“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 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 administration.
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 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.