Your Sept 30 issue speaks about the 400 years in the Torah and the laudatory 400 issues of The Jewish Link (“Four Hundred Editions of The Jewish Link!?”) so I want to bring attention to the 400 rabbis who marched in Washington, D.C. on October 6, 1943, two days before Yom Kippur, to petition the U.S. government on the desperate plight of European Jewry under Nazi occupation.
My wife’s grandfather, Rabbi Haim I. Bloch, z’’l, of Jersey City, was one of the Orthodox rabbis who marched that day 78 years ago. The march was organized by Zionist activist Hillel Kook (aka Peter Bergson), nephew of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, chief rabbi of Palestine. This was to be the only demonstration of its kind in Washington, D.C. held by any Jewish organization during the entire war.
The rabbis’ primary objective was to meet with President Roosevelt and present a petition to create a government agency to rescue European Jewry and to open the doors of Palestine, closed by the British Mandate. The rabbis, in their traditional black attire, walked from Union Station to the steps of the Capitol, along with a few JWV Commanders, where they met with bi-partisan officials including Vice President Henry Wallace. From there the rabbis went to the Lincoln Memorial, where they recited memorial prayers and sang the national anthem in Hebrew.
The rabbis then marched to the White House to meet President Roosevelt, who knew in advance they were coming. FDR’s calendar that afternoon was open with no appointments, but Roosevelt chose to exit through a rear door and did not meet the rabbis, to their lingering disappointment (although a small delegation of five was received by FDR’s secretary).
Was FDR ill-advised (several advisors were Jewish) or was there another rationale? Historians still debate this contentious issue.
The positive publicity engendered by the march of the rabbis may have been a catalyst for FDR’s Executive Order on January 22, 1944, to create the “War Refugee Board” (this board was urged by Sect. of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau and his unsung assistant, Josiah DuBois) which did save some Jewish lives, but sadly, was too late to change the tragic course of events. There is now a display commemorating the march in the U.S. Holocaust Museum in D.C.