On Eleanor Roosevelt

The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt

Published by Bloomsbury 2022, pp. 557

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) was a leading liberal voice in post-war America. She had been a committed advocate of womens’ suffrage, an architect of the welfare state, a diplomat, a journalist and a social activist committed to the ideals of the newly established United Nations — head of the preparatory committee and framer of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. This illuminating autobiography, stretching down the decades of the twentieth century and republished after 60 years, recalls what a remarkable woman she was — and in particular how she stubbornly opposed anti-Semitism and became an enthusiastic supporter of the state of Israel.

Her early years were defined by her highly privileged background, elitist and WASP — one which looked down on Jews with disdain. She married Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) to become the First Lady during her husband’s twelve years in the White House. She was however propelled into espousing a plethora of causes as a means of distraction from her husband’s dalliance with various women. She became increasingly aware of the persecution of Jews in Europe during the 1930s and was the subject of a vilification campaign in the Nazi press. Restricted from speaking out publicly because of the US’s official policy of a studied neutrality, she told her husband that a member of his administration, Breckinridge Long, was ‘a fascist’ because he blocked the immigration of Jews, fleeing Hitler. 

Eleanor Roosevelt became acquainted with European royalty including King George VI during the war years. Churchill however told her: ‘You don’t really approve of me, do you, Mrs Roosevelt’. She did not. Churchill’s drink, cigars and strange hours wore down an ailing FDR — and it took him days to recover after each visit.

It is the third part of this autobiography, following the President’s death and entitled ‘On My Own’ which records her presence on the world stage. Interviewing the Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev and the German Jewish scientist, Lise Meitner, meeting figures such as Maxim Litvinov, Jan Masaryk and David Ben-Gurion and eliciting an admission that Japan should never have gone to war from Emperor Hirohito — during the 1950s.

She was deeply affected by the plight of Jewish survivors of the Shoah in displaced persons’ camps. She records a visit to Zilcheim in this book when a bedraggled old woman suddenly approached her:

‘I had no idea who she was and we could not speak each other’s language, but she knelt in the muddy road and threw her arms around my knees. “Israel”, she murmured, over and over “Israel, Israel”‘.

In 1952, she visited Syria which she found ‘bitterly nationalistic’ and Palestinian refugee camps whose inhabitants had been left in limbo. Their skills had been left to go to waste and their future was empty. Crossing into Israel via the Mandelbaum Gate was a breath of fresh air and she was deeply impressed by the determination and passion of the pioneers. She subsequently used all her influence to persuade both Truman and Eisenhower to deliver military aid to Israel.

The life and times of Eleanor Roosevelt, a committed feminist, deserves to be reclaimed by today’s generation. This important book demonstrates the full majesty of a life, characterised by not blowing in the wind.  

Jewish Chronicle 2 December 2022

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