The Rabbis Marched on Washington

Introduction and Review:


As we have discussed in this series, the detailed steps of the Torah path enable us to elevate every area of human existence. These detailed steps are known as halacha – a word which means, "the way to walk." Through the holistic path of halacha, we, the People of the Torah, are to become a spiritual and social model which can serve as a source of inspiration for all the peoples of the earth. Before we can serve as a role model for others, however, we ourselves need role models. We therefore have begun to discuss the radical role of the Ish Ha-Halacha - the halachic personage who serves as a leader and model for our people.

In a previous letter, we told the story of how the noted halachic personage, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, fulfilled the following mitzvah which calls upon us to save the life of someone in danger: "Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor" (Leviticus 19:16). In this letter, we will begin to discuss how other noted halachic personages fulfilled this mitzvah during a period when a powerful nation sought to murder every Jewish man, woman, and child.


Dear Friends,


During the period of the Holocaust, most nations closed their doors to the vast majority of Jewish men, women, and children that were trying to escape from the Germans. A few nations, like the United States, only allowed a very small number to enter. And when the Holocaust began, the American State Department actually hindered efforts to rescue Jews. All this information is now known, and a major work on this subject is, "The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-45" by Professor David S. Wyman.


Sad to say, most of the leaders of American Jewry failed to protest against the abandonment of the Jews by the "democratic" nations, including the United States. One of the major critics of this passive attitude was Rav Aharon Kotler, a leading sage whom we discussed in previous letters. He managed to escape Europe and reach the United States, where he devoted himself to rescue work. Castigating the American Jewish establishment for its continued apathy, Rav Kotler issued a fierce call for all Jews to take immediate action:


"We must neither abandon hope nor remain silent," he said. "Let us picture the thousands of men, women, and children who live in constant fear of a cruel and sudden death. Let us remember those children who, like sheep, are led to the slaughter. Let us keep in mind our saintly brethren, offering their lives for the sanctification of God's Name. So it is our sacred duty to go to Washington, to make our voice heard, the voice of Israel, and to hear the outcry of European Jewry clamoring for help and rescue. Let us go to Washington, again and again. Let our demands reverberate through the portals of government. Instead of 'promises, promises,' we want 'action, action'!" (This statement is cited in "A Fire In His Soul” –a biography of Irving Bunim, who worked closely together with Rav Kotler in the rescue work.)


Rav Aharon Kotler and his associates did go to Washington again and again, in order to pressure various politicians and government officials to admit more refugees and to take other forms of action to help the endangered Jews of Europe. He also guided the Vaad Hatzalah – The Rescue Committee – which grew to embrace virtually the entire spectrum of the Torah-observant community. Based on the halacha, Rav Kotler insisted that relief and rescue work must be attempted, regardless of how small the chance of success; moreover, he encouraged the Vaad to work together with people of diverse beliefs and ideologies in the efforts to save the endangered Jews of Europe  (ibid).


Among the activities of the Vaad Hatzalah was a march of several hundred rabbis on Washington, in order to pressure the American government to help save lives from the genocide of the Holocaust. Historian Berel Wein notes that the "Rabbis' March on Washington" was undertaken by the rabbinical organization, Agudas Harabonim (which was part of Vaad Hatzalah), together with another activist group: The Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe ("Triumph of Survival"). The Emergency Committee was established by Hillel Kook, a young Zionist activist from Jerusalem who was critical of the Zionist establishment for not making rescue work during the Holocaust a major priority. He was a skilled activist who developed creative ways to publicize the genocide in Europe, as well as the Allies’ failure to respond. The march of the rabbis on Washington was his idea, and it gained the support of leading Torah sages. (In his rescue work, Hillel Kook used the pseudonym, Peter H. Bergson.) 


To learn more about the march of the rabbis, I have attached the following excerpts from the article, “The Day the Rabbis Marched on Washington,” by Dr. Raphael Medoff, the director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies:


"Clear the way for those rabbis!" That was the first, and probably last time the Station Master at Washington, D.C.'s Union Station shouted those words. The crowd before him was unlike any that had ever been seen in the central train station of the nation's capitol. The date was October 6, 1943 and more than four hundred rabbis had come to plead for U.S. government action to save Jews...The fact that October 6 was just three days before Yom Kippur made participation especially difficult, but it also added to the sense of urgency surrounding the occasion.

The rabbis, many wearing long black coats and black hats, marched solemnly from Union Station to the cluster of buildings known as the Capitol. They were met on the steps of the Capitol by Vice President Henry Wallace and a number of prominent Members of Congress. There 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."

...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 had nothing on his schedule that afternoon, but had been urged to avoid the rabbis 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 anti-Semitism. Roosevelt decided to leave the White House through a rear exit.

Roosevelt's refusal to grant haven to European Jewish refugees was based on a cold political calculation. He knew that most Americans were opposed to letting in more refugees, and he was worried how the issue might affect his upcoming campaign for re-election.

…If President Roosevelt 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."



As historian Berel Wein and Dr. Raphael Medoff point out, the immediate impact of the march was that it publicized and speeded up the introduction of a Congressional resolution calling for the creation of a federal government agency to rescue people from the Holocaust: The War Refugee Board. After some initial opposition from Roosevelt, the Board was finally established, and during the final eighteen months of World War II, the Board helped save the lives of tens of thousands of Jews. Dr. Medoff adds: "Among other things, the Board helped finance the work of rescue hero Raoul Wallenberg." (Ibid)


In our next letter, we will, with the help of our Creator, continue our discussion on the work of the Vaad Hatzalah, and we will tell the story of Rav Aharon Kotler's first meeting with the Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau - an assimilated Jew who was persuaded by Rav Kotler to come to the aid of their suffering people. As a result of his meeting with this leading Torah sage, Morgenthau put pressure on President Roosevelt to establish the War Refugee Board, and he used his position as Secretary of the Treasury to help facilitate various rescue efforts.


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



Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


1. The march of the rabbis on Washington is discussed in the book, "A Fire In His Soul" by Amos Bunim. The description of the march in this book mentions that the rabbis added the following prayer: "We pray and appeal to the Lord, blessed Be He, that our most gracious President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, recognize this momentous hour of history and the responsibility that the Divine Presence has laid upon him, that he may save the remnant of the People of the Book, the People of Israel." The book also mentions that Rav Yitzchak Hurwitz, the Chassidic Rebbe of Melitz, chanted at the Lincoln Memorial the traditional prayer for martyrs: Kel Molei Rachamim.


"A Fire in His Soul" is a biography of Irving Bunim, a noted community activist and Torah teacher who worked closely with Rav Aharon Kotler in the rescue efforts. The book describes the various rescue projects, as well as the help given by certain non-Jews. As the biography points out, Irving Bunim was a Torah educator who lived what he taught. He was also a noted tzedakah activist who inspired others to fulfill this mitzvah. "A Fire In His Soul" is published by Feldheim Publishers:  . 


2. In addition, I recommend the moving book, "Heroine of Rescue," by Joseph Friedenson and Dr. David Kranzler. This book tells the amazing story of the courageous Torah-committed woman, Recha Sternbuch, 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. For information on this book, visit:  . The co-author, Dr. David Kranzler, is also the author of another related work, titled: "Thy Brothers Blood":  .

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