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FDR was never going to meet with the rabbis marching on Washington

A historian responds to the claims FDR could have met with the 400 Orthodox rabbis marching to save Jews of Europe

Re “Even American Jews ignored the Holocaust” by Nora Berman

To the editor: 

The Sept. 8 article concerning the upcoming Ken Burns film on America and the Holocaust mentioned the march by 400 rabbis in Washington, in October 1943, and stated: “FDR did not meet with the rabbis on the advice of his Jewish advisers, who said that Bergson and his rabbis did not represent the mainstream Jewish opinion.”

Actually, it is more likely that President Roosevelt had already decided not to meet the rabbis, and that the opinions of his Jewish advisers simply echoed his decision.

The only direct documentation of any Jewish advisers’ advice on the matter is in the diary of presidential secretary William D. Hassett. On Oct. 6, 1943 — the day of the rabbis’ march — Hassett wrote of a conversation that morning involving FDR and Samuel Rosenman, the president’s speechwriter and Jewish adviser: “Judge Rosenman said the group behind this [march was] not representative of the most thoughtful elements in Jewry. Judge Rosenman said he had tried — admittedly without success — to keep the horde from storming Washington. Said the leading Jews of his acquaintance opposed this march on the Capitol.”

However, the decision to reject the rabbis’ request had been made a week earlier. The rabbis’ telegram requesting “a few minutes” of the president’s time was sent to the White House on Sept. 29; a day or two later, presidential aide Marvin McIntyre informed the rabbis that “such an appointment could not be arranged.”

Although there is no documentation of McIntyre discussing the matter with FDR, it seems unlikely he would have rejected the request for a meeting with the president without at least briefly consulting the president. Indeed, there was no scheduling conflict as the president’s daily schedule for Oct. 6, 1943, was surprisingly light, with ample free time in the afternoon, when the rabbis reached the gates of the White House.

Nahum Goldmann, co-chair of the World Jewish Congress, met with Rosenman later on the day of the march. Rosenman shared with him FDR’s comment concerning the protest: “The President had been much displeased by the March of the Rabbis instigated by the notorious Bergson, and had used language that morning while breakfasting which would have pleased Hitler himself.”

So while Rosenman’s advice to FDR to snub the rabbis was deplorable, the vehemence of Roosevelt’s comment — combined with the fact that the president did not have any scheduling conflict which would have prevented him from meeting with the leaders of the march — suggests that Roosevelt never had any intention of giving the rabbis even a few minutes of his time.

— Rafael Medoff
Director, The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies


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