The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project is a university-chartered research center associated with the Department of History of The George Washington University

The George Washington University

The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project

Hotel Waldorf-Astoria

As you know, I have just come home and I have not really had time to think through the most effective way of presenting to you the experiences which I have had. Therefore, I am going to try only to give you some of the impressions which are most vivid in my mind, since they are the things which I did after leaving the United Nations Conference.

I went to Germany and spent only two-and-a-half days there, but in those two-and-a-half days I think I became more conscious than ever of what complete human misery there is in the world. When I cam home yesterday and walked into my apartment and realized that there were no destroyed homes around me, it seemed very queer. (Where I had been, there was destruction wherever you looked.) And the house was warm, and nobody seemed to worry about whether we were going to have anything to eat. And I can only tell you that, for two-and-a-half days in Germany, those were the things that beat upon one every minute.

I went to four displaced persons camps. I am going to tell you about the Jewish camp, which was run by UNRRA. It was one of the very best camps; it was run as well as possible. But the thing that I feel is not only the physical aspect, but something that I can only describe in this way: What would happen to us if suddenly we had not real right to appeal to a government of our own?

I felt that all the time in the displaced persons camps–a kind of spiritual uprooting, a kind of being lost.

Even in the worst days of the depression, when I went down into the mining areas, at least the people came to one and said, “We want our government to know.” And they had the feeling that they had a right to tell their government.

Nobody has that right in a displaced persons camp. There is just nothing to hold onto.

As I have said, the camp I am talking about was one of the very best. The people were living in houses–houses that had been taking over from the German community. The kitchens were in barracks which had been built. The displaced persons there have 2,300 calories a day, as against 1,500 which the German people are allowed. But 2,300 calories a day gives you, I think, about the most uninteresting food and never really lets you be without hunger.

The thing which does vary their food a little bit in some places is that, since the Prisoner of War camps are closing, some of the surplus Red Cross packages have apparently been allowed to seep in. However, that is just a drop in the bucket.

Let me tell you about the breakfasts that they have, for children and everyone else. There is coffee with canned milk and some sugar–very little sugar–and a piece of bread. By the way they have three meals a day in the Displaced Persons camps. For the main meal, you get soup, the basis of which is potatoes; now and then, you have some other vegetables; occasionally, they told me–but very rarely–they had a little piece of meat; and again, a hunk of dark bread. Sometimes, the bread is cut in slices, with margarine on it. Occasionally you have some dried fruits, stewed fruits.

For supper, you again have tea or coffee–which is pretty bad coffee–and now and then the children can have a little bit of dried milk, particularly if they are not well. But the whole thing, of course, is based on a piece of bread that goes with whatever you have drink.

On the day that I was in the Jewish camp, the main meal was some powdered eggs–scrambled eggs. The people have such a longing to create a sense of home that they would take the powdered eggs from the kitchen and take them back to the one little room that they might have. By the way, in this particular camp they did have rooms–each family did have a room–but sometimes another family would have to go through their rooms to reach their own room.

You feel a kind of desperation about the dignity of the individual, the right to some privacy. They have done such pathetic things. The remnants of the families try so hard to make a home. I looked at these powdered eggs that were going to be carried back, and I thought, “Oh, Heavens, how horrible–the eggs will be cold when they get them back to their rooms.” And yet, they would take them back, simply because–even though you ate and you slept and you sat in that same little place–that little place was home.

There is a building in this camp where children are kept who have wandered in off the road and have no older people with them. One little boy sang for me; he sang a Jewish song. Of course, these children are much smaller than they should be for their age. This little, tiny, curly-haired thing was ten years old, but he didn’t look much more than six or seven. The director told me that this little boy had just wandered in with a younger brother one day, and they had been at the camp ever since. He said that this little boy always sang for them. They called him their “singer” in the camp. But he had all the appearance of a worried, old man, because the care of his younger brother and himself weighed on his shoulders.

What those children have gone through is just indescribable.

