Make way for the rabbis. It was probably the first time the station master at Washington, D.C.'s Union Station
had shouted these words. But the crowd before him was unlike any ever seen in the nation's capital. Four hundred
rabbis converged on Union Station two days before Yom Kippur, 1943, in a stirring display of unity to rescue
Jews from Nazi extermination.
The march was the brainchild of 33-year-old Hillel Kook (b. 1910), a Jerusalem-born nephew of Abraham Isaac
Kook, former chief rabbi of Palestine, who arrived in the United States in 1940. For reasons known only to him,
once here, Kook took the Americanized name Peter Bergson. Purchasing full-page ads in American newspapers
criticizing British limitations on the number of Jews who could emigrate to Palestine, then under British rule, and
pleading for Allied action to rescue European Jewry, Bergson and his associates known as the Bergson Group -
used the mass media to rouse public interest and influence the Roosevelt administration to intervene against
Hitler. Most provocatively, Bergson called for the formation of an international Jewish army, which would fight
under Allied auspices to liberate European Jewry.
One of Bergson's most spectacular initiatives was the 1943 March of the Rabbis. Despite his Orthodox
background, Bergson himself was not observant, nor were most of his followers. They understood, however, the
powerful visual impact of hundreds of Orthodox rabbis with their beards, black coats and hats converging on
Congress and the White House.
Gaining access to the Orthodox rabbinical leadership was no simple task for the uninitiated. The elders of the
Orthodox community in the 1940s were mostly European-born Talmudic scholars who spoke little English and
were generally unfamiliar with the political ways of the New World to which they had emigrated. Few were
accustomed to receiving national press coverage. But Bergson and his associates used their fluent Yiddish and
Bergson's family connections to win the trust of rabbis in the Hasidic and general Orthodox communities.
So it was that on October 6, 1943, more than 400 Orthodox rabbis, accompanied by marshals from the Jewish
War Veterans of America, marched solemnly from Union Station to their first stop, the Capitol. Vice President
Henry A. Wallace and a large bipartisan delegation of Congressional leaders received them. While passersby
gawked and newsmen snapped photos, the rabbis recited the Kaddish; sang the traditional Jewish prayer for the
nation's leaders to the tune of the Star Spangled Banner; and solemnly read aloud, in English and Hebrew, their
petition calling for the creation of a special Federal agency to rescue European
Jewry and expand the limited quota on Jewish refugee immigration to the United States. Time Magazine
commented that, on receiving the petition, Vice President Wallace squirmed through a diplomatically minimal
answer. The rabbis then marched from the Capitol to the White House.
On the advice of his aides, FDR, who was scheduled to attend a military ceremony, intentionally avoided the
rabbis by leaving the White. House through a rear exit while they marched silently in front. When Roosevelt's
decision not to encounter the rabbis became known to the press, reporters interpreted Roosevelt's actions as a
snub, adding a dramatic flair that transformed the protest rally into a full-fledged clash between the rabbis and the
Capitalizing on the publicity from the march, Bergson's friends in Congress introduced a resolution asking FDR
to create an agency that would find ways to provide refuge for those Jews who still remained in the Nazi grip. At
Senate hearings on the resolution, a State Department official, Breckinridge Long, argued that America had
absorbed more than its share of Jewish refugees. Deeming that Long's statistics were deliberately distorted,
Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau drew up a stinging report to the president revealing the State Department's
efforts to make Jewish immigration to the U.S. almost impossible. Within days, FDR announced the
establishment of the War Refugee Board, which during the final year of the Holocaust was responsible for
rescuing thousands of Jews and increasing Jewish immigration to America.
Bergson's skillful appeal to American public conscience, including the rabbi's march, worked as nothing
previously had to bring about a change in White House policy toward the Holocaust. Bergson's militancy,
Morgenthau's insider access and the rabbis' willingness to take united political action combined to move FDR to
action after three years of his insistence that only when the Allies defeated Hitler could European Jewry be saved.