On March 18, 1949, President Harry S. Truman appointed James Grover McDonald "Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary" -- a person invested with the full power of independent action on behalf of their government in a foreign country -- to the newly declared State of Israel.
Who was this man, and how did he come to receive such a profoundly significant title at such a critical moment in the history of the Jewish people?
The answer is fascinating, and well-explained in Shuli Eshel's new documentary A Voice Among the Silent: The Legacy of James G. McDonald, which will be honored with a special screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center on State Street this Sunday (Nov. 22).
This is a case in which there is no reason to speculate. Although born in Ohio to a relatively ordinary Christian family, McDonald began his ascent as a student at Indiana University. After receiving his bachelor's degree in 1909, he completed a master's degree in History, Political Science, and International Relations at IU in 1910, after which he was selected for a prestigious teaching fellowship at Harvard University.
Because his mother was German, McDonald spoke German fluently. Therefore, this very tall -- and very "Aryan-looking" -- fellow made friends with students at Harvard who later rose to become prominent members of the Nazi Party. Ironically, this gave him access to highly placed individuals after he left academia to become Chairman of the Board of the Foreign Policy Association. In 1933, all of these connections lead to his appointment as League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Coming from Germany. So he was literally in the right place at the right time to offer detailed information to Franklin Roosevelt and his cabinet from 1933 through to the end of World War II.
Eshel's achievement in A Voice Among the Silent is to explain McDonald's career step-by-step with a clear linear line from a Midwestern childhood to the world stage. In this she is much aided by on camera interviews with McDonald's daughter Barbara McDonald Stewart. Now a historian in her own right, Stewart has collaborated on the publication of three edited editions of her father's voluminous diaries:
- Advocate for the Doomed: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald(1932-1935)
- Refugees and Rescue: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald(1935-1945)
- To the Gates of Jerusalem: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald(1945-1947)
Eshel -- an award-winning filmmaker who was born in Israel but has long resided in Chicago -- is best known locally for her beloved documentary Maxwell Street: A Living Memory which premiered to a record crowd at the Chicago History Museum in 2002 (I remember! I was there!), and has since aired numerous times on WTTW (Chicago Public Television).
Sunday's screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center begins at 5:15 PM, and Eshel will be there in person for a Q and A after the credits roll.
For tickets, visit the GSFC website: www.siskelfilmcenter.org
For more information about Eshel and links to all documentaries now available on DVD (including A Voice Among the Silent and Maxwell Street: A Living Memory), visit her website: http://shulieshel.com/
The screening begins at 5:15 PM. For tickets, visit the GSFC website: www.siskelfilmcenter.org
American Ambassador James G. McDonald with Israeli President David Ben Gurion.
Top Photo: Note portrait of Theodor Herzl in the background.
Bottom Photo: Note map of Eretz Yisrael in the middle.