I am not going to tell you some of the things, because you probably know them. I can only tell you that I came away with a sense of so much human misery and a sense of surprise that there was anything left which made it possible for them to be interested. They were interested in coming there, but I couldn’t [see] why they should care who came or why they should want anyone to come. But they did.

They wanted me to go up to the stone monument that they themselves had build and the plaque that they had engraved to the 6,000,000 Jews who had been killed. They wanted me to hear from the leader of the camp they wanted, what they had hoped for. There, again, you wondered how they could hope for anything.

There was one old woman there whom I don’t think I will ever forget, because you looked at her and you felt that this was the end of life, and that life must have been so terrible to bring one at the end to what this poor old thing faced.

It is true they want to go back to Palestine. They want to go back because that represents to them some roots. I don’t know what the committee will recommend–and, as you know, the United Nations Organization, through the Economic and Social Council, is to set up a committee to go into the whole question of refugees, with a view to making recommendations as to what should happen when UNRRA does come to an end. The committee is going to be charged with an investigation of the whole problem, of which the Jewish problem is only one part. They are going to look into this whole problem and screen the different types of refugees. We don’t have any realization of the difficulty of finding out about the different types of people.

The camp that I went to, the Jewish camp near Frankfurt, had mostly Polish Jews–a few Germans, but mostly Polish. Another camp was almost entirely filled with what they called Balts, who are refugees from Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.

The committee will have to investigate that whole question of displaced or uprooted people and try to find some answer as to whether there are any existing international agencies that can be strengthened and made capable of dealing with the whole problem.

We had a very interesting time in discussing the appointment of that Commission, because some people feel very strongly that, unless people are willing to go back to their own country, they must be against their country. Well, of course, that isn’t so. Many of these people did fight against the Fascist Regime, against the Nazis, but they are out of sympathy with existing regimes in their countries. Rightly, or wrongly, they are out sympathy with those regimes. I couldn’t judge, you couldn’t judge, without the study which I hope is going to be made.

However, that it is an international problem is evident to anyone who looks into it at all. It seems to me that in the next few months UNRRA will carry the burden of actually seeing that people do not starve in those places where UNRRA is functioning.

It is a mistake to think that the displaced persons camps in Germany are any worse than the displaced persons camps in other places, or that the standards of food are worse than those that they have in the other countries. In many cases, the condition is made worse in the other countries because of the fact that, for a long period, they were under Nazi occupation. Therefore, their strength has been sapped over a longer period. In Holland, for instance, under the occupation, a baby was allowed only 350 calories a day. Of course, babies just starved to death -- just died.

I came home with the feeling that, every day, every one of us should say “Thank God that my roof is intact, that my room is warm” (and I think we had better learn not to be quite so warm; I think it would do us a great deal of good), “and Thank God that we have enough to eat, so that we are not hungry.”

The whole of Europe is hungry. But, worse than that, the whole of Europe is without any social structure. You see, the Nazis went through first and wiped out all the people who were doing the job of administering a town or a village or a city. They were simply wiped out. Then the Allies came along, and to a very large extent we had to root out whatever the Nazis had had there. The people who were administering those places were efficient, but they were Nazis, and they had to be removed. That is why, with those two currents having passed through, the leadership is gone.

I have the feeling that we let our consciences realize too late the need of standing up against something that we knew was wrong. We have therefore had to avenge it–but we did nothing to prevent it. I hope that in the future, we are going to remember that there can be no compromise at any point with the things that we know are wrong. We should remember that in connection with all the things that we do here, or in connection with anything at all in the world.

We cannot live in an island of prosperity in a sea of human misery. It just can’t be done.

We may enjoy today all the things that I think we should be thankful for, but we cannot hold them when all around us there is a condition such as I am trying to make you feel. I don’t think I am succeeding very well, because I cannot really tell you the things that pull one’s heartstrings. However, I can assure you that you could not be in any one of the displaced persons camps without feeling that you could hardly stand it, that you could just hardly bear what human beings had endured.

