Three generations of Morgenthau service

Former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau in undated photo.
Former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau in undated photo. Photo Credit: John Roca

Former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau recently discovered a diary on the left-hand corner of his desk. It was written in 1842 by his great-grandfather, Lazarus Morgenthau, describing his impoverished childhood in Germany. If he became successful, Lazarus wrote, he hoped “neither pride nor arrogance may gain a foot hold in my family.”

Last week, Robert Morgenthau, 99, presented it 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 enriched America.

Lazarus Morgenthau was a successful manufacturer in Germany. In 1866, he and his son, Henry Sr., emigrated to NYC. Henry Sr. became a wealthy real estate developer. President Woodrow Wilson appointed him ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during World War I. He condemned the Turks’ genocide of Armenians.

His son, Henry Jr., served as treasury secretary for President Franklin Roosevelt. He spoke out against Nazi atrocities against Jews in Europe and the refusal of our State Department 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 tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during World War II. Partly through his efforts, more than 100,000 Jews were alive when Soviet forces liberated Budapest in 1945. Soviet officials brought Wallenberg in for questioning. He was never seen again.

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

Forced to drop out of school, Henry Sr. completed but a year at City College, yet got into Columbia Law School. Except at banks and insurance companies, Robert Morgenthau said, there were opportunities for immigrants then — opportunities that today’s immigrants lack.

Since retiring as district attorney in 2009, Morgenthau has been helping these immigrants. He joined the Immigrant Justice Corps. Inspired by Chief Judge Robert Katzmann of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the group describes itself as “the first fellowship program dedicated to meeting the needs for high-quality legal assistance for immigrants seeking citizenship and fighting deportations.”