A Holocaust Scholar who Stepped into Israel’s History

by Rafael Medoff

Barbara McDonald Stewart, who chronicled the efforts of her father, James G. McDonald, to aid refugees from Nazism and also assisted him in his post as ambassador to Israel, passed away last month at age 89.

In 1933, McDonald, a foreign policy scholar, was named League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from Germany. Stewart, McDonald’s younger daughter, wrote about his work in her 1982 book, United States Government Policy on Refugees from Nazism, 1933–1940.

McDonald (1886-1964) was one of the first Americans to meet Adolf Hitler after he became chancellor of Germany in 1933. McDonald reported to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that Hitler had openly threatened to destroy the Jews, but that information had no impact on Roosevelt’s policies toward Germany. Dr. Stewart wrote: “The failure of the United States to act earlier or more generously [regarding the Jews] can not be excused by a plea of ignorance. It is clear from diplomatic correspondence that the Administration was fully and accurately informed from the beginning.”

In her book, Stewart recounted her father’s unsuccessful efforts to mobilize the support of the Free World to participate in resettling Jews fleeing Hitler. President Roosevelt’s attitude concerning McDonald’s effort was one of “saying nothing, putting nothing on paper, promising nothing, denying even moral support to the efforts to bolster international cooperation for the refugees,” Dr. Stewart wrote.

At one point, McDonald asked President Roosevelt for a token U.S. contribution of $10,000 to a refugee fund, hoping the gesture would inspire other countries to take part. FDR verbally agreed to McDonald’s request, but the check was never sent.

McDonald resigned from the League of Nations position in 1935, in protest against the international community’s indifference to the plight of German Jewry. Three years later, FDR appointed him chairman of the new President’s Advisory Committee on Political Refugees. According to Stewart, her father was at first optimistic that the committee would have an impact, but President Roosevelt “rarely saw any of the members and almost never asked them for ‘advice’.”

Her father’s pleas to the Roosevelt administration to admit more Jewish refugees to the United States fell on deaf ears, Dr. Stewart noted. The number of German Jews who were admitted was “minuscule compared to the country’s population [even though the U.S.] had more room and money than most…”

In a later interview, Stewart remarked that she found it “surprising” that President Roosevelt “didn’t lose the support, the liberal Jewish support, even after the war.”

In working on her book, Dr. Stewart had access to a unique source: her father’s diaries from the 1930s and 1940s. In recent years, she co-edited four volumes of the diaries for publication by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Stewart also was involved in a documentary film about her father, “A Voice Among the Silent: The Legacy of James G. McDonald,” by the Israeli-American filmmaker Shuli Eshel.

Just two months after completing her undergraduate studies at Northwestern University in 1948, Stewart was on her way to the new State of Israel. Her father, an outspoken Christian Zionist, was named the first U.S.ambassador to the Jewish state. McDonald’s wife was unable to accompany him to Israel, so his daughter stepped in.

In “A Voice Among the Silent,” Stewart recalled her work as “hostess” of the American embassy, a position that involved supervising her father’s household staff as well as some of his social functions and office tasks. Shoshana Yadin, sister-in-law of then-General Yigal Yadin, tutored Stewart in Hebrew. The two women became close friends. “I could almost carry on a conversation with her 3 year-old daughter,” Dr. Stewart joked later.

“I thought it was wonderful that we could be there,” she said. “Everybody was very focused on the new nation, and there was a tremendous amount of enthusiasm, patriotism and devotion to country. It was exciting.”

Among Stewart’s responsibilities at the embassy was transcribing her father’s handwritten diary entries. Decades later, those diaries would become the centerpiece of her scholarly work.

Dr. Stewart later became a professor of history at George Mason University, in Virginia. Her book was one of the pioneering studies of Roosevelt’s 1930s refugee policy, and it became an important source of influence on younger historians in the field. But she published nothing further on the topic, and declined to take part in the sometimes vociferous public debates about America’s response to the Holocaust. As a result, her scholarship is not widely known to the public.

Likewise, until the recent appearance of “A Voice Among the Silent,” McDonald’s work was known by few–except among some residents of Netanya, where a street was named in his honor many years ago, resulting in the synagogue on that street bearing the oxymoronic nickname “The McDonald Shul.”

January 2016