Eleanor Roosevelt and the Jews

Eleanor Roosevelt and the Jews

Our reviewer looks at the literature about the First Lady and us

FDR, Eleanor, and the children.

The many people who idolize Eleanor Roosevelt may have been upset to read the new book, “FDR and the Jews,” by Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman, that detailed the nasty things she wrote about Jewish people when she was young.

In a letter, Mrs. Roosevelt described future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter as “an interesting little man but very Jew.”

After reluctantly attending a party for Bernard Baruch, the Wall Street financier, she wrote: “The Jew party was appalling. I never wish to hear money, jewels, and sables mentioned again.” She also wrote that it was the kind of party “I’d rather be hung [sic] than seen at.”

The first two quotes – from the year 1918, when Mrs. Roosevelt was 34 – were prominent in a recent review of the book in the New York Times Book Review.

She was not born the compassionate and courageous person she grew to be, the woman who sympathized with and vigorously supported Jews and Jewish causes. Like many other educated people of her time, she shared their “low-grade” anti-Semitic sentiments. But, writes biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook, “Stunned by the depths of the problem in America, by 1935 she spoke out against antisemitism and race hatred wherever she found it in the United States.”

Anti-Semitism was endemic in the first half of the 20th century, even in the United States – the time of Henry Ford and his Dearborn Independent, Father Charles E. Coughlin’s radio programs, and Bund meetings. Newspaper employment ads announced: “No Jews or Catholics need apply!” Signs in many American neighborhoods read: “No Dogs or Jews Allowed.” A Gallup poll taken in 1937 found that 47 percent of Americans would not vote for a Jew for president, even someone well-qualified. In part, this antipathy was the result of Nazi propaganda.

Among Mrs. Roosevelt’s distinguished Jew-baiting contemporaries were novelist Graham Greene, poet T.S. Eliot (“The rats are underneath the piles. The jew is underneath the lot”), novelist Theodore Dreiser, and writer H.L. Mencken (“The Jews could be put down very plausibly as the most unpleasant race ever heard of”). And even certain Jews, like the pundit Walter Lippmann, who wrote in 1922: “The rich and vulgar and pretentious Jews of our big American cities … are the real fountain of antisemitism….” (Later, some of these people, like T.S. Eliot, were apologetic.)

As for notable politicians contemporary with Mrs. Roosevelt, “A diary kept by Harry Truman included statements such as ‘The Jews, I find, are very, very selfish,'” wrote Rafael Medoff, the founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington. “Richard Nixon’s denunciations of Jews as ‘very aggressive and obnoxious’ were belatedly revealed in tapes of Oval Office conversations.”

Medoff has compiled a list of anti-Semitic utterances from FDR himself, such as his “dismissing pleas for Jewish refugees as ‘Jewish wailing’ and ‘sob stuff’; expressing (to a senator ) his pride that ‘there is no Jewish blood in our veins’; and characterizing a tax maneuver by a Jewish newspaper publisher as ‘a dirty Jewish trick.’ But the most common theme in Roosevelt’s private statements about Jews has to do with his perception that they were ‘overcrowding’ many professions and exercising undue influence.”

Like other prominent Jews, Medoff believes that FDR’s negative comments help explain this country’s “tepid” response to the Holocaust.

On the other hand, “FDR and the Jews” is a persuasive brief on behalf of FDR, arguing that to keep southern senators in line, to make sure that he and other like-minded Democrats were re-re-elected and then crushed Nazism, he had to temper what he said about and what he did on behalf of the Jews suffering in Europe.

The authors, professors in the department of history at American University in Washington, D.C., argue in effect that Roosevelt doesn’t deserve an A in his relations with Jews, but, compared with other political leaders of the time (like Churchill), he deserves a passing grade – a C or even a B.

Their verdict: “His compromises might seem flawed in the light of what later generations have learned about the depth and significance of the Holocaust…. Still, Roosevelt reacted more decisively to Nazi crimes against Jews than did any other world leader of his time.”

Not everyone accepts the arguments in “FDR and the Jews.” Some historians continue to believe that FDR, as one of them put it, “sold his soul to the segregated South.”


While an “inbred dislike of Jews and materialism surfaced in [Mrs. Roosevelt’s] early correspondence,” Monty N. Penkower writes (in Jewish Social Studies, 1987), she moved far away from “the antisemitism of her patrician circle.” Powerful evidence: In the fall of 1941, 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?” Penkower is a professor at the Machon Lander Graduate School for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

Why did Mrs. Roosevelt change? She evolved from a callow young woman into a president’s wife, careful to abide by most of the rules, and finally into an independent, outspoken humanitarian. If FDR deserves a C or a B for his efforts on behalf of Jews, Mrs. Roosevelt deserves a B or even an A- minus.

Early in FDR’s presidency, she did not denounce Nazi oppression of Jews. She followed her husband’s mantra: The Allies could best help the Jews by winning the war as fast as possible.

She changed, according to Penkower, because of Kristallnacht, which occurred in November 1938. Kristallnacht, he writes, “galvanized Mrs. Roosevelt into action.” Friends who had firsthand knowledge told her about it – at least 91 Jews were killed, 30,000 were arrested and sent to concentration camps, and more than 1,000 synagogues were burned.

