This is the text which appears on a plaque that was placed on the wall at Otto Schiff, one of Jewish Care’s specialist care homes in Golders Green, North London, in recognition of Eleanor’s support for Jewish refugees.
‘ Eleanor Florence Rathbone was arguably the greatest humanitarian activist of her time. Born in London on 12 May 1872, she came from a dynastic Liverpool merchant family whose deeply rooted Quaker heritage and strong philanthropic ethos influenced her life and career. She was amongst the first women to attend Somerville College, Oxford, after which she embarked upon a lifelong career championing the cause of the underrepresented in society. She gained wide recognition and respect as a social investigator and reformer.She was a woman of many talents and became known as a: biographer, feminist, suffragist, pacificist, philanthropist, local councillor, Justice of the Peace and, from 1929, an Independent MP for the Combined English Universities.
It was her indefatigable campaigning on behalf of the victims of Nazi terror in Eastern Europe that caused her the greatest anguish and it brought her into conflict with several government officials, most notably Herbert Morrison. Rathbone’s was the first female voice to denounce Hitler and his regime in the House of Commons in April 1933: Eleanor was only too conscious of the human tragedy that was unfolding. She responded to the Anschluss in March 1938 with dismay, and to the Munich Settlement, signed on 29 September 1938, with a mix of relief that war had apparently been averted and shame at the British government’s dishonourable behaviour in negotiating with Hitler.
However, the resulting Czech refugee crisis, and the events of Kristallnacht, propelled her into action. In an inspirational move, in late November 1938, she initiated the establishment of the all-party, entirely voluntary, Parliamentary Committee on Refugees (PCR), as a cohesive vehicle through which to pressure the Government and sway public opinion. As Honorary Secretary, and with the House of Commons as her battleground, she became the most vociferous of the refugee activists, demanding that the Home Office place immigration policy and procedures on the political agenda and that the Government adopt a more humane and generous admissions policy.
The outbreak of the Second World War on 3 September 1939 added a new and more intimate dimension to Eleanor’s humanitarian work, as she focused her attention on helping refugees at home, who were now classified as enemy aliens. She was an unrelenting critic of the inadequacies and anomalies of the tribunal system: she argued passionately against the policy of deportation of internees to Australia and Canada, liaised with refugee organisations and, with the support of her secretaries, responded to hundreds of individual calls for help. She was incensed by the failure of the December 1942 United Nations Allied Declaration on the Jews to include a clause for rescue. This was seen as vital by Eleanor and her fellow campaigner and, as Britain was a signatory of the Declaration, she decided action had to be taken. In response, Rathbone established a new and very different campaigning committee. Unlike the PCR, the National Committee for Rescue from Nazi Terror (NCRNT), founded in January 1943, was a non-political, non-sectarian pressure group intended to co-ordinate the work of organizations and individuals working for, or interested in, the rescue of those threatened by Nazi persecution whatever their race or religion. Eleanor was still championing the cause of refugees, and their right to settle in Palestine, when she died on 2 January 1946. She was mourned in many quarters, not least of all amongst the Jewish and refugee communities who owed her so much. Eleanor’s real power was vested in her ability to apply pressure and act as the moral and humanitarian conscience of the nation, a crucial role that few were willing to undertake, and that none pursued with her degree of passion and tenacity.