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October 11: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Jews

October 11, 2014
franklin-d-roosevelt-eleanorEleanor Roosevelt, First Lady of the U.S. from 1933 to 1945 and a progressive activist throughout the 1940s and ’50s, was born in New York on this date in 1884. She shared her patrician class’s low-grade anti-Semitism during her younger days, but by 1935, according to her biographer, Blanche Wiesen Cook, “she spoke out against anti-Semitism and race hatred wherever she found it in the United States.” In 1941, writes Warren Boroson in the New Jersey Jewish Standard, “she confided to an overnight White House guest, ‘One of the things that troubles me is that when people are in trouble, whether it’s the dust bowl or the miners — whoever it is, and I see the need for help, the first people who come forward and try to offer help are the Jews. Now in these terrible days, when they need help, why don’t they come?’ ” Roosevelt was strongly influenced by the Germany-wide Kristallnacht pogrom, and by her close friendships with Bernard Baruch and Elinor Morgenthau (wife of the Secretary of the Treasury). After the war, Roosevelt emerged, according to Cook, “as a more forthright and prominent advocate for Jewish concerns than during her years with FDR. Her horrified reaction to the Holocaust and her close friendship with several Jews seemed to have erased any trace of her earlier anti-Semitism.” “Her courage is underscored in this story: Some 1,500 delegates, black and white, attended a conference on human welfare on Nov. 21, 1938, in Birmingham, Ala. Blacks and whites sat together. The next day, the auditorium was surrounded by police vans and policemen. Chief Bull Connor announced that anyone who broke Alabama’s segregation laws would be arrested. The delegates thereupon sat down in segregated sections. Then Mrs. Roosevelt arrived, to great applause. She looked at the segregated audience — and sat down on the black side. One of the policemen tapped her on the shoulder and told her to move. She wouldn’t.” —Warren Boroson