Speech before Women's Division of the United Jewish Appeal of Greater New York

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Speech before Women's Division of the United Jewish Appeal of Greater New York17

20 February 1946 [New York City]

As you know, I have just come home and I have not really had time to think through the most effective way of presenting to you the experiences which I have had. Therefore, I am going to try only to give you some of the impressions which are most vivid in my mind, since they are the things which I did after leaving the United Nations Conference.18

I went to Germany and spent only two-and-a-half days there, but in those two-and-a-half days I think I became more conscious than ever of what complete human misery there is in the world. When I came home yesterday and walked into my apartment and realized that there were no destroyed houses around me, it seemed very queer. (Where I had been, there was destruction wherever you looked.) And the house was warm, and nobody seemed to worry about whether we were going to have anything to eat. And I can only tell you that, for two-and-a-half days in Germany, those were the things that beat upon one every minute.

I went to four displaced persons camps.19 I am going to tell you about the Jewish camp, which was run by UNRRA.20 It was one of the very best camps; it was run as well as possible. But the thing that I feel is not only the physical aspect, but something that I can only describe in this way: What would happen to us if suddenly we had no real right to appeal to a government of our own?

I felt that all the time in the displaced persons camps—a kind of spiritual uprooting, a kind of being lost.

Even in the worst days of the depression, when I went down into the mining areas,21 at least the people came to one and said, "We want our government to know." And they had the feeling that they had a right to tell their government.

Nobody has that right in a displaced persons camp. There just is nothing to hold onto.

As I have said, the camp I am talking about was one of the very best. The people were living in houses—houses that had been taken over from the German community. The kitchens were in barracks which had been built. The displaced persons there have 2,300 calories a day, as against 1,500 which the German people are allowed. But 2,300 calories a day gives you, I think, about the most uninteresting food and never really lets you be without hunger.

The thing which does vary their food a little bit in some places is that, since the Prisoner of War camps are closing, some of the surplus Red Cross packages have apparently been allowed to seep in. However, that is just a drop in the bucket.

Let me tell you about the breakfasts that they have, for children and everyone else. There is coffee with canned milk and some sugar—very little sugar—and a piece of bread. By the way, they have three meals a day in the Displaced Persons camps. For the main meal, you get soup, the basis of which is potatoes; now and then, you have some other vegetables; occasionally, they told me—but very rarely—they had a little piece of meat; and again, a hunk of dark bread. Sometimes, the bread is cut in slices, with margarine on it. Occasionally, you have some dried fruits, stewed fruits.

For supper, you again have tea or coffee—which is pretty bad coffee—and now and then the children can have a little bit of dried milk, particularly if they are not well. But the whole thing, of course, is based on a piece of bread that goes with whatever you have [to] drink.22

On the day that I was in the Jewish camp, the main meal was some powdered eggs—scrambled eggs. The people have such a longing to create a sense of home that they would take the powdered eggs from the kitchen and take them back to the one little room that they might have. By the way, in this particular camp they did have rooms—each family did have a room—but sometimes another family would have to go through their room to reach their own room.

You feel a kind of desperation about the dignity of the individual, the right to some privacy. They have done such pathetic things. The remnants of the families try so hard to make a home. I looked at these powdered eggs that were going to be carried back, and I thought, "Oh, Heavens, how horrible—the eggs will be cold when they get them back to their rooms." And yet, they would take them back, simply because—even though you ate and you slept and you sat in the same little place—that little place was home.

There is a building in this camp where children are kept who have wandered in off the road and have no older people with them. One little boy sang for me; he sang a Jewish song.23 Of course, these children are much smaller than they should be for their age. This little, tiny, curly-haired thing was ten years old, but he didn't look much more than six or seven. The director told me that this little boy had just wandered in with a younger brother one day, and they had been at the camp ever since. He said that this little boy always sang for them. They called him their "singer" in the camp. But he had all the appearance of a worried, old man, because the care of his younger brother and himself weighed on his shoulders.

What those children have gone through is just indescribable.

I am not going to tell you some of the things, because you probably know them. I can only tell you that I came away with a sense of so much human misery and a sense of surprise that there was anything left which made it possible for them to be interested. They were interested in my coming there, but I couldn't [see] why they should care who came or why they should want anyone to come. But they did.

They wanted me to go up to the stone monument that they themselves had built and the plaque that they had engraved to the 6,000,000 Jews who had been killed. They wanted me to hear from the leader of the camp what they wanted, what they had hoped for.24 There, again, you wondered how they could hope for anything.

