The View From Swamptown: Exploring the Morgenthau Women’s connection to Saunderstown – The Independent

Posted By on March 24, 2022

I think I can state with some confidence, that in the more than 25 years that I have been writing this column centered upon the history of our fair town, a 38-year-old high-end contemporary off of Plantation Lane in Saunderstown is indeed the newest house that I have ever focused upon. And you might wonder why, in an ancient community in which 100 year old houses are so common that folks barely give them a second thought, I would even contemplate investing my time and attention into such a youthful domicile. Well you see, the story here, as it most often is, is not this fine home, but the folks that have owned it and lived in it since it was constructed. For this house was designed and constructed in 1984 as a peaceful summer getaway for Henry and Ruth S. Morgenthau. Henry and Ruth, their forbears and their progeny, were not only witnesses to history on a grand scale on the world stage no less, they were, and still are, players in that grand drama. So this is a wonderful story to explore during Womens History Month as more than generation of Morgenthau women associated with this home, have left their mark on history.

Henry Morgenthau III spent his business career as an executive TV producer and writer and was among the folks responsible for making his station WGBH-2 Boston, one of the flagships of our nations Public Broadcasting System. His most famous documentary for the station was a groundbreaking series on Eleanor Roosevelt and her impact on our nation, this work was personal for him, as his childhood was rooted in the Roosevelt Administration as his father Henry Morgenthau Jr. was FDRs Secretary of the Treasury and Henry III, literally grew up during those challenging years surrounded by the folks who made history on a daily basis. Henry Morgenthau Jr will forever be remembered as not only the architect of the Morgenthau plan for post-war Germany, but also one of the Roosevelt brain trust behind the New Deal and its innovative and effective fiscal policies. Henry IIIs grandfather, Henry Morgenthau Sr. too, was a mover and shaker in his own right. A long serving diplomat, he was the Ambassador to the old Ottoman Empire during the early parts of the 20th century and was one of the first and only high-ranking US officials to speak out against the Armenian Genocide. The foresight and irony of all this was not lost upon his son Henry Jr. You see, all of the Morgenthaus roots return them to their heritage as German Jews, who left Germany around the time of the American Civil War, but whom were active during WWII speaking out against the worlds next great genocide; the Jewish Holocaust. The Morgenthaus also worked behind the scenes actively participating in and financing the rescue of Jews from Hitlers Europe. The other owner of the house at the time of its construction in 1984 was Henry IIIs wife Ruth (Schachter) Morgenthau. Ruth was a professor of international politics at Brandeis University and was the founder of that universitys graduate program in international sustainable development. During the 1980s Ruth was the recognized expert in African Aid Policy and as such was an advisor to President Jimmy Carter and a member of the US delegation at the United Nations. Her groundbreaking research which pointed out that top-down aid to developing nations in Africa and elsewhere was fraught with problems and encouraged corruption; Ruths strategy utilized a bottom-up approach to aid that focused on putting resources into the hands of villagers and rural communities. This aid strategy still informs US International Aid planning to this day. Ruth too, was rooted in the European Jewish community and fled Vienna Austria with her parents, just ahead of the Nazis in 1940. Some of Ruths final work, just prior to her death in 2006 was done at the Center for Global Development, a Washington-based think tank, and foreshadowed all that we deal with today, in pointing out that appropriately administered foreign aid was central to American security because poor nations were becoming havens for terrorists, pirates and other criminals.

After Ruths passing in 2006, this fine summer house became the property of their children; sons Ben, a prominent San Francisco pediatrician, and Kramer, a cinematographer and director of photography for TV and feature films (movies like Fracture, Too Big to Fail, Thor, and The Express, TV series like Sleepy Hollow, Vegas, Game of Thrones, and Boardwalk Empire), and daughter Sarah. As much as Kramer certainly followed in the career footsteps of his father, Sarah took to the political activism of her mother, with, oh yeah, a little bit of her uncle, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, (the inspiration for the character Adam Schiff in the TV series Law And Order) thrown in for good measure. Sarah, after obtaining a law degree, clerked in the US District Court in New Jersey. After that she took a position as an Attorney for the US Security and Exchange Commission and then followed that up with a stint as the scheduler for New Jersey mayor Cory Booker. She also served on the national finance committee for the Obama campaign, and then worked as the Director of Response for the Peace Corps. She is now a deputy assistant in the Commerce Department for the Biden administration and has recently thrown her hat into the ring to try to become our next US Congressperson.

So, as you can plainly see, although this house is not in and of itself historic, as the getaway place for all of these exceptional folks, it has indeed seen its share of history and is just one of many extraordinary stories involving amazing people who are tied to the sleepy little village of Saunderstown. As I researched this story, I couldnt help but be drawn to the old Yiddish tradition of placing a stone upon the grave of a person and the similarly Yiddish concept of mentsh or as the German Jews of the Morgenthaus family traditions would have said it mensch. In my minds eye I can see folks of all stripes, Jews and Christians, Whites and Blacks, Europeans, Americans and Africans walking up to the Morgenthau family plot, where ever it may be, and placing a stone upon the graves of various members of this incredible clan and remembering them as truly a mensch. You see the ancient tradition of bringing a stone from a meaningful place and placing it on a gravestone, is a way of saying You were important to me; I took the effort to remember you by carrying this piece of my world here and offering it to you, a mensch. The word mensch of course means human being, but really the word carries more meaning with it than that. As Leo Rosten, well known Yiddish writer so aptly put it, a mensch is someone to admire and emulate someone of noble character. Nothing less than character, rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right. Mensch is an expression of the rarity and value of the qualities of that particular individual. Sounds just like a Morgenthau to me.

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

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The View From Swamptown: Exploring the Morgenthau Women's connection to Saunderstown - The Independent

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