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For the Sin of Silence

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Rabbi Soloveitchik criticized US Jewry for its silence in the Holocaust. Have we changed since
Sixty-seven years ago, on October 6, 1943, some 400 rabbis marched to the White House to plead with
President Franklin D. Roosevelt to rescue Jews from the Holocaust. It was the only protest rally held in
Washington to urge the rescue of European Jewry.

Several days earlier, the activists known as the Bergson Group, who organized the march, issued a news
release listing 250 rabbis who intended to take part. Unfortunately, the other 150 or so who participated
were never publicly identified by name. They either joined the march at the last minute, or simply
neglected to give their names to the organizers in advance.

Over the past several years, my colleagues and I at the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies
have succeeded in identifying some of these previously unknown marchers.

For example, we learned that the Bostoner Rebbe, Rabbi Levi Horowitz, was one of them, when the
rebbe saw an article I wrote in HaModia in 2005 and called me to let me know that he had participated.
He was even able to locate himself in one of the photos of the rally. (The photos can be viewed at

More recently, we were contacted by Rabbi Chaim Gold, son of one of the march's leaders (Rabbi Wolf
Gold) and a former student of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993), widely regarded as the dean of
modern Orthodox Judaism. Rabbi Gold shared with us a transcript of a lecture in which Rabbi
Soloveitchik mentioned the march and added, "I, too, was among the rabbis who went to the White
House" that day in 1943.

Other former students of Rabbi Soloveitchik with whom we spoke were not surprised to learn of his
participation in the march. They pointed out that he had on numerous occasions strongly criticized
American Jewry's response to the Holocaust. One provided us with a tape recording of a lecture that
Rabbi Soloveitchik gave in 1973 in which he said that in the Yom Kippur liturgy,

American Jews should add an Al Chet --a confession of sin-- to

acknowledge the community's failure to respond adequately to news of the
mass killing of European Jews during the Holocaust.

In the lecture, given at Yeshiva Univerity's Wurzweiler School of Social Work on December 24, 1973,
Rabbi Soloveitchik remarked that "during the Holocaust period," many American Jews were not
sufficiently concerned "with our brethren, with our fellow Jews, and we let millions of Jews go down the

Therefore, he said, "to the list of Al Chets of thechatayim [sins] we enumerate on Yom Kippur, we should
add another Al Chet. Perhaps it would be the worst, the most horrible one - Al chet shechatanu lefanecha
bera'inu tzoras nafshoseihem shel acheinu bais Yisroel shehischananu eileinu v'lo shamanu ['For the sin
that we have sinned before You by seeing the suffering of our Jewish brethren who called to us and we
did not listen']."
Statements of this sort were unheard of in the first decades after the war, when there was little public
discussion among American Jews about their response to the Holocaust. Perhaps the memories and the
wounds were too fresh. Perhaps the fact that many of the Jewish leaders whose records merited scrutiny
still held positions of leadership discouraged a serious reckoning.

That began to change in the 1960s and 1970s, as a younger generation of American Jews started asking
questions about the actions of their elders. Articles about the subject began appearing more frequently in
Jewish periodicals. Activists in the Soviet Jewry movement cited American Jewry's lethargic response to
the Holocaust as an impetus for their own protests. "We didn't want to repeat the mistakes of that
generation," Glenn Richter, director of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, recalls.

By 1981, there was sufficient interest in the topic to bring about the creation of the American Jewish
Commission on the Holocaust, a committee of Jewish communal figures intending to produce the first
comprehensive examination of US Jewry's Holocaust record. The acrimony that engulfed the
commission's work and led to its dissolution revealed still-lingering sensitivities. Critics of the Jewish
leadership cried whitewash, while defenders of the establishment circled the wagons. But the controversy
did galvanize a healthy public discussion.

New scholarly research in the 1980s permanently reshaped the debate. Monty Penkower (The Jews
Were Expendable, 1982), David Wyman (The Abandonment of the Jews, 1984), Haskel Lookstein (Were
We Our Brothers' Keepers?, 1984) and others revealed unflattering new information about American
Jewry and the Holocaust. They chronicled the missed opportunities to press for Allied rescue of refugees,
the petty in-fighting between Jewish groups that sapped communal time and energy, the unsavory attacks
by Jewish leaders against the activist Bergson Group. What the historians found essentially confirmed
what the critics had suspected.

During the past several years, remarks made by several prominent Jewish leaders have dramatically
illustrated how much attitudes have changed over the years. At a Wyman Institute conference, Michael
Miller, executive director of the New York Jewish Community Relations Council, and Seymour Reich, past
president of B'nai B'rith and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations,
sharply criticized their predecessors' wartime record. Reich declared: " I have come here today, as a
veteran of the Jewish establishment, to say unequivocally: the Jewish leaders in the 1940s were wrong."

Rabbi Dr. David Ellenson, president of Reform Judaism's Hebrew Union College, has gone so far as to
assert that Rabbi Stephen Wise "failed miserably" in his response to the Holocaust. The news from
Europe was certainly unprecedented, he said, but Jewish leaders such as Wise "had an obligation to be
sufficiently flexible and imaginative to deal with unprecedented situations." Rabbi Ellenson's bold
statement was significant not only because Wise was the most prominent American Jewish leader of the
1940s, but also because he was the founder and longtime leader of the very institution over which
Ellenson himself now presides.

These Jewish leaders who have criticized the wartime Jewish establishment may not have phrased their
remarks in the form of an Al Chet, but they certainly spoke in the spirit of the forthright acknowledgment
Rabbi Soloveitchik evidently had in mind.

Tishrei 27, 5771 / 05 October 10

From: http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/9739