Bygone Muncie: James McDonald's journey from Albany to Germany to Israel

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Around 1 p.m. on the afternoon of April 8, 1933, James Grover McDonald walked into Adolph Hitler’s office at the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. McDonald, the high commissioner for the League of Nations’ German refugee program, was meeting with the führer to discuss the flood of Jewish refugees beginning to stream out of the nascent Third Reich. In his role as commissioner, McDonald was tasked with finding resources and sanctuary for those fleeing Nazi anti-Semitism. At the meeting, he wanted to know directly from Hitler, who had recently come to power as chancellor, what Germany’s true policies were for the nation’s Jewish population.

McDonald wrote in his diary that he judged Hitler to be "five feet nine or ten, rather stocky, though by no means stout." The high commissioner then asked the Nazi leader why so many German Jews were leaving the country. Hitler dismissed the question, "why should there be such a fuss when they are thrown out of places, when hundreds of Aryan Germans are on the streets? No, the world has no just ground for complaint. Germany is not fighting merely the battle of Germany. It is fighting the battle of the world."

Hitler went further, foreshadowing to McDonald the evil that was to come, "I will do the thing that the rest of the world would like to do. It doesn't know how to get rid of the Jews. I will show them."

Meetings like this confirmed to McDonald just how far the fascists were willing to go to fulfill their racist ideology. He saw the Nazi threat for what it truly was and worked ardently in the mid-1930s to seek safe passage for refugees. He also spent considerable time in his role warning the world’s leaders about the Nazis, even meeting with President Franklin Roosevelt and the Vatican’s papal secretary, Cardinal Pacelli, the soon-to-be Pope Pius XII. McDonald got nowhere with anyone and resigned in 1935, warning in his departure letter that the "desperate suffering in the countries adjacent to Germany, and an even more terrible human calamity within the German frontiers, are inevitable unless present tendencies in the Reich are checked or reversed." Had anyone in power actually listened to and acted upon McDonald’s warnings in the mid-1930s, the 20th century would have occurred very differently.

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James Grover McDonald was born in Coldwater, Ohio on Nov. 29, 1886, to two German-American immigrants, Anna Diedrick and Kenneth McDonald. James, who went by "Grover" during his formative years, was one of five boys in the McDonald clan. When he was 12, the McDonalds purchased the Bartlett Hotel in Albany, Indiana, and relocated to the Hoosier state to run the inn.

Grover attended Albany High School, graduating as valedictorian in 1905 (his class had only six people). He received a bachelor's from Indiana University in 1909 and a master's a year later. In 1914, McDonald began a doctorate program at Harvard, though he never completed it. He married Albany native Ruth Stafford in 1915 and the couple would go on to have two daughters, Janet and Barbara.

The McDonalds returned to Bloomington the same year when James landed a teaching gig at IU. Four years later, they moved again, this time to New York City where he started work at the Foreign Policy Association. A private internationalist organization, the FPA lobbied the United States government to join the League of Nations. In the discharge of his duties, McDonald became personally and professionally acquainted with Franklin Roosevelt, John Foster Dulles, and John Rockefeller Jr.

In 1933 McDonald became the League of Nation’s high commissioner for German refugees. The League created the commission to aid those fleeing Nazi terror. Given McDonald’s fluency in German, dedication to internationalism, and knowledge of European history, he was an ideal candidate to help coordinate relief at an international level.

Even with his professional advancements, McDonald never forgot his Hoosier roots. Throughout the 1930s, he returned often to Delaware County with Ruth to visit family in Albany. During one such visit, McDonald was interviewed at the Delaware Country Club by The Muncie Evening Press in July of 1933, three months after his meeting with Hitler. He warned a reporter that he saw the Nazis as “an extraordinary group. Their power has been grossly underestimated. One of their blunders has been in their treatment of the Jews, whom they have deprived of many privileges. Convinced that the Jews are a menace to Germany, the Nazis are heartless in reducing their influence.”

McDonald resigned the high commissioner position two years later and served on the editorial staff of The New York Times. Just before the war broke out in Europe, FDR appointed him as a presidential advisor for political refugees. McDonald’s experiences led him to become an ardent supporter of establishing a state for Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors. The New York Times later wrote that his “Zionist sympathies were common gossip among anti-Semites. He believed that when the Jew is attacked the individual everywhere is in danger; he recognized that the health of any society is measured by the level of its anti-Semitism."

When the war ended, McDonald served on the joint U.S and Great Britain, Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry. The commission was tasked to determine how best to resettle refugees, including finding homes in Mandatory Palestine for 100,000 displaced European Jews.

After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, President Harry Truman selected McDonald as the United States Special Representative to handle diplomacy. A year later, McDonald became the first U.S. ambassador to Israel, serving as such until 1951. McDonald’s diplomacy was crucial in establishing a strong relationship between the two nations.

After leaving the State Department, McDonald served as the chairman of the Development Corporation for Israel until 1961. He died three years later in White Plains, New York, at the age of 77. His body was returned home and buried at Strong Cemetery in Albany.

McDonald's life and work were largely unknown by most historians until the United States Holocaust Museum made his diaries available in 2004. McDonald’s story was also told by the Chicago filmmaker Shuli Eshel in 2017, in her documentary titled “A Voice Among the Silent.”

This past year, the Delaware County Historical Society partnered with the Indiana Jewish Historical Society to place an Indiana Historical Bureau marker in Albany to commemorate McDonald's legacy. The marker, located on Broadway Street across from the library, was scheduled to be dedicated at 1 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 11, Albany. I encourage you to make a visit the next time you’re in town.

If you want to learn more about McDonald, I recommend Eshel’s documentary and the 2007 book, "Advocate for the Doomed.” Both works do a wonderful job in telling the largely forgotten but noble life story of James Grover McDonald.

Chris Flook is a board member for the Delaware County Historical Society and is the author of "Lost Towns of Delaware County, Indiana" and "Native Americans of East-Central Indiana." For more information about the Delaware County Historical Society, visit delawarecountyhistory.org.

This article originally appeared on Muncie Star Press: Bygone Muncie: James McDonald's journey from Albany to Germany to Israel