James G. McDonald, right, and his daughter, Barbara, center left, prepare to leave Tel Aviv in a U.S. Air Force plane for a conference on refugees in Turkey, circa 1949.
Photo courtesy of James Grover McDonald Collection/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collections Division, Archives Branch
Few history majors have witnessed history quite as closely as Barbara McDonald Stewart (WCAS48). Two months after graduation, while Stewart’s peers were starting jobs, getting married or preparing for graduate school, she was on a plane bound for Haifa, Israel.
Her father, James G. McDonald, had just been appointed the first U.S. ambassador to Israel, and Stewart would serve as his hostess. McDonald, the former League of Nations high commissioner for refugees during the 1930s and an early advocate for Jewish rights, was an obvious choice for the ambassadorship.
In August 1948 Stewart left her home in New York to help her father run the newly founded embassy in Tel Aviv. Her mother needed to tend to the household in Bronxville, N.Y., and her sister, Janet, was expecting a baby, so Barbara alone joined her father at the age of 21. At the embassy she was put in charge of the household, supervising cooking and cleaning and helping her father with office tasks. “I thought it was wonderful that we could be there,” she says. “Everybody was very focused on the new nation, and there was a tremendous amount of enthusiasm, patriotism and devotion to country. It was exciting.”
Though she was largely confined to the embassy, Stewart saw the birth of Israel firsthand. She learned to speak some Hebrew while the language was still in transition from prayer books to vernacular, and she met top U.S. and Russian diplomats and rising Israeli leaders. She became close with Shoshana Yadin, the sister-in-law of then-Israeli chief of staff General Yigael Yadin, who would go on to become deputy prime minister. “Shoshana’s daughter was my Hebrew teacher. She was 3, and I could almost carry on a conversation with her,” Stewart jokes.
One of Stewart’s jobs was to type documents for her father. She frequently transcribed McDonald’s personal journal, a record of his experiences working with foreign governments.
He started his journal in the 1920s when he was founder and chair of the Foreign Policy Association, a U.S.–based advocacy group that sought international communication and cooperation. From his post he watched the revival of Germany after World War I and witnessed its plunge into fascism. He also met with the world’s top political players, including Adolf Hitler and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, recording his eyewitness accounts every day in his diary. He continued his chronicle during his tenure in Israel through 1951.
Now, more than 50 years later, Stewart is revisiting her experiences in Israel through her father’s diaries, and this time she is sharing those experiences with the world. In April 2004 Stewart and her sister, Janet McDonald Barrett, donated McDonald’s journals to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Stewart first recognized the historical significance of her father’s writings when she moved back to New York in 1950 and decided to return to school, earning a master’s degree in American history from Columbia University. “I guess I inherited a love of history,” she says. “It was the thing I enjoyed most.”
In 1960 Stewart had returned to school again to earn a doctorate in history from Columbia. This time she concentrated on research that hit close to home, drawing on her father’s writings for her thesis, United States Government Policy on Refugees, 1933–1939.
Reading through the pages of the diaries, what struck Stewart most were her father’s experiences in Nazi Germany. He chronicled the rise of Nazism in Berlin in the 1930s and traced its aftermath through the founding of Israel. McDonald, who witnessed the German boycott of Jewish stores in 1933, had urgently tried to alert the U.S. government and the international community about the oppression of Jews in Germany.
“I’ve read books about what happened to the Jews, what people did and specifically what they didn’t do in the 1930s. They don’t mention the League of Nations High Commission. Not that it was entirely successful, but people did try to settle refugees and warn of the menace of Hitler,” she says.
When her father died in 1964, Stewart took on the task of organizing the journals, arranging the pages into notebooks and boxes. She realized that the documents might have some historical value beyond her research paper. So for five years Stewart retyped the diary from McDonald’s days as League of Nations high commissioner for refugees. “I couldn’t wait to get started,” she says. “It’s an important story when you can read it as a whole, and I looked forward to it every week.”
She thought about publishing the diary and for almost 10 years looked for a publisher but found no takers.
Finally, the Holocaust Memorial Museum received a letter from Patricia Ketchum mentioning that she had about 500 pages of the diary. Ketchum’s father, Thomas Sugrue, had helped McDonald with My Mission in Israel, 1948–1951 (Simon & Schuster, 1951), which McDonald wrote after his appointment as ambassador to Israel.
The 500 pages of the diary were directed to Holocaust Memorial Museum archivist Stephen Mize, who was immediately intrigued by a mention of a conversation between McDonald and Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who later became Pope Pius II. He tracked down Stewart and told her the museum was interested in seeing the complete diaries. Stewart and Mize assembled about 10,000 pages of journal entries and correspondence, and in spring 2003 she agreed to donate the journals. In exchange the museum agreed to publish much of the journal in three volumes, with the first volume to be released in late 2006.
“The diaries offer much more nuanced insights about some key figures, such as FDR’s attitude toward Jewish refugees and George Marshall’s toward the creation of the state of Israel,” says Sara Jane Bloomfield (WCAS72), director of the Holocaust Memorial Museum (see “Preserving a Painful Past,” winter 1999). “The published diaries will be important to any understanding of the World War II era and its aftermath.”
Now that the diaries have a publisher, the work continues for Stewart. With the help of Richard Breitman, a history professor at American University, and Severin Hochberg, a historian at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, she must edit the diaries in preparation for publication.
Already she’s gotten a positive response from people who have read excerpts of the diaries. At the formal ceremony at the Holocaust Memorial Museum last year, a woman who had survived in a concentration camp approached Stewart to thank her. “She was so glad to know that somebody had made an effort,” Stewart says.
And while Stewart says her father never expected his diaries to be published, she says he would approve. “He never thought of them in terms of publication, which is why they’re totally honest,” she says. “I think he’d be glad for the purpose that they serve.”
Rebecca Zeifman (J03, GJ04), a former editorial intern at Northwestern magazine, is a freelance writer in Seattle.
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