How Eleanor Roosevelt Saved Jewish Refugees

The Fellowship  |  September 11, 2019

Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the longest-serving president and pillar of the man who oversaw the U.S. recovery from the Great Depression and its entry into World War II, was a visionary who longed for all people to have peace, education, jobs, security, and health care. Mrs. Roosevelt’s kindness also stretched to an incident where she helped save Jews during the Holocaust. JNS’ Eliana Rudee tells the story of a cargo ship full of Jewish refugees fleeing certain death:

At the beginning of World War II, Portuguese diplomat Sousa Mendes defied the orders of his regime to issue visas and passports to 40,000 refugees fleeing Nazi Germany, such as the artist Salvador Dali; Margret Rey and H. A. Rey, the authors of the Curious George books; and tens of thousands of other Holocaust refugees, including many aboard the SS Quanza. “If so many Jews are suffering because of one man, Hitler, surely I can suffer for so many Jews,” said Mendes, who was later recognized by Israel as a Righteous Among the Nations.

On Aug. 9, 1940, the SS Quanza left Lisbon—one of the few ports from which Jews could flee Europe—carrying hundreds of Jewish refugees from dozens of European countries who had received such visas.

However, the journey turned out to be more than a month-long; the Jews aboard were transported from port to port for a month, refused entry in the United States and then Mexico.

Breckinridge Long, supervising the U.S. State Department’s Visa Division under U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, turned the immigrants away, wanting to shut down immigration (infamously writing in his diary that “Hitler’s Mein Kampf is eloquent in opposition to Jewry”), and seeing the immigrants as “undesirables.” He voiced concern that allowing the immigrants into America would compromise national security, as there could be “potential Nazis” on the ship, as well as “Jewish communists.”

Just as the vessel returned to Virginia to buy fuel for the way back to Europe, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt spoke to maritime lawyer Jacob L. Morewitz, who successfully delayed the departure of the ship to buy time to litigate the case and allow the passengers to enter the United States.

As the group was finally able to disembark, women from the Jewish society brought cars and began to pick up the refugees late at night, hosting them until they found accommodations.

Michael Dobbs, author of The Unwanted and project director for the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, was the first to write about the history of the SS Quanza in 1990, maintaining that it was forgotten over time as Eleanor Roosevelt saw the event as a defeat since Long was given total power following the SS Quanza episode.

Dobbs noted at the premier, “The Quanza incident is a timely reminder that individuals make a difference. Without visas supplied by the Portuguese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes, many of the Jewish passengers on board might well have been stranded in Nazi-occupied Europe.”

“Without the legal brilliance of a maritime lawyer named Jacob Morewitz, the ship would have been obliged to sail back to Europe. Without the intervention of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the passengers would not have been permitted to land,” he continued. “It took three people, from entirely different backgrounds, to save dozens of lives that might otherwise have been lost…”

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