There was one old woman there whom I don't think I will ever forget, because you looked at her and you felt that this was the end of life, and that life must have been so terrible to bring one at the end to what this poor old thing faced.

It is true they want to go back to Palestine.25 They want to go back because that represents to them some roots. I don't know what the committee will recommend—and, as you know, the United Nations Organization, through the Economic and Social Council, is to set up a committee to go into the whole question of refugees, with a view to making recommendations as to what should happen when UNRRA does come to an end. The committee is going to be charged with an investigation of the whole problem, of which the Jewish problem is only one part. They are going to look into this whole problem and screen the different types of refugees. We don't have any realization of the difficulty of finding out about the different types of people.26

The camp that I went to, the Jewish camp near Frankfurt, had mostly Polish Jews—a few Germans, but mostly Polish. Another camp was almost entirely filled with what they called Balts, who are refugees from Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.27

The committee will have to investigate that whole question of displaced people or uprooted people and try to find some answer as to whether there are any existing international agencies that can be strengthened and made capable of dealing with the whole problem.

We had a very interesting time in discussing the appointment of that Commission, because some people feel very strongly that, unless people are willing to go back to their own country, they must be against their country.28 Well, of course, that isn't so. Many of these people did fight against the Fascist Regime, against the Nazis, but they are out of sympathy with existing regimes in their countries. Rightly, or wrongly, they are out sympathy with those regimes. I couldn't judge, you couldn't judge, without the study which I hope is going to be made.

However, that it is an international problem is evident to anyone who looks into it at all. It seems to me that in the next few months UNRRA will carry the burden of actually seeing that people do not starve in those places where UNRRA is functioning.

It is a mistake to think that the displaced persons camps in Germany are any worse than the displaced persons camps in other places, or that the standards of food are worse than those that they have in the other countries. In many cases, the condition is made worse in the other countries because of the fact that, for a long period, they were under Nazi occupation. Therefore, their strength has been sapped over a longer period. In Holland, for instance, under the occupation, a baby was allowed only 350 calories a day. Of course, babies just starved to death—just died.

I came home with the feeling that, every day, every one of us should say "Thank God that my roof is intact, that my room is warm" (and I think we had better learn not to be quite so warm; I think it would do us a great deal of good), "and thank God that we have enough to eat, so that we are not hungry."

The whole of Europe is hungry. But, worse than that, the whole of Europe is without any social structure. You see, the Nazis went through first and wiped out all the people who were doing the job of administering a town or a village or a city. They were simply wiped out. Then the Allies came along, and to a very large extent we had to root out whatever the Nazis had had there. The people who were administering those places were efficient, but they were Nazis, and they had to be removed. That is why, with those two currents having passed through, the leadership is gone.

I have the feeling that we let our consciences realize too late the need of standing up against something that we knew was wrong. We have therefore had to avenge it—but we did nothing to prevent it. I hope that in the future, we are going to remember that there can be no compromise at any point with the things that we know are wrong. We should remember that in connection with all the things that we do here, or in connection with anything at all in the world.

We cannot live in an island of prosperity in a sea of human misery. It just can't be done.

We may enjoy today all the things that I think we should be thankful for, but we cannot hold them when all around us there is a condition such as I am trying to make you feel. I don't think I am succeeding very well, because I cannot really tell you the things that pull one's heartstrings. However, I can assure you that you could not be in any one of the displaced persons camps without feeling that you could hardly bear it, that you could just hardly bear what human beings had endured.

I realize, and you would realize, that there comes a point at which a numbness must set in. If that did not happen, I think these people would all be out of their minds. When you talk to them, you realize that there is this numbness from which all of them are suffering. For instance, as I walked into one place, two children were being taken out with typhus. I told this story in my column, but I think that I will repeat it here because it is really the epitome of what you find there. It was an old shelter, and children were wandering in the underground corridors.

I said, "But the mothers will lose these children!" And the public health doctor who was with me said, "That is the sad part of it; the mothers are indifferent—they have lost so many children."

That shelter was only a transient shelter. It was not run by UNRRA, but run by the Army. The people came in and were supposed to go right out again, but sometimes they didn't go right out. They had only two meals a day there. The way they lived, the dirt, was horrible. They all had to be sprayed with DDT before they could even be allowed to register.

I went to the place where they were serving the second meal of the day—at four p.m.—a meal which consisted of soup and a piece of bread. I saw a woman with a little boy who was not eating anything. I stopped and said, "What is the matter? He doesn't seem to be eating."

