Ruth Gledhill is Religion Correspondent for The Times and the great great niece of Eleanor Rathbone, a campaigning independent MP who dedicated herself to trying to save Jews during the Holocaust. In a special blog marking Holocaust Memorial Day, Ruth explores Eleanor’s life and legacy.
I have been aware all my life of a big presence at my shoulder. My great great aunt, Eleanor Rathbone was the independent universities MP of the mid-20th century who pioneered family allowances, the precursor to child benefit. This is what she was known for, and what we were told of repeatedly, as we were growing up. We were never once told of her other, equally important but ultimately less successful work. She tried to save the Jews from the Holocaust. And she failed. She died in 1946, the year after Richard Dimbleby's broadcast from Bergen-Belsen, during which he broke down several times, finally woke the West to the appalling consequences of appeasement, and two years before the founding of the State of Israel.
She was one of many Rathbones on that side of the family whose presence down the centuries loomed large in our childhood lives. Her father, my own great great grandfather William Rathbone, the anti-slavery Liberal MP for Liverpool, was another. The Rathbone descendants have inherited the strong senses of duty, family, philanthropy and hard work that are such attractive features of Jewish life today, as well as Protestant and Catholic life.
Susan Cohen's book published last year: Rescue the Perishing: Eleanor Rathbone and the Refugees, explains how Eleanor fought against injustice but as Cohen points out, has been the victim of it herself in the lack of recognition for her work to save the Jews. She can never be honoured at Yad Vashem as a righteous gentile because her life was never at risk in this work. Was the lack of recognition due to the political embarrassment she risked causing in the context of the era, as such a vocal opponent of appeasement?
Having appreciated the nature of Nazi Germany and joined the British Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi Council, she began to speak out against the Nazi threat to Czechoslovakia and appeasement more generally – supporting Churchill and earning Neville Chamberlain’s enmity. In 1938 she denounced the Munich Accords and established the Parliamentary Committee on Refugees to take up individual cases from Spain, Czechoslovakia and Germany. After the outbreak of war she pressured the government to publicise the evidence of Holocaust.'
She was extremely active from the start of the crimes against the Jews in trying to stop them and to help the victims of them, the refugees. This made her an embarrassment to the political establishment, which was busy turning heads away from what was going on in Austria and Germany in the 1930s and refugees away from Britain's shores. Perhaps until recently there has still been a sense of shame about this, that has maybe deflected the light away from being shone on the work of actvists like Eleanor.
She wrote repeatedly in The Times, trying to draw awareness to the worsening plight of European Jewry. The Government response to the efforts of Eleanor and others to help was to impose strict new restrictions on immigration. After war broke out, 27,000 'aliens' including Jewish refugees were interned. Eleanor in 1940 wrote a polemic: 'How British Policy Towards Refugees Helps Hitler.'
The cause she took up, of supporting the Jewish refugees was politically unpopular and the reader cannot help but wonder the extent to which antisemitism played a part in this. Cohen's book takes its title, Rescue the Perishing, from Eleanor's call to save Europe's Jewry. Much was done but the call was never heeded in time, the true scale of the disaster never understood in time. Six million died in the Holocaust, three-quarters of European Jewry. Yet at times she seemed almost on her own in grasping the scale of this attempt at annihilation, to be among the few who cared about those who managed to escape and make their way to Britain only to find themselves internees, incarcerated in unspeakable camps in Britain, or doomed to die as deportees in incidents such as when the Arandora Star was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland on its way to Canada.
Professor Tony Kushner, of the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/Non-Jewish Relations at Southampton University, in his foreword to Cohen's book, notes that while she did not put her life at risk, Eleanor suffered great stress and anxiety in recognising the horrors European Jews were experiencing. In the end, it cost her faith in British, or more specifically English, decency facing the reality that her government was so unmoved by her pleas to help. By the time awareness finally dawned, an awareness beginning perhaps with the seminal Dimbleby broadcast in 1945 from Bergen-Belsen, it was too late for most of Europe's Jews.
There are many lessons to learn, for me personally, and for our wider society. Millions more refugees need our help today. Africa and the Middle East are still places of unimaginable loss of life. On Holocaust Memorial Day I cannot help but weep for the Jews, I must try as a journalist to learn new lessons from the life that speaks to me eerily from the pages of Cohen's book. At the least, I can pledge not to give up when faced with attack and hostility from people in positions of power attempting to justify prejudice and cover-up wrong-doing. Despite constant defeats and setbacks there was no room for self-pity in her life, she was too busy helping those truly in need of pity.