I realize, and you would realize, that there comes a point at which a numbness must set in. If that did not happen, I think these people would all be out of their minds. When you talk to them, you realize that there is this numbness from which all of them are suffering. For instance, as I walked into one place, two children were being taken out with typhus. I told this story in my column, but I think that I will repeat it here because it is really the epitome of what you find there. It was an old shelter, and children were wandering in the underground corridors.

I said, “But the mothers will lose these children!” And the public health doctor who was with me said, “That is the sad part of it; the mothers are indifferent–they have lost so many children.”

That shelter was only a transient shelter. It was not run by UNRRA, but run by the Army. The people came in and were supposed to go right out again, but sometimes they didn’t go right out. They had only two meals a day there. The way they lived, the dirt, was horrible. They all had to be sprayed with DDT before they could even be allowed to register.

I went to the place where they were serving the second meal of the day–at four p.m.–a meal which consisted of soup and a piece of bread. I saw a woman with a little boy who not eating anything. I stopped and said, “What is the matter? He doesn’t seem to be eating.”

She said, “Oh, he has fever. His sister has fever, too. She is too sick to sit up today, but the doctor came to see her. The boy will be sick, too.”

She had no feeling that she could do anything about it. There was a complete acceptance, there was a numbness.

As I went out, two small children sat on a bench, with all their little belongings gathered around them. The public health doctor of that area said to me, “The mother left this morning when the group was called, and she must have forgotten the children, because she left them behind.”

Well, you know and I know that most children left behind in such circumstances would have been in tears. But I went over and spoke to the little boy–he was nearly ten, and I suppose his sister was four or five–and I said, “I hope your mother comes back soon.”

He said to me, “I am sad.” And that was all he said. There were no tears. The little girl didn’t move. They just sat there until someone would and take then somewhere.

Those children epitomized the feeling that one gets. There wasn’t any use in crying, you see. You never knew what would happen; you just accepted what fate brought to you.

I want to stress the point that it is not just the physical condition that is bad, horrible as it is–horrible as it is to live without privacy, to live (as some of them do) with even less privacy than there was at the Jewish camp which I visited, which at least had houses and room.

There was one camp that I saw which had a wonderful French UNRRA team running it. I cannot say enough for the way those people had worked, particularly the doctor. A little corner of the room–no larger than the distance form one end of this table across the stage to the curtain–was divided into three parts by blankets hung up on strings at the height of a man’s head. Three families–seven people in all–lived in those three divisions.

But it is not just that. It is the feeling that there has been a crumbling of the thing that gives most of us a sense of security, the feeling that we have roots, and that–as bad as the situation may be–we have a government to which we can appeal, we have people who are representing us and who can speak for us.

Charity is a wonderful thing, but it does not give one that sense of security. What is important is rehabilitation. The sooner the study is made, and the sooner those people can be taken where they can become citizens and feel that they are actually building a new life, the better it will be for the whole world.

Europe, as it is today, gave me the most completely miserable sense of what people can suffer and how the suffering can numb them and how it can sap their strength. It gave me something else which I should like to pass on to you. It gave me the feeling that we have been saved untold misery, and that we must have been saved for a reason. That reason must be that we were expected to give leadership–spiritual leadership, moral leadership, physical leadership. If that is so, and if we fail, what is our punishment going to be?

Of course, you cannot understand the languages that some of those people speak. But you just have to look at their faces and into their eyes to know whatever leadership is coming has to come from us. It is especially the younger generation that is going to look to us, because we have the capacity to make the things they need and to see that they get them, and we still have the strength to be leaders. If we don’t give that leadership now, I don’t know where in the world it is going to come from.

That is the thing I should like to leave with you. I think the most important thing for us to realize is the great responsibility that lies upon our shoulders and the fact that we must give something beyond what we have ever given before in the world–something that is no longer for ourselves at all, but for humanity as a whole.