She said, "Oh, he has fever. His sister has fever, too. She is too sick to sit up today, but the doctor came to see her. The boy will be sick, too."

She had no feeling that she could do anything about it. There was a complete acceptance, there was a numbness.

As I went out, two small children sat on a bench, with all their little belongings gathered around them. The public health doctor of that area said to me, "The mother left this morning when the group was called, and she must have forgotten the children, because she left them behind."

Well, you know and I know that most children left behind in such circumstances would have been in tears. But I went over and spoke to the little boy—he was nearly ten, and I suppose his sister was four or five—and I said, "I hope your mother comes back soon."

He said to me, "I am sad." And that was all he said. There were no tears. The little girl didn't move. They just sat there until someone would come and take them somewhere.

Those children epitomized the feeling that one gets. There wasn't any use in crying, you see. You never knew what would happen; you just accepted what fate brought to you.

I want to stress the point that it is not just the physical condition that is bad, horrible as it is—horrible as it is to live without privacy, to live (as some of them do) with even less privacy than there was at the Jewish camp which I visited, which at least had houses and room.

There was one camp that I saw which had a wonderful French UNRRA team running it.29 I cannot say enough for the way those people had worked, particularly the doctor. A little corner of the room—no larger than the distance from the end of this table across the stage to the curtain—was divided into three parts by blankets hung up on strings at the height of a man's head. Three families—seven people in all—lived in those three divisions.

But it is not just that. It is the feeling that there has been a crumbling of the thing that gives most of us a sense of security, the feeling that we have roots, and that—as bad as the situation may be—we have a government to which we can appeal, we have people who are representing us and who can speak for us.

Charity is a wonderful thing, but it does not give one that sense of security. What is important is rehabilitation. The sooner the study is made, and the sooner those people can be taken where they can become citizens and feel that they are actually building a new life, the better it will be for the whole world.

Europe, as it is today, gave me the most completely miserable sense of what people can suffer and how the suffering can numb them and how it can sap their strength. It gave me something else which I should like to pass on to you. It gave me the feeling that we have been saved untold misery, and that we must have been saved for a reason. That reason must be that we were expected to give leadership—spiritual leadership, moral leadership, physical leadership. If that is so, and if we fail, what is our punishment going to be?

Of course, you cannot understand the languages that some of those people speak. But you just have to look at their faces and into their eyes to know that whatever leadership is coming has to come from us. It is especially the younger generation that is going to look to us, because we have the capacity to make the things that they need and to see that they get them, and we still have the strength to be leaders. If we don't give that leadership now, I don't know where in the world it is going to come from.

That is the thing I should like to leave with you. I think the most important thing for us to realize is the great responsibility that lies upon our shoulders and the fact that we must give something beyond what we have ever given before in the world—something that is no longer for ourselves at all, but for humanity as a whole.


1. Roosevelt, OMO, 54; ER to Kathleen McLaughlin, 17 January 1946; ER's London Diary, 16 January and 11 February 1946, AERP; "Mrs. Roosevelt Visits Refugees," NYT, 15 February 1946, 4.

2. The Zeilsheim Jewish displaced persons camp, located about twelve miles outside of Frankfurt in the US occupation zone, was the first camp ER visited in Germany. She arrived at the camp of approximately 3,200 displaced Jews on the morning of February 14 ("Displaced Persons Don't Eat Very Well, Says Mrs. Roosevelt," WP, 15 February 1946, 5).

3. ER spoke to the crowd, answered their questions, and promised to "tell as many people as possible of the human side of the problem." Afterwards she walked around the camp and talked with many people there about their situation. Press reports stated that she was followed by a crowd of about 400 Jews pleading, "send us back to Palestine," and holding bilingual signs with such messages as "We want to go, we have to go, we must go, we will go to Palestine" and "We Jewish children will no more stay on this bloody ground where our parents were destroyed. We will go home to Palestine." For more on ER's visit to Zeilsheim, see Document 95 ("Displaced Persons Don't Eat Very Well, Says Mrs. Roosevelt," WP, 15 February 1946, 5).

4. In a speech to over 3,000 people at the opening of the 1946 fund-raising campaign organized by the Hartford Jewish Federation, ER said of this boy: "I was told he sang, and I asked to hear him. He sang a song I had never heard. It was like a marching song, and I was told it was the Jewish song of freedom … He sang this song of freedom where there was no freedom and practically everyone around him was a slave" ("American Aid to Save Lost People of the World Asked by Mrs. Roosevelt," Hartford Times, 11 April 1946, 3; Mary Lou Wright, "Plight Told of Refugees in Europe," Hartford Daily Courant, 11 April 1946, 1).

