Eleanor Roosevelt’s rescue efforts during the Shoah is a little known magnificent contribution. The lives of about 1,200 children were saved because of her committed and effective efforts. Following that she played a role in rescuing about 1000 Jewish refugees. She was indeed a person ahead of her times and in many ways likely well ahead of our own (Women’s rights, African-American rights and children’s rights are other areas she vigorously effectively pursued). The most we sometimes hear is that she tried to get FDR to pay attention but her real positive accomplishments of direct involvement are sadly overlooked.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s first efforts in assisting the Jews was revealed in her advocacy of the Wagner Act (sponsor Senator Wagner) which would have granted the immigration of 20,000 largely Jewish children under 14 who she anticipated before the Shoah would become victims of Hitler. Unfortunately the Wagner effort did not succeed insofar as the anti-immigration lobby was too strong at this time. However most significantly she organized her own committee to rescue Jewish children from Hitler’s persecution. As a result between June and September 1940 Eleanor managed to obtain temporary visas for 800 children which was followed in 1943 by an additional four hundred.
In June 1944 the ship the Quanza with 300 fleeing Jewish from Hitler attempted to seek refuge in Mexico but was rejected by that country. Approximately 200 who were non-Jews were accepted into the US while the remaining 100 Jews were denied entry. Upon appeal by women passengers aboard in a special letter to Eleanor Roosevelt, they were granted entry and disembarked at Norfolk VA. Included among the passengers was Victoria Redel, who later became a noted author with the following books to her credit: “Before Everything” and “Border of Truth” (a book about this very incident). Following that, she used her influence (upon Franklin) to create a refugee center called Fort Ontario in Oswego, NY where refugees numbering about 1,000 leaving from Belgium were settled. She further made a public appearance recorded in her column My Day, which heightened US awareness of the Jewish genocide by Hitler’s regime.
In her early years of life, Eleanor exhibited an anti-Jewish bias due to her upbringing. However in her life development and experiences particularly through her relationship with Jewish friends such as Harry Morgenthau, an inspiring transformation occurred and with her capacity to get things done saved numerous Jewish lives.
Beyond these mentioned contributions there is the role she played in US support for the creation of the state of Israel. When Truman wavered with State Dept. in 1947 to support the creation she vigorously urged him to take action as his appointed delegate to UN. She also acted as patron to youth Aliyah allowing youth to immigrate to Israel. She visited Israel 3 times subsequently meeting with Golda Meir and Ben Gurion. Moreover she intervened in Morocco when barriers were place in way against allowing Jewish youth to emigrate. She advocated frequently in her column, My Day, for the creation of the state of Israel, continuing to impress upon the then president (with whom she worked most harmoniously and effectively) Harry Truman how essential this was to the cause of world justice. Her association with close friend Joseph Lash, further reinforced this position. Upon returning from a visit to refugee camps she spoke in MY Day of the “tortured Jew survivors” and as Palestine “(later Israel) the one place they will have a status where they will respond to the need of the refugees.” She forthrightly described them as “the greatest victims of the war.” Moreover she imposed upon both Truman and Marshall to exert pressure on the British to allow Jewish immigration to Palestine.
There is a relevant perspective in connection with Eleanor’s actions here called “meliorism” This perspective harmonizes with Talmudic thinking as well as later coined by the writer George Elliot and refined perceptively by the American philosopher William James. It is neither pessimism nor optimism (although closer to the latter) but rather asserts that human conditions can be elevated or bettered through human committed effort by drawing upon creative resourcefulness in response to hidden magnificent opportunities. In Judaic terms these opportunities are created by God and it is up to us to embrace and act upon them. Eleanor Roosevelt through her life is a living glorious example of meliorism in action. Her decisions, moreover, seem to be guided by a meloristic attitude illustrated in the rescue efforts she leveled resourcefully attuned to reality in achieving results. In her efforts to rescue the Jewish children for example she proposed temporary passports coupled with a proposal to return when safe realizing that otherwise she would stimulate tremendous reluctance by virtue of anti-immigration sentiment. A women’s petition in the instance of the Quanza boat incident also emerged to which Eleanor Roosevelt swiftly responded. She clearly, moreover, had a decided impact upon Franklin because he recognized her as enjoying a following of both black and women’s votes.
The melioristic perspective is one that is deeply embedded in Judaism especially through the notion of tikkum olam. Here the universe is viewed as an imperfect one which can only be further perfected through the active contribution of human beings. In the field of action this is strongly implied by Rabbi Tarfon when he said it is not for us to complete the task but to build the foundation. In other words, there is an ongoing process of spiritual improvement that is set in motion. These are the characteristics represented in the life style of Eleanor Roosevelt through her rescue efforts.