Between February 13 and 16, 1946—ten months after American forces liberated Nazi concentration camps—Eleanor Roosevelt met some of the thousands of displaced Jews living in camps. These were some of the survivors of the concentration camps Germany had filled during the war. First, Eleanor visited the camp at Zeilsheim. It contained some 3,200 people and was located just outside Frankfurt, in an area controlled by the United States Army. When Eleanor spoke with the refugees, many expressed a longing to emigrate to Palestine. Two days after the visit, Eleanor reported her impressions in My Day, the daily newspaper column she wrote from 1935 until 1962. Through her My Day column and a series of speeches, Eleanor struggled to comprehend the suffering and perseverance of the survivors. In the excerpts below, she speaks of the survivors who had lost not just their belongings, but so much of what made them human: their physical appearance, their families, their liberties, and their hopes.
My visit to Frankfort was packed so full of emotions, it is hard to give you an adequate idea of what I saw and how I felt. Yesterday morning, we visited the Zeilsheim Jewish displaced persons camp. It is one of the best, since the people are living in houses previously occupied by Germans.1
In these houses, each little family has a room to itself. Often a family must cross a room occupied by another in order to enter or leave the house, but there are doors and walls to separate them. If they like, they may bring food from the camp kitchen to their rooms and eat in what they call “home.”
They made me a speech at a monument they have erected to the six million dead Jewish people. I answered from an aching heart. When will our consciences grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery, rather than avenge it?
Someone asked a man, who looked old but couldn’t have been really old, about his family. This was his answer: “They were made into soap.” They had been burned to death in a concentration camp.
Outside the school, the children greeted me. They told me a little boy of ten was the camp singer. He looked six. He had wandered into camp one day with his brother, all alone, so he was the head of his family. He sang for me—a song of his people—a song of freedom. Your heart cried out that there was no freedom—and where was hope, without which human beings cannot live?
There is a feeling of desperation and sorrow in this camp which seems beyond expression. An old woman knelt on the ground, grasping my knees. I lifted her up, but could not speak. What could one say at the end of a life which had brought her such complete despair?2
… You can measure the extent of physical damage done to cities, you can restore water supplies, gas, and electricity, and you can rebuild the buildings needed to establish a military government. But how to gauge what has happened to human beings—that is incalculable.
The men and girls in the various services have a feeling of the problem, and the misery which exists all around them. . . . And, later, another soldier said to me: “I can’t think why [Europeans] had to fight each other. The language is a bar; but while our customs are different, all over, we seem to have a lot of things that are just the same.” That’s really a great discovery—“all over we have a lot of things that are just the same.” . . . Those are the things we have to find and build on, and those, I imagine, are the only things that can give us hope.3
On her return to United States, Eleanor spoke about her experience in the camps to a women’s group in New York:
[T]he 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? . . . Even in the worst days of the Depression, when I went down into the mining areas, 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 . . .
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 cannot live in an island of prosperity in a sea of human misery. It just can’t be done. . . .
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. . . .
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.4
- 1 : In other camps, for example, survivors and refugees occupied barracks formerly used by Nazi detainees.
- 2 : Roosevelt, My Day, February 16, 1946.
- 3 : Roosevelt, My Day, February 18, 1946.
- 4 : Eleanor Roosevelt, “Speech before Women’s Division of the United Jewish Appeal of Greater New York,” in The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, ed. Black, 255–58.