Why Elliot Roosevelt Shouldn’t Have Listened to His Mother

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

It may seem almost sacrilegious to suggest, on Mother’s Day, that there are times when it is better not to listen to one’s mother. But consider what happened in 1946, when Elliot Roosevelt, son of the late president, sought advice from his mother Eleanor on a matter concerning Holocaust survivors.

The background to this unusual Roosevelt episode was the international struggle over the fate of Holocaust survivors who were living in Displaced Persons camps in Europe.

In the wake of World War II, several hundred thousand Jewish refugees were housed in the DP camps in the Allied zones in Germany, Austria, and Italy. Many of the DPs wanted to relocate to Palestine, but the British authorities refused to admit more than a handful, for fear of angering Arab opinion.

As a result, the Haganah, the largest Zionist militia in Palestine, began smuggling refugees into the Holy Land in defiance of British restrictions. The most famous smuggling attempt –later immortalized in a best-selling Leon Uris novel and then a blockbuster movie– was the voyage of the S.S. Exodus. That shipload of Holocaust survivors was intercepted by the British and returned to Europe after dramatic clashes between British soldiers and the refugees. The affair aroused international opinion against London’s Palestine policy and exacerbated relations between England and the Truman administration, which was urging the British to let more refugees into Palestine.

A second militant Zionist underground in Palestine, the Irgun Zvai Leumi (led by Menachem Begin), also sought to bring Holocaust survivors to the Jewish homeland. Its U.S. support group, the American League for a Free Palestine –better known as the Bergson group, after its founder, Peter Bergson (Hillel Kook)– raised funds for the Irgun’s refugee-smuggling with a Broadway play called “A Flag is Born.” Authored by the Academy Award-winning screenwriter Ben Hecht (‘Gone With the Wind,’ ‘Wuthering Heights’), “Flag” starred Paul Muni, Celia Adler, and a young Marlon Brando.

Into this intriguing mix of international diplomacy, Zionist activism, and Hollywood drama stepped 36 year-old Elliott Roosevelt, the second child of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and probably the most colorful member of the family. A heavily decorated World War II combat pilot who was married five times and at one point served as mayor of Miami Beach, Elliot went on to author a series of “tell all” books about the Roosevelts as well as mystery novels featuring his mother as an amateur detective.

Elliot, himself a yachtsman, had been following the news about Jewish refugees trying to reach Palestine by boat. He approached Bergson in late 1946, just as the Bergson group, armed with the proceeds from “A Flag is Born,” was preparing to purchase a vessel. (Bergson’s account of the episode appears in the new book ‘A Race Against Death,’ coauthored by this writer and David S. Wyman.)

Bergson later recalled how Roosevelt “wanted to volunteer to sail in to Palestine with a boatload of Jewish refugees from Europe, to break the British blockade of Palestine. And we thought that would be quite a thing [since he was] the son of the former president…It could really…make a world sensation.” Bergson and his colleagues immediately recognized what a public relations headache it would cause the British to be seen as physically confronting a Roosevelt.

“And then,” Bergson recalled, “he says, ‘I want to discuss it with my mother.'”

During the Holocaust years, Bergson had on several occasions contacted Eleanor Roosevelt. Unable to gain an audience with the president, Bergson hoped that through the First Lady he might yet reach FDR and influence U.S. policy regarding European Jewry. In 1943, Mrs. Roosevelt had attended a Bergson group pageant about the Nazi massacres, called “We Will Never Die,” and then devoted part of one of her syndicated columns to the event. Later that year, she spoke briefly on a Bergson group radio broadcast. In 1946, recalling his inability to convince Mrs. Roosevelt to intervene with the president regarding the Holocaust, Bergson feared she would object to Elliot’s idea.

“I told him…I don’t think she’s going to let you do it,” Bergson advised Elliot. ” If you want to do it, don’t ask her. If you ask her, you won’t do it.” And sure enough, “She wouldn’t let him.”

Nonetheless, Bergson pursued the matter: “I went to see her. To try to tell her that, if it’s from the point of view of a mother worrying about her son, I can only tell her that I don’t think that it was dangerous, that even poor Jewish refugees [were not in danger]…a couple of guys were beaten up [by British soldiers], on a couple of occasions when they tried to push them back to Europe, the survivors. But…they didn’t shoot on those boats [and] they certainly wouldn’t do it to Elliot Roosevelt…But I couldn’t convince her.”

In the end, Bergson’s boat did sail, but without Elliot Roosevelt. The 400-ton former yacht, renamed the SS Ben Hecht, carrying 600 Holocaust survivors, was intercepted by the British near Palestine’s shore in March 1947. The refugees were taken to a detention camp in Cyprus, while the 21 crew members, most of them American volunteers, were jailed at the Acre Prison, south of Haifa. The episode generated another round of negative media coverage that further increased the pressure on the British over Palestine. It is not hard to imagine the even greater political repercussions and media attention that would have ensued had the son of the former president been at the helm.

The lesson of this Mother’s Day story? Sometimes, there are moral imperatives even more important than listening to your mother.

May 2003