I was 7 years old in 1943, and was becoming comfortable in the United States, where my parents and I had arrived as refugees from Poland, via Japan, in 1941. Almost from the moment we hit the blessed shores of America, my father, Rabbi Isaac Lewin, zichrono le-veracha, worked day and night with the Va’ad Le-Hatzala to rescue the Jews trapped in Poland and the rest of Europe. They included my grandfather, Rabbi Aaron Lewin, z”l, the revered rabbi of Rzeszow who had twice been elected to the Polish parliament, and who had – unknown to my father – already been murdered by Ukrainians in Lvov in June 1941.
I remember the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur 1943, as the news of the slaughter of Jews by Hitler and his cohorts dribbled out to the free world of the Allies and reached American media. I was already a New York Yankees fan, and my 7-year-old’s attention was focused on the World Series between my Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals. I could not really appreciate why my father was ignoring the World Series and was busy soliciting volunteers among the Orthodox rabbinate and rank-and-file Jews to make the arduous train ride from New York to Washington to convey personally to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt how precarious the lives of Jews in Europe had become and to request decisive action against the death camps to which Jews were being transported.
A delegation of 400 rabbis, including my father, Rabbis Eliezer Silver, Israel Rosenberg, Moshe Feinstein and Joseph B. Soloveitchik, z”l, arrived in Washington’s Union Station on October 6, three days before Yom Kippur – the second day of the World Series — with the announced intention of marching to the White House to meet with the president and voice their concern over the slaughter of their brethren. They were an orderly dignified group – no signs, no loud battle-cries, no histrionics.
My father reported to us when he returned from Washington (where I was grieving that the Yankees had lost the second game of the Series) that the group had been greeted by congressmen and had marched to the Lincoln Memorial. The rabbis assigned a select group to meet with President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House. They were shocked and offended to be told that the president did not have even a few minutes to meet with them.
They returned to New York after being shunted off to the vice president, Henry Wallace, whose influence on Roosevelt and U.S. policy was negligible and who many classify as America’s worst vice president.
Their dire warnings regarding the fate of Europe’s Jews were, of course, entirely accurate. But the president, like his successor in office more than 70 years later, was not interested in meeting with Jewish leaders and having them describe to him directly the life-threatening danger facing Jews abroad.
How important was it that Roosevelt meet with a representative delegation from the rabbis’ entourage? Cynics might claim that the trip to Washington was designed to generate publicity for the rescue of European Jewry and whether or not the president invited rabbis to the White House made little difference in the formulation of American priorities in waging the war. It is difficult to believe, however, that Roosevelt would have been totally unmoved by the pleas of American Orthodox Jewry’s foremost spokesmen. Rabbi Eliezer Silver, z”l, had already established a reputation as an exceedingly articulate English-speaking advocate for Jewish causes. His description of the horrors that had been reported might very well have made a difference had Roosevelt been willing to listen.
Accounts of personal meetings that Eddie Jacobson and Chaim Weizmann had with Roosevelt’s successor, Harry S Truman, regarding the Zionist dream of an independent state of Israel have shown that U.S. presidents can be moved – and American foreign policy can be affected – by face-to-face discussions with the occupant of the most important and powerful office in the world (Jacobson was a friend of Truman, and Weizmann was the Zionist leader). Truman’s willingness to meet with, and listen to, Weizmann and Jacobson reportedly led him to reject the advice of his secretary of state and White House insiders and to promptly recognize the state of Israel.
Roosevelt, on the other hand, refused even to listen to the message that the rabbis were bringing to Washington. Like President Barack Obama’s blanket rejection more than 70 years later of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the refusal silences the message by shutting out the messenger.
Reports that later emerged from White House insiders established that Roosevelt – like President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden – did not really have anything important on his schedule to justify his refusal to meet Jewish leaders. Roosevelt sneaked out of the White House through a rear exit rather than meet with the 400 rabbis. His top Jewish adviser and speechwriter, Samuel Rosenman, told him – much as J Street is now telling President Obama and congressional
Democrats – that he would be best served by avoiding the rabbis.
Rosenman is also reported to have told Nahum Goldmann – co-chairman of the World Jewish Congress – that when Roosevelt heard of the rabbis’ request to meet with him, Roosevelt “had used language that morning while breakfasting which would have pleased Hitler himself.” In his recently revealed correspondence with Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, did Mr. Obama similarly refer to Prime Minister Netanyahu with language that “would have pleased” Khamenei himself?
Nathan Lewin is a Washington lawyer who was president of the Greater Washington Jewish Community Relations Council between 1982 and 1984 and has argued many Jewish-interest cases before the Supreme Court and lower federal courts.