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Vermont Women: Two Vermont Humanitarians

03/23/07 12:00AM By Cyndy Bittinger
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(HOST) To conclude this week's focus on notable Vermont women, historian Cyndy Bittinger has the story of how Grace Coolidge and Dorothy Thompson attempted to rescue Jewish children from Germany in 1939.

(BITTINGER) Both Grace Coolidge and Dorothy Thompson have historic markers dedicated to them in Vermont; Coolidge's at her family home in Burlington and Thompson's at the Barnard Memorial Common named in her honor. Grace Coolidge was First Lady from 1923 to 1929. Dorothy Thompson was one of the most famous journalists of the thirties and forties. However, the word humanitarian is not on either marker and should be.

Recently discovered letters at the Institute for Jewish Research in New York reveal that Anne Frank's family tried to gain entry into the United States by searching for sponsors, large sums of money and proof of how their entry would benefit America. Coolidge and Thompson, at the same time, were working in America to sponsor children like Anne.

Grace Coolidge was a member of a Northampton, Massachusetts Refugee Committee which in 1939 attempted to arrange homes for twenty-five Jewish children; those like Anne Frank fleeing Nazi Germany with nowhere to go. "Deeply moved by the plight of victims of religious and racial persecution in Germany," Grace and her committee appealed to the U.S. State Department only to have their request folded into the Wagner Rogers bill. The bill would have permitted over a single two-year period entrance outside the quotas of 20,000 German refugee children aged fourteen or younger. They would have been supported by individuals or private agencies at no government expense. Many prominent Americans supported the bill, from actress Helen Hayes to Mayor Fiorello La Guardia of New York, but only twenty-six percent of the public supported it, and it went down to defeat.

About this time, Dorothy Thompson was trying to influence public opinion by marshaling facts and figures, and calling for an international organization to coordinate all refugee migration. She wrote a newspaper column called "On the Record" for the Herald Tribune in New York and this was syndicated to seventy other papers. In 1938, according to biographer Peter Kurth, she wrote one hundred and thirty-two columns and twelve magazine articles for the Ladies' Home Journal.

She gave fifty speeches, countless radio broadcasts and wrote a book, Refugees: Anarchy or Organization? She created her own think tank of academics, financiers, and administration figures to support her work.

After the destruction of Jewish property and imprisonment of so many Jews during Germany's Kristallnacht, she said, in a radio broadcast, "We who are not Jews must speak, speak our sorrow and indignation and disgust in so many voices that they WILL be heard."

In the end, both Dorothy Thompson and Grace Coolidge were largely unsuccessful in their efforts to change U.S. refugee policies, but both women did their best, taking a stand that was rare, brave, and unpopular. And if they had succeeded, Anne Frank and thousands of others like her might well have survived the holocaust.

Cyndy Bittinger is executive director of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation. For all the essays in this series, and links to more information about Vermont Women, visit our website at VPR.net.

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