‘Mr Speaker, Your Excellencies ambassador and deputy ambassador, rabbis, my lords, ladies and gentlemen.
It is a privilege to have been invited to speak briefly about Eleanor Rathbone and to have the opportunity of paying tribute to a remarkable woman. In case any of you are wondering why I have been given this honour, I should just say that Eleanor and her refugee work were the subject of my doctoral thesis, completed in 2005, and the focus of a subsequent book.
Eleanor was a great humanitarian activist whose lifetime concern was for people less fortunate than herself, for those who were marginalized in society, and who were the victims of injustice and oppression, regardless of gender, race or religion. She was, amongst other things, a feminist, suffragette, pacifist, a social investigator and reformer, philanthropist and, from 1929, a member of parliament – very much a woman in a man’s world. But from the moment that Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933 it was her comprehension of the threat that Nazism posed, and her subsequent devotion to the refugee issue that came to mark her out as exceptional. She chose to ally herself to the fate of people with whom she had no bond in terms of ethnicity, religion or nationality, but to whom she was bound by a common humanity. Making the most of her position as an Independent member of parliament, she resolutely kept the refugee question on the political agenda and in the public domain, even though it cost her dearly physically and psychologically. Her profound belief in British humanity, honour and justice was challenged in the face of official intransigence, but this only hardened her resolve to do whatever she could to help the refugees, especially Jews, in and fleeing from Nazism in Europe. From early 1939 her newly formed voluntary group, the Parliamentary Committee on Refugees, which she largely financed herself, became the focal point for her campaigning activities. It’s membership was made up of over 200 men and women including cross party politicians and representatives from Jewish and non-Jewish organisations, and she and her office staff dealt with many hundreds of individual cases, and liaised with refugee representatives nationwide. Beside her many other parliamentary duties she was involved with many other official refugee –related organisations.
She raised innumerable questions in the House of Commons regarding, for example, the Czech loan, argued for a more generous and humane admissions policy for refugees, and was vociferous on the matter of internment policies at home and abroad. Her visits to internment camps up and down the country brought hope to hundreds of refugees. Her second committee, the National Committee for Rescue from Nazi Terror, established in 1943, was a desperate attempt at saving lives and raising public awareness of the horrors of the Holocaust. For Eleanor the Jews were people who needed a champion, and in taking on this role she made every effort to ensure that her voice was heard. It is no wonder that she became known affectionately as the MP for refugees. Finally, I would like to thank Lesley Urbach for her initiative in organising the commemorative plaque to be unveiled this afternoon.
It is, undoubtedly, long overdue.’
c. Susan Cohen 2013