5. The Wiesbaden (sometimes referred to as Gersdorff) displaced persons camp contained an estimated 6,500 Poles and Balts when ER visited there on the afternoon of February 14. For more on ER's visit to Wiesbaden, see Document 95 ("Displaced Persons Don't Eat Very Well," Says Mrs. Roosevelt," WP, 15 February 1946, 5).

6. Upon the recommendation of the UN General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) named a twenty-nation committee to study the problem of refugees and displaced persons on February 18. The members of the committee were Brazil, Canada, China, Belgium, the Dominican Republic, France, Lebanon, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Peru, Poland, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, the United States, Yugoslavia, Ukraine, White Russia, Australia, Columbia, and Czechoslovakia. For more on the development of the UN's refugee policy, see Document 78 and Document 86 ("UNO Economic Body Sets Up 5 Groups," NYT, 19 February 1946, 4).

7. ER met with a group of female German reporters in Frankfort where she "soberly" answered questions about "the possibility of Germany's ultimate restoration to the family of nations and their own responsibilities" in that process ("Mrs Roosevelt Visits Refugees," NYT, 15 February 1946, 4).

8. Roosevelt, OMO, 59.

9. The Tiergarten (a large park near the center of the city), Unter Den Linden (a famous boulevard), and the Grunewald (a forest within the city) embodied the beauty of prewar Berlin (NEB vol. 14).

10. ER seems to be referring to the Borgward Goliath F200, which was produced from 1933 to 1938. Borgward, the fourth largest auto manufacturer in Germany after Mercedes, Audi, and Opel, was converted to war manufacturing in 1936, and produced mainly personnel trucks and half-tracks for the Nazi war effort.

11. For more on ER's views on German responsibility for World War II, see Document 93.

12. For more on this encounter, see Document 95.

13. General Lucius Clay (1897–1978) served as General Dwight D. Eisenhower's deputy in charge of civil-military affairs in the American zone of occupied Germany. His responsibilities included: refugees, food, housing, health, industry, denazification, and the reestablishment of German self-governance. In 1947 he became the American military governor in Germany and commander of US forces in Europe. Clay, who considered ER "a great lady" and agreed with her about the need for increased immigration of European Jews, noted that her columns "were very much in support of what we were trying to do in Germany" (ANBO; J. Smith, 291, 339).

14. Ambassador Robert D. Murphy (1894–1978) served as Eisenhower's chief political advisor on Germany beginning in the fall of 1944 and in the American military government in Germany after Germany's defeat. Later he became the political advisor to General Clay and stayed on in Germany with the title of ambassador until 1949 (ANB).

15. ER spoke to more than 200 soldiers and WACs at a "jam-packed" Berlin Red Cross Club. Besides discussing the situation in postwar Europe she also gave her audience a four-point program for "getting along with the Russians": "Have convictions; be friendly; stick to your beliefs as they stick to theirs; work as hard as they do." ("Russians Weighed by Mrs. Roosevelt," NYT, 16 February 1946, 6; "Mrs. Roosevelt Tells GIs How To Like Reds," WP, 16 February 1946, 9).

16. The chapter's goal—$35 million of a $100 million national goal—was then "the largest sum ever sought by a single voluntary agency in New York's history." Other speakers at this event included Edith Altschul Lehman, spouse of Herbert Lehman, then UNRRA director general, and Rabbi Milton Steinberg of the Park Avenue Synagogue and author of "A Partisan Guide to the Jewish Problem" ("Leadership By U.S. Urged for Europe," NYT, 21 February 1946, 15).

17. The full title of this document is Address by Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt at the Opening Campaign Rally of the Women's Division of the United Jewish Appeal of Greater New York, at the Hotel Waldorf Astoria. Wednesday, February 20, 1946.

United Jewish Appeal (UJA), the major fund-raising agency for American Jews, collected funds for Jewish refugees in Europe, for Jews in Palestine, and for Jewish communities in the United States. Henry Morgenthau, Jr., after being forced to resign as secretary of the treasury soon after FDR's death, began raising funds for the UJA and became its general chairman in January 1947. He made it the central and passionate focus of his life. Morgenthau and his wife Elinor were among ER's oldest and closest friends. As part of her commitment to aid the thousands of Jews left homeless after the war in Europe, ER became a dedicated supporter of the UJA and of Morgenthau's efforts, speaking often at UJA events, signing fund-raising letters, and using her My Day column to publicly promote some of their initiatives.

