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July 4, 2016
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Remembering Eleanor Rathbone


Old photograph of Eleanor Rathbone in black and white

Remembering Eleanor Rathbone

In the early 1960s, the Central British Fund for World Jewish Relief (now World Jewish Relief) were still the recipients of West German reparation funds and, in conjunction with the Association of Jewish Refugees, they built a block of studio flats to provide sheltered accommodation for elderly Jewish refugees in London.

The strikingly modern thirteen-storey building in Avenue Road, Highgate was officially opened in 1969 and was named Eleanor Rathbone House in honour of the MP who had done so much for the welfare and rescue of Jewish refugees, in and from Nazi Europe before and during the Second World War.

Rathbone was elected as Independent MP for the Combined English Universities in 1929, and retained her seat up until her death in 1946. During this time she devoted a large part of her political carer to campaigning on behalf of refugees, especially Jews, sparing no expense, either physical or emotional, in her efforts. As a humanitarian activist, she had no equal during her lifetime.

She valued her independence for it enabled her to stick by her principles, and to follow her conscience.  From the outset of her career, in 1897, which included her role as a social and welfare investigator and reformer, a feminist, suffragist, local and national politician and Justice of the Peace, hers was the voice of the under-represented in society, regardless of race, religion or gender. Rathbone was a highly principled woman, a determined and tenacious politician and a dedicated humanitarian activist who cared about her fellow human beings and acted to improve lives wherever she could.   With no political party line to tow she was able to speak out when others might have been silenced by their colleagues, and it allowed her to pursue causes which others avoided.

It was no coincidence then that she stood as an independent candidate in the 1929 election, being returned as Member for the Combined English Universities, a seat which she retained until her death in 1946.

Her two committees, the all-party Parliamentary Committee on Refugees, set up in late 1938 and the National Committee for Rescue from Nazi Terror, established in 1943, were the vehicles through which she campaigned and which enabled her to keep the refugee issue in the public and the official eye.

Whether they were refugees from Czechoslovakia post the Munich settlement, or Germans, Austrians and others interned in Britain following the outbreak of war, Eleanor was their spokesperson, and their champion, never giving up her fight against bureaucracy and government intransigence.

2016, the 70th anniversary of her death, is a fitting time to remember Eleanor and to reflect on the importance of standing up for others and of being a responsible citizen.