In the second of our guest blogs for Holocaust Memorial Day 2016, Dr Susan Cohen from 'Remembering Eleanor Rathbone' writes about Rathbone's campaign for the British government to do more the help refugees from Nazi persecution.
Back in 2000, the late, great historian, Professor David Cesarani, wrote an article, ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen: towards a taxonomy of rescuers in a bystander country: Britain 1933-45’, in which he examined the work of a number of British individuals who, during these years, had made an exceptional contribution to the rescue and welfare of refugees in and from Nazi Europe. He was seeking to find a commonality amongst them, trying to find a way of explaining why they put the good of others, in this case, Jews, at the forefront of their actions. Eleanor Rathbone, (1872- 1946) MP for the Combined English Universities, was the only woman amongst them, and was in the company of men including the Reverend James Parkes, Frank Foley, Josiah Wedgwood, Victor Cazalet and Wyndham Deedes.
Cesarani concluded that one unifying factor was their humanity and whilst each of them was driven by a sense of personal responsibility to others, they were also individually in a position whereby they could, and did, act.
It was quite evident, on 13 April 1933, that Eleanor Rathbone was not going to stand by and ignore the Nazi threat, and the noose that was tightening around Jews, socialists and pacifists in Germany. Hers was the lone female voice amongst the male parliamentarians, including Wedgwood and Cazalet, who stood up in the House of Commons during the Adjournment (Easter) Debate that day and denounced Hitler and his regime. She made it clear that the Nazis threatened world peace and were inflicting cruelties and crushing disabilities on large numbers of law-abiding peaceful German citizens, whose only offence is that they belong to a particular race or religion or profess certain political beliefs.’
A well-seasoned champion of the under-represented in society, a feminist, suffragist, social and welfare reformer, politician, anti-Nazi and anti-appeaser, the plight of the refugees was ‘an unsuspected obligation’ which she could not ignore. She became their champion as she pressed the government to relax the entry criteria and issue more visas to Jews trying to escape from Europe. The Munich agreement and Britain’s betrayal of Czechoslovakia resulted in a refugee crisis which soon became her primary concern, and her voluntary all-party Parliamentary Committee on Refugees became the major vehicle for her relentless campaigning. The aim of the committee, established in November 1938, was:
to influence the Government and public opinion in favour of a generous yet carefully safeguarded refugee policy, including large-scale schemes of permanent settlement inside or outside of Empire; also, since 1000s of refugees would perish while awaiting such schemes – temporary reception homes in this country where refugees can be maintained, sorted out and eventually migrated, except in cases where there abilities can be profitably utilised here without injustice to our own workers.
She challenged the government on all fronts, first for more visas for those in imminent danger in Czechoslovakia – Sudeten Germans, communists and Jews, - concurrently demanding the immediate payment of the promised Czech loan and for the entry criteria to be relaxed. The outbreak of war brought a change in priorities as she turned her attention to the policy of internment and the treatment of interned ‘enemy aliens’. She exerted even more pressure on government officials, demanding that internees be treated in a more humane fashion, putting endless parliamentary questions, arranging and attending deputations and other refugee committee meetings. She visited internment camps in Great Britain and the Isle of Man, took a personal interest in individual cases, and gathered a vast amount of evidence and support from across the wider community, gaining her the reputation amongst supporters as ‘MP for Refugees’, and amongst her detractors, including Home Office officials, the title ‘the perishing Miss Rathbone.’ Her sources of information were extensive and as she learned of the extermination of Jews in late 1942, from emissaries including Jan Karski, she determined to get news of the atrocities disseminated more widely at home. Her new National Committee for Rescue from Nazi Terror published informative booklets, including Rescue the Perishing in April 1943, issued a regular newsletter News from Hitler’s Europe, and proposed a Twelve-Point Programme for Immediate Rescue Measures for Jews of Europe, which included small scale rescue schemes, none of which, to her dismay, were implemented. In November 1943 Eleanor prevailed upon Lady Violet Bonham Carter to use her influence to get the BBC ‘to broadcast a talk (about the atrocities) after the 9pm news on or near December 17th’ , the anniversary of Eden’s United Nations declaration. It elicited a dismissive response from W.J.Haley, the editor-in-chief, who would only agree to ‘a short factual talk – probably in a news bulletin- reminding listeners of Mr Eden’s declaration and giving such facts of atrocities on Jews committed under the Nazi regime since the statement was made as may have been established as authentic.’
Eleanor was still campaigning on behalf of liberated Jews in late 1945, fighting to prevent their deportation and forced repatriation, but she was worn down by the physical and emotional strain of her work, and died suddenly on 2 January 1946.
To mark the 70th anniversary of her death, the Remembering Eleanor Rathbone group are organising commemorative events across the country throughout the year. For details go to www.rememberingeleanorrathbone.wordpress.com.