On October 6, 1943, some 400 fervently Orthodox rabbis, almost all of them immigrants to the United States from Eastern Europe, marched on the nation’s capital to implore President Roosevelt to save what was left of the Jews in Nazi Europe. Given the scale of the Nazi genocide against the Jews, it would seem that marches of that nature would have been common. Yet the October 1943 march was the only public demonstration calling for the rescue of Europe’s Jews held in Washington during World War II.
Earlier this month, approximately 150 people — most of them children and grandchildren of the 1943 marchers — convened in Jerusalem.
The July 9 reunion was organized by Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. It was an extension of an online exhibit on the institute’s Web site featuring analysis of the significance of the 1943 march, rare documents and photos from the event and testimonials by marchers’ descendants.
Medoff told the crowd that the exhibit and the reunion grew out of a recent speaking engagement he had with middle-school students at a Jewish day school near Washington, days after a major pro-Israel rally.
Most of the students said they had been at the rally, but when Medoff asked how many knew of the Holocaust march by immigrant rabbis from New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Worcester, Mass., not one raised his hand.
“I was startled and disappointed, but I was galvanized,” Medoff said.
What the kids had done just days before — making a public statement in the name of a Jewish cause — is taken for granted today among younger generations of the American Jewish community. When the rabbis marched in 1943, however, it was a highly controversial act.
High-ranking Jewish members of FDR’s administration, along with community leaders who had access to the president, discouraged the rabbis from marching. They were concerned that publicly calling into question the policies of a popular wartime president — especially when the marchers, in their fervently Orthodox garb, seemed to fit stereotypical images of Jews — could spur anti-Semitism, Medoff said.
The leaders couldn’t dissuade the rabbis from marching, but they did succeed in keeping Roosevelt from receiving the group at the White House.
Mainstream Jewish America’s refusal to take action against the atrocities in Nazi Europe was the most infuriating obstacle faced by Hillel Kook, organizer of the 1943 march, according to his daughter, Rebecca Kook, who spoke at the Jerusalem event.
Her father’s stories contradicted what she was taught outside the house — that nothing could have been done to stop the genocide.
“His lesson was that many more Jews could have been saved had more action been taken,” said Kook, a faculty member in the department of politics and government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “This was the lesson that he grappled with for the rest of his life.”
Medoff seems intent on making the 1943 march a part of the collective Jewish consciousness surrounding World War II.
He notes that the march should be a point of pride for today’s American Jews — but it should serve as a warning of what can happen when a community lives in fear of speaking out.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.