She also changed because she became close friends with some remarkable Jews, including Bernard Baruch and Elinor Morgenthau, the wife of Henry Morgenthau Jr., Secretary of the Treasury. The Morgenthaus were assimilated Jews; they celebrated Christmas and Easter, complete with a festive ham. Their children were not ritually circumcised. Still, the Morgenthaus deeply sympathized with the Jews’ sufferings.

Baruch was charming, sophisticated, knowledgeable, handsome. Although he was a particular target of anti-Semites, he had grown up in the South, his father had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan (his Klan targeted carpetbaggers, not blacks, Jews, or Catholics), his mother had been a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Daughters of the Confederacy, and he was just a DNA Jew. He became such a close friend of Mrs. Roosevelt that she once wrote to him, “There are few people one trusts without reservation in life and I am deeply grateful to call you that kind of friend.”

Historian Blanche Wiesen Cook, referring to Mrs. Roosevelt’s 1918 anti-Semitic comments, writes in her biography, “Eleanor Roosevelt,” that “they remained a routine part of her social observation for many years, diminishing as her friendship with Baruch and other Jews flourished.”

But perhaps Mrs. Roosevelt simply matured. Says Jeffrey S. Urbin, she “was at first a person of her times, who then explored issues and concerns and determined if she thought they were right or wrong: and then was not afraid to allow herself to change and become a better, more accepting, more balanced and informed person. And she then sought to enlighten those around her.” (Urbin is education specialist at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, N.Y.)

Historian David Oshinsky of the University of Texas believes “that it was the ability of the Roosevelts to set aside [their] prejudices that seemed to distinguish them from so many others of their class. When it mattered most, their nobler instincts took over.”

Later in the 1930s, Mrs. Roosevelt supported admitting more Jewish refugees into the United States, denounced the Nazis, appeared at Jewish rallies, got involved in Jewish organizations like Hadassah, and very possibly prodded her husband to do more.


Mrs. Roosevelt “was not a saint,” writes Blanche Wiesen Cook in her classic biography of Mrs. Roosevelt. She “could be mean and cold and disagreeable.”

Her early silence about Nazi Germany, and about the mistreatment of blacks, was “thunderous,” Cook writes. “She was frequently advised by her husband or State Department officials to remain discreet and uninvolved…. The State Department opposed all public expressions of protest against Hitler’s activities.” (The State Department at the time harbored a good many anti-Semites, like Breckenridge Long.)

When a Jewish woman, Maria Meyer Wachman, wrote to her from London, asking her to urge Americans to help Jewish refugees from Germany, Mrs. Roosevelt responded: “Unfortunately, in my present situation I am obliged to leave all contacts with foreign governments in the hands of my husband and his advisers.”

Her Jewish friends, including Elinor Morgenthau and Baruch, “feared that domestic Jew-hatred would be intensified by protests against Germany’s official anti-Jewish decrees – and they, too, wanted America to remain aloof from Germany’s agony,” Cook writes.

On the other hand, Mrs. Roosevelt “silenced on the situation in Europe … sought to limit the rise of antisemitism and race bigotry within the United States. Her work with the NAACP intensified during this period, and she responded with clarity and outrage whenever Jewish groups or individuals were attacked in the United States.”

Her gradual change is reflected in the fact that when Elinor Morgenthau was denied membership in the Colony Club, which Mrs. Roosevelt herself had co-founded, she resigned. Quietly. Years later, when she learned that a country club in Lancaster, Pa., excluded Jews, she canceled a speaking engagement – and explained why.

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.

During the remainder of the four-day meeting, Mrs. Roosevelt sat in the middle of whatever hall or church she was attending. The police followed her everywhere she went, but did not dare arrest the wife of the president.

An observer noted, according to Cook, that her “demonstration of defiance and courage meant everything to the young people of the South, who now knew that they were not alone.”


Mrs. Roosevelt survived her husband by 17 years. “After the war, she became America’s most noted advocate for human rights,” Cook writes. “She also emerged in the postwar period 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.” She also strongly supported the new state of Israel.


Mrs. Roosevelt was not the only famous person in history to undergo a transformation – to change radically.

Hugo Black, the liberal Supreme Court justice, had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan in his youth, primarily because of his antagonism to the Catholic Church.

Mark Twain had written somewhat critically of Jews – before he became close to being a philo-Semite.

And then there was the young woman whose father was a rock-ribbed Republican. She became a Goldwater Girl in 1964, even wearing a 10-gallon cowboy hat with the candidate’s name, as AuH20. She became president of the Young Republicans. Then she worked in Washington, D.C., as an intern for Gerald Ford, Republican leader of the House. She attended the 1968 Republican convention to help with New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s quest for the Republican presidential nomination. But gradually she moved over to the Democratic Party, in part because, in a high school debate, she had to take President Johnson’s part. Eventually she became the U.S. Secretary of State in a Democratic administration.

And, of course, Hillary Rodham Clinton also is a former First Lady.

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