I was seven years old in 1943 and 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 Dr. Isaac Lewin, z”l, 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 news of the slaughter of Jews by Hitler and his cohorts dribbled out to the free world and reached American media. I was already a New York Yankees fan, and attention was focused on the World Series between my Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals. As a seven year old, 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, zichronom le-veracha,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 (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 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 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 Truman, regarding the Zionist dream of an independent Jewish state 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.