One Police Plaza

Neither Pride Nor Arrogance

October 1, 2018

Some months ago, former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau discovered a little brown book on the left-hand corner of his desk. [He says he did not know how it got there.] Turns out, it was a diary, written in 1842 by his great-grandfather, Lazarus Morgenthau, describing his impoverished childhood in Germany in the early 19th century. If he became successful, Lazarus wrote, he hoped “neither pride nor arrogance may gain a foothold in my family.”

Last Wednesday, Robert Morgenthau presented the diary to Manhattan’s Leo Baeck Institute, which focuses on the history and culture of German Jewry. The diary represents the beginning of the story of how one immigrant family so has enriched this country.

Lazarus Morgenthau did become successful, as a cigar manufacturer in Germany. In 1866, he and his son, Henry Sr., emigrated to New York City, landing at Castle Garden, New York’s first official immigration center. Henry Sr. became a wealthy real estate developer. During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson appointed him ambassador to the Ottoman Empire; he was the most prominent American voice to condemn the Turks’ genocide of the Armenian people.

His son, Henry Jr, served as Secretary of the Treasury in the administration of Franklin Roosevelt before and during World War II. His was the loudest voice in the Roosevelt administration to speak out against Nazi atrocities against Jews in Europe and the refusal of our state department — personified by Assistant Secretary Breckinridge Long — to allow the entry of Jewish refugees into the United States.

Robert Morgenthau also presented a portrait of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews during World War II. In part through Wallenberg’s efforts, more than 100,000 Jews were alive when Soviet forces liberated Budapest from the Nazis in 1945. Soviet officials detained Wallenberg. He was never seen again.

His portrait was painted by Peter Malkin, the Chief of Operations for Israel’s Mossad. Malkin was the lead agent who captured the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960. Morgenthau later helped Malkin obtain U.S. Citizenship.

While the Morgenthaus have become one of New York’s and the nation’s most distinguished families, Robert Morganthau spoke about the hardships of immigrant life for his great-grandfather and his grandfather.

Forced to drop out of school as a boy, Henry Sr. completed but a year at City College, yet was able to gain entry into Columbia law school. Except for banks and insurance companies, said Robert Morgenthau, there were opportunities for immigrants then — opportunities today’s immigrants lack.

Since retiring as district attorney in 2009, Morgenthau, who is 99 years old, has devoted himself to helping today’s immigrants. He joined the board of the Immigrant Justice Corps. Inspired by Chief Judge Robert Katzmann of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the IJC describes itself as “the first fellowship program dedicated to meeting the needs for high-quality legal assistance for immigrants seeking citizenship and fighting deportations.”


Copyright © 2018 Leonard Levitt