First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) tried on several occasions, without success, to persuade President Franklin D. Roosevelt to soften his positions regarding Jewish refugees.
Mrs. Roosevelt, like many members of her extended family, is known to have made antisemitic remarks as a young adult. For example, after a party in 1918 for financier Bernard Baruch, she wrote to her mother in law that “the Jew party [was] appalling” because the attendees were “mostly Jews.” However, as a result of her increased social relationships with Jews, including Baruch and Henry and Elinor Morgenthau, Mrs. Roosevelt gradually shed such prejudices. She even quietly resigned from New York’s Colony Club after it refused to admit Mrs. Morgenthau.
On a number of occasions in the 1930s, Eleanor expressed sympathy for the plight of the Jews in Nazi Germany. Some of the First Lady’s information about the persecution of the Jews came from her friend Dr. Alice Hamilton, who spent ten weeks in Germany in 1933. Mrs. Roosevelt brought Hamilton to Hyde Park to brief the president on life under the Hitler regime. But the First Lady was not consistent in her handling of such information. The Quaker activists Clarence and Lilly Pickett, visiting Germany in 1934, sent Eleanor harrowing accounts of the suffering of the Jews. Yet in a newspaper column that she wrote about the Picketts’ journey, Mrs. Roosevelt made no mention of the anti-Jewish atrocities they witnessed. Her silence may have been in deference to the Roosevelt administration’s policy of refraining from direct public criticism of Hitler’s anti-Jewish actions.
After ascertaining that her husband did not object, the First Lady let it be known, in early 1939, that she supported the Wagner-Rogers bill, which would have permitted the admission of 20,000 German Jewish refugee children outside the quota system. However, she refrained from publicly campaigning on behalf of the legislation.
A new refugee advocacy group known as the Emergency Rescue Committee turned to Mrs. Roosevelt in 1940 to assist endangered artists, writers, and labor activists, many of them Jews, who were trapped in Vichy France. She was able to convince the president to authorize five hundred emergency visas, on the grounds that the intellectual and artistic elite of Western civilization were in danger. Rescue activist Varian Fry and his underground network in France ultimately succeeded in stretching the emergency visas program to encompass some two thousand refugees whom they smuggled to freedom.
Mrs. Roosevelt also successfully intervened with the president to secure the admission of 86 refugees aboard the S.S. Quanza, which docked for coal at Norfolk, Virginia in September 1940 after being turned away from expected havens in South America.
The First Lady’s involvement in such episodes infuriated Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, who repeatedly attempted to restrict or cancel the emergency visas program. Mrs. Roosevelt once remarked to the president about Long, “Franklin, you know he’s a fascist.” FDR reportedly snapped in response, “I’ve told you, Eleanor, you must not say that.”
In response to the sinking of the refugee ship Struma in February 1942, resulting the deaths of 768 passengers, Mrs. Roosevelt wrote to the State Department that the British refusal to let the Struma reach Palestine was “cruel beyond words.” But she does not seem to have raised the issue with the president.
After news of the mass murder of Europe’s Jews was confirmed in 1942, officials of Jewish activist groups such as the Bergson Group and the Va’ad ha-Hatzala, who did not have access to the president, made contact with the First Lady in the hope of influencing U.S. policy through her.
In March 1943, Mrs. Roosevelt attended the Washington, D.C. performance of Bergson’s “We Will Never Die” protest pageant. She wrote about the event in her “My Day” syndicated column on April 14, describing it as “one of the most impressive and moving pageants I have ever seen.” The column made made millions of American newspaper readers aware of the plight of the Jews. Later that year, at Bergson’s request, the First Lady authored a message of hope to the Jews under Hitler’s rule, which was broadcast by short-wave radio to Europe. Bergson met with Mrs. Roosevelt in the White House on several occasions. After one of the meetings, the First Lady wrote a “My Day” installment about the suffering of the Jews, arguing that the United States should not “let great wrongs occur [to the Jews] without exerting ourselves to correct them.”
Sources: Penkower, The Holocaust and Israel Reborn, pp.117, 272-276; Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt, pp.122-125, 309-313.