In 2016, we brought you an article by Basque-American author Vince J. Juaristi which left us awestruck (you can find it down below).  The article covered how the war and one person’s commitment, that of Eleanor Roosevelt, brought together two people who in normal circumstances would never have met:

On the one hand was Kerman Mirena Iriondo, a “Basque War Child” who, at the age of eight, had to abandon his homeland via the port of Bilbao to flee the bombs of the Francoist insurgents and their German and Italian allies, and…

On the other, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, who was not only the wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the US president from 1933 to 1945; she was more importantly an influential diplomat and human rights activist.  She was a woman of deeply-rooted principles who used her role as First Lady to promote humanitarian and freedom-defense projects.

Kerman Mirena Iriondo, el niño vasco de la guerra, que fue "adoptado" por la primera dama de los USA
Kerman Mirena Iriondo, the Basque war child, who was “adopted” by the First Lady of the US

Today, we can expand on that article with images British Pathé has released, showing us when Eleanor Roosevelt met the girl and two boys who’d taken refuge in Great Britain who she had adopted as a way to promote her program to support children displaced by totalitarianism.

As Vince J. Juaristi told us in his magnificent article, the First Lady wrote in her “My Day” column dated June 23, 1937 a specific reference to the suffering Franco’s attacks on the Basque people had caused, and spoke of the need to financially support the Basque child refugees.

“...The picture on the front page of the Tribune this morning showing the devastation in a suburb of Bilbao gives me a sense of horror. Why must people go on stupidly destroying what it has taken human hands so long to build? Are we never going to reach a point where a vote will be a substitute for cutting each others’ throats, or blowing each other up with guns?
Amongst other things, I noticed yesterday that the Basque children taken to England were not very happy. It makes me feel more strongly than ever that our own contribution should be in money and these children should be kept as near their own country as possible. Children lose all sense of security when their surroundings are not familiar. It is probably easier to stand constant shelling when the room you are in is a room you have known all your life. If it falls about your ears, you are probably killed and know nothing about it, but you cannot imagine that such a thing will happen because you have always known it as it is and can visualize it no other way.”

Kerman Mirena Iriondo had left Bilbao accompanied by his older siblings (his younger sister, aged four, stayed with their parents in Bilbao) aboard the SS Habana and, after arriving at his destination and some time in several camps, he became separated from his siblings, and by the age of eight, ended up in Barnet, a district of London.  This was undoubtedly a traumatic situation that just added to the pile of those he’d already suffered.

Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt

That’s what the First Lady was referring to when she said that the “Basque children taken to England were not very happy.”  That’s why she decided to take it upon herself to take action to encourage her countrymen to help the Basque child refugees.  That’s why she decided to “adopt” one of them, who ended up being Kerman Mirena Iriondo.

Her actions were successful.  Homemakers across America donated money, churches passed around extra collection plates, and civic clubs and schools went door to door asking for nickels and pennies.  Her example set off a firestorm in Hollywood, attracting contributions from Bing Crosby, Fred Allen, Jack Benny, and Helen Hayes.

By November 1942, well into the Second World War, when Eleanor Roosevelt traveled to Great Britain, she had “adopted” a total of three children.  Though the war in the Basque Country had ended, and many children had returned home, Kerman decided to stay in Great Britain because his parents had died.  The First Lady continued to support him until he turned 18.

Of that first encounter we had only been able to find photos.  Now, thanks to a report shared by @manuelbaelo, a law professor at the UNIR, we can share this newsreel footage British Pathé distributed to movie theaters in 1942.

(audio transcription)

Jamina Dybowska of Poland, Kerman [Iriondo] Garale from Spain, and little Tommy Maloney of East London.
This portrait comes to life as the three adopted children meet Mrs. Roosevelt, their foster mother, for the first time.
17-year-old Jamina put on her Polish costume for the occasion, Kerman presented the portrait to Mrs. Roosevelt, and young Tommy, stored it all up in his mind to think about in bed.

Just thirty brief seconds, which can’t come close to encompassing the immense impact the commitment of Eleanor Roosevelt,Leah Manning, and thousands and thousands of people and organizations had on the lives of those thousands and thousands of Basque children who had to flee their homeland to escape the monster of totalitarianism.  We’ve spoken about it often.  But all we say about this topic can never truly reflect the pain they suffered, nor can it ever fully thank those people for their commitment at a time when it seemed like the world was going to be devoured by fascism.  They kept the light burning even at the darkest hour.

The lives of our two protagonists continued on after that encounter.

Kerman would never see her again, but she continued to support him until he turned 18.  He spent his teenage years in Carshalton, London, where he befriended and later married Manolita Abad, another Basque child who escaped on the SS Habana. He finished his studies at a business university and ended up working in international banking and import/export.  His abilities in Basque, Spanish, and English were very useful to him.

Eleanor continued supporting the Foster Parent Program, along with others which were born of it, during the war and afterwards.  With her guidance, several of these programs were joined together after the war into the United Nations International Child Emergency Fund, now more commonly known as UNICEF.

Unfortunately, the need to support children who have been struck by war, hunger, or social injustice is still great.  The questions Eleanor asked in her 1937 column are still valid today:

Why must people go on stupidly destroying what it has taken human hands so long to build? Are we never going to reach a point where a vote will be a substitute for cutting each others’ throats, or blowing each other up with guns?


Medium – 10/10/2018 – USA

Eleanor’s Basque Children

Never had a First Lady of the United States traveled to Europe without her husband. Despite the German Luftwaffe prowling the skies, Eleanor Roosevelt shrugged off the danger and flew to England. She had four sons in military service, and wanted to do something for the war effort, if only to raise British spirits and carry a vital message across the pond, “America is coming.” She and Franklin had been visited by King George and Queen Elizabeth at the White House, so returning the call seemed only fitting. She also hoped to bring good tidings to the few American troops already in country, and study the effects of wartime programs on average families. But a chief priority too was spending time with refugee children, three in particular whom she had adopted and supported for years, a Basque boy among them, Kerman Mirena Iriondo.

(Follow) (Automatic translation)

Last Updated on Feb 26, 2023 by About Basque Country

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