Jun 2010 Journal
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‘The MP for refugees’
On 7 December 1969, a ceremony was held to mark the opening of Eleanor Rathbone House in Avenue Road, Highgate, which provided sheltered accommodation for elderly Jewish refugees from Nazism. The 12-storey block, containing some 50 flats, was the proud result of several years of joint effort by the AJR and the Central British Fund for World Jewish Relief, through which restitution monies from West Germany were then channelled. The building was named after a gentile Englishwoman, in grateful recognition of her unique contribution to the welfare of the Jewish refugees from Hitler and in memory of her battle to rescue the Jews of Europe in the teeth of official prevarication in Britain and Nazi savagery in Europe.
Eleanor Rathbone was born on 12 May 1872 into a Quaker family that had built its fortune on shipbuilding in Liverpool; her father was a Liberal MP for the city. The Rathbones were also a dynasty of philanthropists, inspired by their deep-seated Quaker ethic to engage in social and welfare work on behalf of the poor, the sick and the underprivileged. After studying at Somerville College, Oxford, Rathbone threw herself into social work, amassing considerable experience both of studying the ills that disfigured industrial Britain and of campaigning for their alleviation. She was particularly active in issues that affected women, notably in the campaign for female suffrage that convulsed the country before the First World War.
Susan Cohen’s recent study, Rescue the Perishing: Eleanor Rathbone and the Refugees (Vallentine Mitchell, 2010), shows how the focus of Rathbone’s activities shifted, once women had been granted the vote after the First World War. She had been elected as an Independent councillor on Liverpool City Council in 1909 and it was as an Independent that she was elected to Parliament in 1929, as one of the two members for the Combined English Universities (seats that were abolished in 1950). From her new position of influence, she campaigned for the improvement of the position of women in India and the British colonies in Africa, focusing on such abuses as child marriages. It was the issue of child marriage that caused her to undertake a fact-finding tour of Palestine in 1934. This was to prove a turning point in her career, leading her to become a supporter of the Zionist cause and a champion of the Jews, a people for whom she developed a profound admiration.
As the international situation deteriorated in the 1930s, Rathbone’s humanitarian activism became harnessed to her political opposition to Fascism and her tireless campaigns for the victims of Nazi anti-Semitism. She was among the first to grasp the seriousness of the threat posed by National Socialism, both to Britain and to the Jews. Writing on the thirteenth anniversary of the Nazi-inspired boycott of Jewish businesses on 1 April 1933, Werner Rosenstock recorded in his editor’s column in AJR Information of April 1946, three months after Rathbone’s death, how she had sought to draw the attention of the civilised world to the persecution of Germany’s Jews, since the cruelties that the Nazis were inflicting on the Jews were a clear warning of their intentions towards the entire civilised world. As Rosenstock made clear, Rathbone hoped to galvanise public opinion into effective opposition to Nazism, and thereby to protect the Jews of Germany and to avert the threat of Nazi barbarities on a vastly greater scale:
One of the few who, at that time, found prophetic words, was the late Eleanor Rathbone. At a protest meeting in Liverpool on the 5th April, 1933, she said that even if the persecution of Jews would cease, it would have fulfilled a task – a task different from what the Nazis had visualised. It would have taught us to see in the ‘outbreak of temperament’ of the German people a serious menace to the world. Maybe, she concluded, the present sufferings of the Jews would save the world from future and even greater sufferings – because they warned us in time.
Rathbone’s hopes in this respect were to be disappointed for the persecution of the Jews in April 1933 was to be followed by far worse. If her words ring strangely today, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the unparalleled suffering endured by European Jewry, then that is because her moral and political stance was determined by the expectation that the sufferings of the few and defenceless would automatically provoke the intervention of the many and powerful on their behalf. Rathbone’s strength was her humanitarian idealism, her passionate belief that British policy must be guided by tolerance, humanity and generosity of spirit. Her concern for the plight of the victims, which was sorely tested by government policy, was a beacon of light in a chapter of Britain’s history that was often at best a murky shade of grey.
The sudden and savage intensification of Nazi persecution of the Jews in 1938, following the incorporation of Austria into the Reich in March 1938 and the ‘Crystal Night’ pogrom in November 1938, triggered a crisis as large numbers of desperate Jews sought to enter Britain. In face of official indifference to the plight of the refugees and the government’s reluctance to adopt a wholeheartedly humanitarian approach to them, Rathbone established the Parliamentary Committee on Refugees (PCR) in the critical month of November 1938, in the wake of the fresh crisis provoked by the handover of the Sudetenland to Hitler under the terms of the Munich Agreement. This cross-party pressure group proved highly successful as a parliamentary lobby campaigning to secure the entry of larger numbers of refugees into Britain and to alleviate the conditions they encountered once they had been admitted.
The PCR’s campaign on behalf of the predominantly Jewish refugees was the more effective for the fact that most of its members were Christian and not open to accusations of religious or racial bias: its chairman was Victor Cazalet and its vice-chairmen Lord Marley and H. Graham White, while Rathbone was the honorary secretary and the moving force behind the undertaking. By July 1939, according to Susan Cohen, the PCR numbered over 200 MPs and was meeting almost daily. Rathbone was also involved with a large number of other refugee-related organisations, including those trying to assist young refugees, those that dispensed government grants and those trying to obtain visas for Czech Jews living under the shadow of the Nazi menace. Her denunciations of Nazi Germany, her determined pressuring of officials and her impassioned pleas to ministers, fired by her conviction that Britain had a moral obligation to the refugees, earned her the admiration of the refugees and the exasperation of the government machine in approximately equal proportions.
Rathbone was at her best during the mass internment of refugees in summer 1940. She undertook a number of visits to the internment camps, including the memorable occasion on 20 July 1940 when she rallied the despondent inmates of Huyton Camp, Liverpool, by convincing them that the processes of democracy had not totally overlooked them. She regularly took a leading part in parliamentary debates on refugee matters. According to Hansard, she spoke or intervened no fewer than 20 times in the six-hour debate on internment on 10 July 1940. ‘We shall be told that national security must come first,’ she stated. ‘Of course it must, but the question we ask the Government to consider seriously is: Cannot the method and machinery be improved, not only in the interests of humanity and of the refugees, but in the interests of security itself?’ She was able to combine her general criticism of internment with detailed knowledge of individual cases, like that of the refugee artist John Heartfield (Helmut Herzfeld), famous for developing photomontage, who was released from internment on medical grounds in August 1940 after a parliamentary question from Rathbone.
Sadly, her subsequent efforts to rescue Jews from territories under Nazi control met with less success. Appalled by the fate that was befalling European Jewry and dismayed by the British government’s apparent inactivity, she played a leading part in the National Committee for Rescue from Nazi Terror, founded in March 1943 to do what could be done to save Jews from the death camps. Though she fought tenaciously for this cause, she was unable to effect any change in government policy, which was to subordinate all initiatives on behalf of the Jews to the overriding objective of winning the war. This largely meant leaving the Jews to their fate. Home Secretary Herbert Morrison and his junior minister Osbert Peake, in particular, were guilty of a disgraceful display of stonewalling that condemned initiatives to rescue Jews - assuming that the Nazis would have allowed them to leave – to remain unrealised.
Eleanor Rathbone died on 2 January 1946. The following month, AJR Information, mindful of her dedication to the refugees’ cause, published an eloquent tribute to her by the publisher Victor Gollancz. A school that still bears her name, at Magdiel, near Tel Aviv, was opened by Chaim Weizmann’s wife in October 1949.
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