Eleanor Roosevelt and the Refugees

Source: B.A. Shapiro in Salon, October 1

Washington, the spring of 1939 – At that time xenophobes such as Charles Lindbergh and Joseph Kennedy – along with their isolationist America First Committee – claimed that, given our own pressing domestic concerns, it wasn’t the U.S.’s responsibility to get involved in the “European War.” “If we help them, they will take our jobs,” they argued. “If we help them, we will go broke.”

These nationalists falsely asserted that the majority of the refugees were actually disguised German spies seeking American military secrets. Their rhetoric convinced most of the public. And it convinced President Roosevelt. Boatloads of European refugees were refused entrance into the U.S. – the SS St. Louis being the most famous and tragic – and sent back to Europe. Restrictive quotas were enacted and even those with valid visas were denied entry.

Eleanor RooseveltBut Eleanor looked at the other side of the equation: What will happen if we don’t help them? She understood that these were human beings whose lives were being upended – and often ended – by the whims of a megalomaniac with a massive war machine behind him. That these people suddenly had no home, no country, nowhere to go. That they would most likely die if no one reached out a hand.

She pleaded with her husband, beseeched him to look beyond what appeared politically impossible and recognize what was humanly possible. But Franklin didn’t listen, most likely because there was a presidential election looming. He turned his back on those who needed help, instead playing to his largely isolationist audience – at that time almost 80 percent of Americans were against military involvement in Europe and many believed that accepting refugees might draw us into the conflict. He won the election.

The president again turned his back when, dismissing Eleanor’s entreaties, he promoted Breckinridge Long, an ardent anti-Semitic isolationist, to a position in which he had full control over the issuance of visas. We now know that Long kept almost 200,000 congressionally authorized visas out of the hands of needy refugees – almost all of them Jewish. These visas went unused, while the people for whom they were approved were either unable to leave Europe or were sent back there. We all know what happened next.


5 responses to “Eleanor Roosevelt and the Refugees

  1. One heroic attempt to outwit Roosevelt’s policy was successful: the rescue of 50 children from Germany in 1939 by another Eleanor, Eleanor Kraus, and her husband Gilbert, a lawyer, affluent Jews from Philadelphia. The story remained little known for years, until a documentary was made from Eleanor’s typed memoir. “50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs, Kraus” came out in 2013, and was shown in Toronto last fall as part of Holocaust Education Week. Some of the children, now elderly, appear in the film, one of them making what has become, for me, the most searing statement about the Jewish refugee crisis of the 1930s. She says something like [not verbatim], “The gates were closing fast, but people could still get out. The problem was not getting out–it was that no one would take us in. We could all have been saved.”

  2. And have you heard of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese Consul in Lithuania who went against orders and issued transit visas to Jewish refugees, saving thousands of lives? I learned of this from a friend, the daughter of one of these refugees whose mother never spoke of it. It came to light for the daughter when, incredibly, she was tracked down after someone recognized a photo of her mother, given in thanks to Sugihara – after it appeared in a TV segment.

    This little-known story has been given attention in the last two years, with a documentary in the making. Details here:


    The Japanese have shown intense interest in my friend, whose story is here:

  3. And may I put in a plug here for another documentary about a better-known story: The Danish Solution http://www.snagfilms.com/films/title/the_danish_solution
    The film-maker is my cousin, Karen Cantor.
    There’s a remarkable connection with Beethoven’s hair!

    • Clarification: Re-watching The Danish Solution this morning, I am astonished to find no reference to Beethoven’s hair — yet there is a connection. The documentary (and book) so titled (Beethoven’s Hair) tells the story of a lock of hair snipped from Beethoven’s head at the time of his death, which wound up, about 20 years ago, in the hands of two American Beethoven enthusiasts with the unlikely names Ira Brilliant and Che Guevara. (Analysis of the hair showed that lead poisoning, presumably from eating and drinking from lead vessels, was the cause of Beethoven’s death.) By the time of WW II, the lock of hair had found its way to the town of Gilleleje, in Nazi-occupied Denmark, where it was given to a local doctor whose daughter later consigned it to the auction at which Brilliant and Guevara bought it. Presumably whoever gave it to the doctor in Gilleleje for safe-keeping was a Jew who escaped on one of those fishing boats. Who she/he was, and how she/he had acquired the hair, are unknown.

  4. henrylotin@rogers.com

    Another little known story behind the survival of the Shanghai Refugee movement during the Holocaust is the Chinese Consul General in Vienna (Mr Ho?). The tens of thousands saved by his pen never knew his name because he wrote in Chinese script. He immigrated to San Francisco after WWII and lived to age 96. His daughter found a suitcase with his notes that spoke of his role. A role he likely did not fully disclose to his own government at the time. The neighbourhood in Shanghai where refugees and Chinese lived together is one of the last standing remnants of pre-westernization, and pre-revolution residential Shanghai.