Stephen Mize, archivist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), gave a presentation in Brooks-Rogers last Wednesday night titled, “Eyewitness to History: Excerpts from the Diary of James G. McDonald, an American Hero.” The event, sponsored by the program in Jewish studies, was part of the New England Speaker Series, which provides the western Massachusetts community with briefings about current issues and initiatives of the USHMM.
James G. McDonald was the League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the 1930s and subsequently became the first U.S. Ambassador to Israel. He was a prominent advocate for Jewish rights before, during and after the Holocaust. His detailed diary was donated to USHMM in 2004.
Julie Hock, the New England regional director of the USHMM, introduced the lecture by reminding everyone that the USHMM is not just a building in Washington, D.C. “Power always brings great responsibility,” Hock said. “It is an important task of the Museum to teach that lesson to the public.” She challenged the audience to think about their own responsibilities as students, parents, educators and citizens.
At that point, Mize began to tell the story of the diary and how it came into possession of the museum. He described the McDonald case as highly unusual because, according to Mize, the United States never focused closely on Jewish issues. He lamented the fact that McDonald had been in the “dustbin” of history for approximately 65 years before his diary was publicized.
He began uncovering McDonald’s story by revealing its background. Already a chairman of the Foreign Policy Association in 1919, McDonald had been deeply disturbed by World War I, becoming a staunch proponent of active participation in foreign policy. In 1933, he was appointed as the League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Mize deviated from the narrative to explain that the first bits of the diary came to the USHMM with an unsolicited donation. A woman was cleaning up her basement when she found part of the diary. “Her father was a writer, to whom McDonald gave a sample of the diary in 1951, most probably with the intention to publish his memoirs,” Mize said. The woman brought the diary to Mize, and he started reading about McDonald’s effort to “scurry” Jews out of the area of Nazi influence.
Mize read that in December 1934, the Saar region in Western Europe had to vote over inclusion in either France or the German Reich. With the outcome of the vote in favor of the Reich, most Saar Jews tried to flee to France, which refused to accept them because they did not have the appropriate papers.
Mize read that McDonald used his connections in 1934 to convince “Cardinal P.” from the Vatican to issue 20,000 blank visas for the Jewish refugees fleeing to France. Mize found out that the aforementioned “Cardinal P.” was actually Cardinal Pacelli, who became Pope Pius XII three years later.
This discovery convinced Mize that the diary was of incredible importance. “If the diary was hotter, it would be burning the fingertips,” Mize said in describing his feelings at the time. The quest to find all parts of the diary began at Columbia University, went to McDonald’s daughter, Janet Barrett, and ended with Barrett’s sister, Barbara McDonald Stewart. Stewart had compiled more than 10,000 typed pages that made up McDonald’s full diary from 1924 until 1951.
Mize continued McDonald’s story, telling the audience of McDonald’s work in helping to pass President Roosevelt’s proposition to help relocate over 100,000 Jewish refugees from concentration camps to Palestine. McDonald later became U.S. ambassador to Israel.
The first volume of McDonald’s diary, covering the period 1932-1935, was published in 2007. The second, covering 1935-1945, Mize announced, is to come out this week, and the final segment should be published in about a year and a half.