Apr 2001 Journal

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Remembering Eleanor Rathbone

The sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the AJR is a fitting time to reflect on the work of Miss Eleanor Florence Rathbone, the British MP who devoted much of her political career to helping rescue refugees fleeing Nazi and Fascist Europe.

Born in London in 1872, Eleanor Rathbone was the daughter of William Rathbone VI, a prosperous Liverpool merchant and Liberal MP who instilled in her a profound sense of social responsibility and moral duty. After leaving Somerville College, Oxford in 1896, she decided to devote her life to social service, and proceeded to involve herself in a wide range of welfare, economic and feminist issues. The casual dock labour system in Liverpool, the financial plight of widows and soldiers’ wives, rent subsidies, enfranchisement for women, the introduction of a family allowance and concerns over cultural practices in India and Africa were amongst the causes she championed.

Prophetic words

In 1929 she was returned as the Independent MP for the Combined Universities - one of only fourteen women members in the House - and entered Parliament with a formidable reputation in the world of feminism and social economics. But the focus of Eleanor Rathbone's activities shifted dramatically with Hitler's accession to power in 1933, and she was one of the first politicians to denounce the German Chancellor in the House of Commons. Her words in Parliament on 13 April 1933 were prophetic, for she warned of “the re-emergence of an evil spirit [in Germany] which bodes very ill for the peace and freedom of the world.

Victor Gollancz wrote in his obituary of her in AJR Information in February 1946 that “no one who did not have the privilege of working daily with Eleanor Rathbone can have any conception of what she did for refugees in general, and for Jewish refugees in particular.”  The plight of the Jews, whom she saw as “the greatest sufferers, and the most oppressed” preoccupied her until her death. She fought her battle on two fronts: the first was to try and prevent war, which, despite her close involvement with the League of Nations Union, was doomed to failure. The second was to organise rescue operations, which involved her in a broad range of activities intended to maintain the momentum of her campaign.

Relentless campaigner

She asked relentless questions in the House, badgered fellow politicians and drafted memoranda. She had vast numbers of specially published pamphlets distributed to inform ordinary people of the human tragedy unfolding in Europe, wrote letters to the press, attended meetings and made visits to prisons and internment camps. When the British government interned all enemy aliens in May 1940, fearing ‘fifth column’ infiltration, it was the Parliamentary Committee on Refugees, of which she was the honorary secretary, that responded to the situation, pressuring government to expedite the early release of anti-Nazis. She was involved to a greater or lesser degree with many other refugee committees, including the Advisory Committee of the Czech Refugee Trust and the Central Committee for Refugees, and was on the Advisory Council attached to the Refugee Department of the Foreign Office. Eleanor Rathbone was also responsible for setting up the National Committee for Rescue from Nazi Terror in 1943.

Norman Bentwich recalled how Eleanor “befriended hundreds of Jews and helped them find refuge in England.” Amongst these were male internees with whom she made personal contact on her visits to Huyton camp, Liverpool, and women whom she met on the Isle of Man. The passage of time has made the task of locating the refugees, or individuals with whom Rathbone had contact, very difficult. Nor is it easy to identify those who had case files opened at the Central British Fund in Bloomsbury House, and who were assisted, directly or indirectly, by Eleanor Rathbone. Those who do remember her speak of a compassionate and dedicated woman who, for no cultural or religious reason, felt a responsibility for the fate of the Jews of Europe. Such humanitarianism is a rare commodity, and many refugees have reason to be grateful to her and the handful of other Christian activists who cared, and who dared to fight relentlessly for their salvation.
Susan Cohen

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