In the June 11, 1946, My Day, she noted the broad support behind the UJA's drive in New York City and urged other communities to organize similar campaigns:

I wonder how many of my readers know of the Community Committee of New York on behalf of the United Jewish Appeal … I bring this to the attention of my readers because I feel strongly that every city, small or large, in this country would help to increase the feeling of brotherhood throughout the world if a similar committee was organized in their midst. The purpose is to help the survivors of the Jewish group in Europe who were the greatest sufferers under Hitler's fascist rise to power (MD, 11 June 1946).

Privately ER worked to make sure funding of the UJA was secured. After returning from Europe she wrote to Leonard Bernstein that she was:

deeply concerned with the problem of the people for whom the United Jewish Appeal must raise a minimum of $100,000,000 … Seeing how these people must live today gave me the feeling that we Americans have been saved from untold misery, and that we must have been saved for a reason. That reason must be that we were expected to give leadership … We have the capacity to see that they get the things they need. We can help them get to Palestine—this uprooted people who have no other home to return to; and we have the added responsibility of helping some of them find a home here among us (ER to Leonard Bernstein, 22 July 1946, AERP).

Over a year later, in another appeal, she admitted: "The memory of what I saw in Europe since the war is still so deeply etched in my mind that I consider it my duty to do everything I can to help the stricken Jewish survivors of war and persecution. This is the principal reason I have taken an active part in advancing the cause of the United Jewish Appeal" (ER to Dr. Nemir, 11 November 1947, AERP; Morgenthau, 411; EJH).

18. ER would later describe her visit to Germany as "the most horrible 2 1/2 days I have ever spent" (Genevieve Reynolds, "Wishing Won't Buy Peace, Must Work for It, Says Mrs. Roosevelt," WP, 15 March 1946, C1).

19. During a two-and-a-half day visit to Germany, ER visited four displaced persons camps: Zeilsheim, Wiesbaden (also referred to as Gersdorff) both near Frankfurt, and two that she did not identify. She possibly could have visited Wittenau and Dueppel as they were located in Berlin. For more on these visits, see Document 93 and Document 94.

20. For more on ER's visit to Zeilsheim, see Document 93. For information on the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, see n7 Document 55.

21. On August 18, 1933, ER, at the urging of Lorena Hickok and American Friends Service Committee secretary Clarence Pickett (1884–1965), visited the West Virginia coal mines to see the conditions confronting miners and their families. She encountered some of, if not the, worst living conditions the Great Depression inflicted on American citizens. ER, with FDR's support, devoted a great deal of energy to the region, taking personal interest in the Subsistence Homestead projects in the region—especially the community known as Arthurdale. She also lobbied within and without the White House for better working and living conditions for miners and their families. Nor did she limit her concern to West Virginia mines. In early July 1934, she visited the Ford mines and the nearby AFSC camp near Pikeville, Kentucky. May 22, 1935, she went down into the Willow Grove coal mine of the Hanna Coal Company in Bellaire, Ohio, studied the local conditions, and then delivered the commencement address at the People's University. Several media ridiculed her interest, to which ER responded by writing "In Defense of Curiousity" (Cook, vol. 2, 130-38; "Mrs. Roosevelt Goes into Kentucky Hills," NYT, 4 July 1934, 19; "Mine Studied by First Lady, 2 Miles Down," WP, 22 May 1935, 1). For ER's reaction upon returning from her first trip to West Virginia see her column in Women's Democratic News, September 1933, 6; and Roosevelt, TIR, 126-33.

22. While in Germany ER told troops stationed there that the food in the camps was as "about as appetizing as sawdust" ("Mrs. Roosevelt Visits Refugees," NYT, 15 February 1946, 4).

23. For more on this incident, see n4 above.

24. See Document 93 for ER's reaction to this incident.

25. See n3 above.

26. For the debate within the Third Committee on refugee relief, see Document 86, Document 90, and Document 91.

27. For more on ER's visit to Zeilsheim and Wiesbaden, see Document 93.

28. This was the position of the Soviet Union and its allies. See Eleanor Roosevelt, "Human Rights and Human Freedoms," New York Times Magazine, 26 March 1946, 21.

29. Wiesbaden displaced persons camp.

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Speech before Women's Division of the United Jewish Appeal of Greater New York

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Speech before Women's Division of the United Jewish Appeal of Greater New York