved the meeting.


Morgenthau’s meeting with Roosevelt accomplished no immediate changes in Allied policy. Still, it was a great victory for the Vaad. It paved the way for the creation of the War Refugee Board, which helped provide relief and rescue for thousands of Jews during and after the war. More important, it established Morgenthau as a major Washington contact who would prove to be enormously helpful during and after the war, most notably with overseas fund transfers. In the ensuing months, Morgenthau became an effective champion for the Vaad in the Roosevelt administration. He became a strong lobbying arm which the Vaad used with increasing frequency.


As conditions in Europe worsened, the Vaad gradually broadened its scope of activities. The successful meeting with Morgenthau caused the Vaad to expand its operations as events demanded and contacts permitted….It became an international rescue network. The Vaad sent relief supplies, secured visas and affidavits, lobbied for changes in immigration restrictions, disseminated reliable information about events in Europe, and initiated relationships with key government officials who could help with concrete plans as the war progressed. A philosophy of activism born in Torah, history and desperation served Vaad Hatzala well until the War ended and beyond.




The Vaad also had underground agents – both Jews and Christians – who worked behind enemy lines to help Jews escape. The U.S. government’s War Refugee Board helped the Vaad in certain ways, and right after the war, the Vaad had a dinner in New York City honoring two men who headed the board, Mayor-elect William O’Dwyer, and John W. Pehle. The guest speaker at the dinner was Henry Morgenthau, and an article in the New York Times reported on this event. The following excerpts are from this article which was published on December 18, 1945:



He (Morgenthau) was a speaker with Mayor-elect William O’Dwyer and John W. Pehle, former head of the War Refugee Board, at a dinner given in their honor by Vaad Hatzala, the rehabilitation and rescue committee organized by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada. Twelve hundred persons attended at the Hotel Astor.

The  Vaad Hatzala, Mr. O’Dwyer said, went inside the enemy lines to make rescues....“And thousands of others came out of the darkness and are alive today,” Mr. Pehle told the Vaad Hatzala, “only because our Government, at your insistence, took the extraordinary  measures that were the only hope of salvation for so many.”

He urged that the organization continue its rehabilitation efforts, saying the survivors needed help and guidance, both spiritual and material.



The book, “A Fire In His Soul,” discusses the high standards which Rav Aharon Kotler demanded of his agents of rescue. The following excerpt from the book is about one of those standards:




“Without sensitivity to the suffering of one soul,” Rabbi Kotler wrote, “there can be no compassion for the plight of the many.” To illustrate, Rabbi Kotler cited the Midrash (homiletic teaching) describing how God determined that Moses was qualified to rescue and redeem Klal Yisrael (the Community of Israel). Moses was tending his father-in-law’s flock when one lamb strayed. He pursued the lamb and finally came upon it drinking from a pond. “I did not know that you had run away because you were thirsty,” he said. “Now you must be tired.” With that, he gently placed the lamb on his shoulders and carried it back to the flock.

Observing this extraordinary act of mercy, God told Moses he was worthy to attend His flock, the Children of Israel.



Rav Aharon Kotler - who was also affectionately known as “Rav Aharon” or “Reb Aharon” - stressed that one should never lose one’s sensitivity to the individual because of one’s involvement with the klal – community. There are many stories of how Rav Aharon, a leader of Klal Yisrael, lovingly cared for the individual member of Klal Yisrael. Irving Bunim, who worked closely with Rav Aharon, describes one example that he witnessed which left a deep impression: Once, he walked into Rav Aharon’s home and saw him playing chess. He was stunned, for the sage had a non-stop schedule; he rarely had time to eat, let alone play chess.

“Imagine,” Irvng Bunim later told a friend, “Reb Aharon, who is always so busy, spending his precious time playing chess! It seemed completely out of character until I found out that his chess partner had lost his entire family in the Holocaust. He was broken, deeply depressed, and there seemed no way to rehabilitate him. No one knew what to do, but Reb Aharon spent a half-hour with him every day, speaking softly, and playing chess. He desperately wanted to reach this man, and chess was his only way. Finally, Reb Aharon’s therapy worked. The man eventually remarried and built another family, all from Reb Aaron’s chess.” (Cited in “A Fire In His Soul”)


"Whoever saves one life - it's as if one saved an entire world!" (Midrash Yalkut Shimoni on Exodus 2:5) 


May we be blessed with a healing and strengthening Shabbos.

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Comments:


1. Although Rav Aharon guided the work of Vaad Hatzala, he took no official position, and he encouraged others to serve as the official leaders of this organization. This approach is mentioned in the following excerpt from the hesped (eulogy) for Rav Aharon delivered by Rav Eliezer Silver, Vaad Hatzala leader, at Kennedy Airport as the sage’s bier was being transported to Eretz Yisrael:

“Reb Aharon made me promise never to reveal his true role in hatzalah (rescue), neither to the public nor to the Vaad’s inner circle; not only during the  hatzalah years but even afterwards. The time has come to set the record straight. People are under the impression that I and others were the main movers for hatzalah. This is an error stemming from the aforementioned promise. It was Reb Aharon who was the prime mover of all that was accomplished.”

The above story is cited in, “A Fire In His Soul,” by Amos Bunim. It is published by Feldheim:   . The above quote from “Role in Relief and Rescue” is cited in this book.


2. An incredibly moving and inspiring book which describes much of the rescue work of that period is, "They Called Him Mike" by Yonoson Rosenblum. Elimelech Tress, known as "Mike," grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Although he did not have the benefit of a yeshiva education, he attached himself to Torah sages, and he became a beloved tzadik (righteous person) and a leading rescue activist. Through the organization, Agudath Israel, he led a grassroots movement of young American Jews who were rediscovering their Jewish roots, and who also helped Jews who were fleeing the Holocaust. A major leader of Agudath Israel during that period was Rav Aharon Kotler, and this organization played a key role in the work of Vaad Hatzalah.

“They Called Him Mike” is published by ArtScroll; however, they are temporarily out of stock. Some book stores and distributors are likely to have copies. One source is Eichlers:  , and I noticed that both the hardcover and paperback editions of this book are listed.


3. The wise and courageous Torah-committed woman, Recha Sternbuch, had a vital role in the work of Vaad Hatzalah. She was an agent of rescue who saved thousands of lives, often at the risk of her own life. Although she lived in safe Switzerland, she would enter enemy territory in order to help Jewish men, women, and children escape into Switzerland, despite the opposition of the Swiss bureaucracy. With the help of her husband, she organized various crucial projects for rescue and relief, and she was in contact with diplomats and other influential officials. The rescue organization she founded became affiliated with Vaad Hatzala, and through her valuable contacts, she was able to forward vital life-saving information to Vaad Hatzala and other Jewish organizations. The book that tells the story of her work is, “Heroine of Rescue,” by Joseph Friedenson and Dr. David Kranzler. One of the chapters in this book tells the story of two non-Jewish diplomats who befriended the suffering Jewish people and who had a vital role in her rescue work.  For information, visit: The co-author, Dr. David Kranzler, is also the author of another related work, titled: "Thy Brothers Blood":


The main focus of the above books is not on suffering and death; the main focus is on the life-giving power of love and spiritual commitment. Given the current dangers threatening us, we need to strengthen our connection to this source of power, and these inspiring books can therefore serve as helpful resources.

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