Book review: Hawley historian writes about Eleanor Roosevelt

  • Eleanor Roosevelt accepts petitions from residents of the Emergency Refugee Shelter, Oswego, New York, September 1944. PHOTO COURTESY FDR LIBRARY

  • Author John Sears. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO


  • Eleanor Roosevelt and Trude Lash visit refugee girls in their room at the Women's League Hostel, Jerusalem, March 19, 1955. PHOTO COURTESY FDR LIBRARY

  • Eleanor Roosevelt visits the Alonei Yitzhak Children's Village in Israel, March 1959. COURTESY FDR LIBRARY

Published: 7/28/2021 5:15:10 PM

John Sears of Hawley is a historian on both a grand scale and a small one, with both national and local focus.

The national focus shows up in his research and writing on Eleanor Roosevelt, whom he calls ER to put her on well-deserved equal footing with her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, referred to almost universally as FDR. Sears didn’t plan to study or write about ER.

His undergraduate degree was in English. His graduate work in American civilization specialized in American philosophy and art. He developed an interest in cultural history; his first book was “Sacred Places: American Tourist Attractions in the Nineteenth Century.”

Over time, however, he was drawn into the orbit of one of our most famous first ladies. Various teaching positions, including one at Vassar College, led to his being asked to organize a centenary conference on the anniversary of her birth in 1984.

“I didn’t know a lot about Eleanor Roosevelt at the time,” Sears told me in a recent interview. “I learned quite a lot.”

He interacted with members of the Roosevelt family and with the 400 scholars at the conference.

His experience there led him to become executive director at the Four Freedoms Foundation, which later became the Roosevelt Institute.

When he retired from that job, he went to work at the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, which was organized to collect ER’s papers from her husband’s death in 1945 to her own demise in 1962. He retired from that effort in 2007 and contemplated working on another book.

He was inspired by letters ER had exchanged with President Harry Truman and Secretary of State George Marshall in the late 1940s about the United Nations’ plan to divide Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab.

Although ER was the most extensively written about first lady in American history, this was an under-examined part of her life. Sears began research on a book, which has just been published by Purdue University Press.

It is titled “Refuge Must Be Given: Eleanor Roosevelt, the Jewish Plight, and the Founding of Israel.”

The book has two major parts. First, it examines Eleanor Roosevelt’s efforts to aid Jewish refugees from the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. She tried to use her connections in the federal government to find exit visas for these people, as well as to expand quotas for immigration into the United States.

Although she was successful in some cases, the federal bureaucracy generally foiled her efforts. Anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant sentiments were entrenched.

The second part of the book looks at ER’s support of the emerging state of Israel, first as a part of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations and as time went by as a semi-private citizen.

Sears explained to me that some of Roosevelt’s enthusiasm for Israel as a nation came from her sympathy for the plight of European Jews, both before the war and afterward. Many of those who survived the Holocaust ended up in camps for displaced persons, camps ER visited.

He added that she was also excited by the ways in which Israel went about building up its nation and its citizenry. “This new country, with its energy, its resourcefulness, was doing things she cared deeply about: public health, child welfare, community building, active citizenship.”

In conversation and in his writing, Sears is candid in acknowledging that the usually open and curious ER had a blind spot when it came to Israel’s policies. That blind spot was the fate of the Palestinian Arabs.

According to Sears, ER believed that if both the Jews and the Palestinians could accept the UN plan for dividing their land into two parts, “they could work out an economic cooperation that would benefit both of them.”

Unfortunately, Sears noted, “both sides were so passionate about their situation.

“The Jews had suffered so much. There were a lot of people who thought, ‘The only way we’re going to be safe is if we have our own nation.’

“They had never been fully accepted. There was that feeling that here was an opportunity to fulfill their dream of returning to their country, from which they had been exiled for 2,000 years.”

Unfortunately, he added, the Palestinians also had a history of being oppressed … and many of them were living on land the Jews took over.

“Some of them were driven from their homes. Some of them just fled in terror. They naturally felt dispossessed,” he said.

Both parts of the story Sears tells resonate today. The battle between the Israeli Jews and Palestinians has never gone away and has escalated recently.

And the opposition ER faced in trying to help Jews from Europe immigrate to this country during the war was one thread of a national conversation in the United States that continues to this day.

“There was this feeling that immigrants were detrimental to the country,” Sears told me. “Sound familiar?”

John Sears, local historian

Sears isn’t just a scholar of American history overall. He is also active in preserving and archiving the history of the small town in which he lives.

He spent every summer of his youth in Hawley, and it seemed natural to retire there when he became an independent scholar. Although the home in which he stayed as a child now belongs to relatives, he built a tiny house nearby in 1991 and has expanded it since.

He is active in the Sons & Daughters of Hawley, the town’s historical society, and was the town’s scholar-in-residence when the Sons & Daughters decided to document Hawley’s old Town Common.

The buildings that constituted the center of Hawley in the early 19th century — a meetinghouse, a couple of taverns, etc. — were all moved after 1847. Gradually, the remaining structures around the common fell apart and collapsed. The cellar holes of the original buildings were overrun by grass and trees.

With the help of archaeologists, students and grants, the Sons & Daughters cleared the area and documented what had been there. Sears was passionate about this work. He has gone on to spearhead the efforts of the Historical Society to catalogue its archives.

He also serves on a number of town committees and was selectman for four years.

I asked how studying history on the local and national levels differed and how working on town projects intersected with his scholarship.

“Local history is never just local because national events, statewide events affect local editions, local circumstances,” he replied.

He explained that the impetus for the abandonment of the Town Common was the official separation of church and state in Massachusetts, which rendered the meetinghouse (a combination of church and town office) inappropriate.

Hawleyites built a new town office elsewhere and used leftover timber to build a new church up the road from the former common.

When speaking about devoting his time to the town, particularly his work as a selectman, John Sears brought the conversation back to ER.

“I found it very meaningful to be a selectman. It was very worthwhile. I thought, if I’m writing about Eleanor Roosevelt, who believed in active citizenship, if I don’t step up when I feel the town needs something, then I’m not being consistent with the subject of my study.’”

“Refuge Must Be Given” is available from Purdue University Press and may also be ordered from bookstores.

Tinky Weisblat is the award-winning author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook,” “Pulling Taffy,” and “Love, Laughter, and Rhubarb.” Visit her website,

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