Produced by the Department of Media Relations & Publications

Remembering the U.N.'s Early Days in the Bronx

October 26, 2009

In May 2008, Lehman held a homecoming for members of the United Nations staff who had served on our campus in 1946. You'll hear from Margaret Bruce, whose work for human rights and women's rights at the U.N. began on our campus.

17 Minutes 22 Seconds

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This is Christina Dumitrescu, a student at Lehman College. In May 2008, Lehman held a homecoming for members of the United Nations staff who had served on our campus in 1946. The event opened with a symposium in the Old Gymnasium building. The U.N. Security Council had met there sixty-two years earlier, during the infancy of the U.N. You'll hear from Margaret Bruce, whose work for human rights and women's rights at the U.N. began on our campus. Introducing her is Lehman President Ricardo Fernández.



I'm delighted to introduce a retired member of the secretariat, whose dedication has brought the U.N. and Lehman College much closer, over the years. This is Margaret Bruce, joined the U.N. in London in 1945. And made her first trip to the United States as part of the U.N. staff in March, 1946.

We're fortunate indeed that she decided to spend her professional life in-- at the U.N. For that made her a New Yorker as well. I'm pleased to present Mrs. Bruce, who will tell us about the U.N. meetings on our campus, and the remarkable sense of purpose and idealism that existed at that time. Mrs. Bruce? (APPLAUSE)



I'd like to take you back by introduction, to the world of the 1940s, and the beginning of the U.N. It was a world emerging from a devastating World War, and evidence of dreadful atrocities that had been committed. It was a very different world from the one we know today.

There were no jet flights. No television. No computers. No cell phones. And no simultaneous interpretation at U.N. meetings. The founding conference of the U.N. had been held in San Francisco. Betty Teslenko and my husband, William Bruce, were both there. And I think one of our Mohicans, Larry Finkelstein was also at San Francisco.

U.N. member states were, or in those years, were 51, as against today's 192. There were very few women present, women delegates, at early meetings, including both San Francisco and London. Many of states represented did not yet give women political rights, in the 1940s. Much of the world was still under colonial domination. It may be of interest to you to recall that those of us who were working in London, our offices were in Church House and were around a bomb crater, which served to remind us daily of the task before us, to save succeeding generations, from the scourge of war. That is a line from the charter.


Throughout our days in London, discussions were taking place as to the site of the future home of the U.N. Should it be in the U.S.? Or in Geneva, Switzerland, where the League of Nations had functioned? U.S. was ultimately the country chosen, and then there was a little bit of a battle about which city. But it was chosen as New York.

After an extensive search for suitable premises, Hunter, now Lehman College, offered premises that were suitable for small U.N. bodies, security counsel, economic and social council and its subsidiary bodies, and the U.N. secretary at staff. There was great enthusiasm for being chosen. And the staff and all involved worked night and day to make the gymnasium here ready for the first meeting of the security council.

The council met in this gymnasium. And I think there is a plaque somewhere that marks the spot. I might just by way of letting you know the enthusiasm, the mechanic who made the ballot box for the first security council meeting included a note within it, which said, "May I, who have had the privilege of fabricating this ballot box, cast the first vote? May God be with every member of the United Nations organization and through your ennoble efforts, bring lasting peace to us all, all over the world."


I think that reflects a little bit what all of us were feeling, at the time. I would like to give you some of my personal recollections of the early days. I graduated from Cambridge University in England in 1940, and worked briefly at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, under Arnold Toynbee, the famous historian, and that group became the foreign office research department towards the end of the war.

The nucleus of the U.N. staff in London were recruited from the foreign office research department. I joined the U.N. staff on November one, 1945, as part of conference services. That meant that we had to sort out all the documents in the-- proper languages, and have them available, at very short notice.

We used to work very long hours, and of course, we didn't have the kind of facilities we enjoy today. After much delay, and a lot of confusion, some of us came by charter flight to New York, in March of 1946. It was my first flight, and it took 24 hours, with stops in Ireland, in Newfoundland and ultimately in LaGuardia, in New York.


There was a housing shortage in New York at the time. And we were billeted in different hotels around town, some of them with somewhat doubtful reputations, I believe. Mine was the Hotel New Yorker, and I shared a room there with a British colleague for several months. I must say my first impressions of New York were somewhat varied. I had difficulty understanding people, who seemed to speak very, very fast.

And they seemed to have a little difficulty understanding me. I wanted to send some clothes to be pressed, because I had been delayed in England a long time, and I called the desk and asked. And they said, "Put them in the servant door." I had no idea what they were talking about, and they didn't wait to explain. They said, "We'll send an interpreter, madam."

So my first night in New York (LAUGHTER) they sent an interpreter to interpret my English-English into (LAUGHTER) New York English. I have since learned that a servant door is a door that opens from the inside, where you can put your clothes in, and from the outside, where the staff can take them out. I don't believe they exist anymore, and I wouldn't have any need for an interpreter, nor do I, after several years living in this country.


I must say, all of us who were working for the U.N. were idealistic, enthusiastic, and thrilled to be part of history in the making. The Hunter College staff we met were most welcoming and helpful. The abundance of food and goods that we had lacked in wartime England naturally thrilled us. I remember, or I found recently a letter I wrote to my parents, that I'd eaten my first banana in six years.

Hunter College was made available for six months, from March 21 to August 15, 1946. Personally, I was still part of conference services, but I was anxious to find a more challenging position, and if possible, one dealing with human rights. My interest in human rights was aroused by having been in Nazi Germany a few times, in the 1930s. The human rights unit was very small, at this time, in Hunter College, and temporarily headed by a Dutch citizen, Petrus Schmidt, who had been part of the resistance to the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.

He was interested in my background, and appointed me to his skeleton division. In August 1946, I became one of the original six members of the tiny human rights division, just before we moved from Hunter College to Lake Success. It was proof that I was in the right place at the right time. Being at Hunter College in 1946 enabled me to launch my career of 32 years in human rights and the advancement of women.


Working as part of the U.N. secretariat, from the very early days has been a challenging and at times, a frustrating experience. I look back at the ups and downs of my relatively long U.N. career, I can honestly say that I feel privileged to have played a part and seen history in the making. I had many wonderful experiences, and traveled extensively in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern, Western Europe.

And I met many interesting personalities along the way. I often was asked to represent the secretary general at certain seminars and small meetings. And on one occasion, I think it was in Ghana, I was actually housed in a house, which had offered accommodation to the queen of England. That was quite an experience, I can tell you.

Until now, my remarks have really focused mainly on the past. And I am primarily a voice from that era. But ten December this year will be an important anniversary. It will mark 60 years since the U.N. could claim the universal declaration of human rights, as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations. And as many of you know, I did play a rather limited part in working at that essential document. Anniversaries encourage us to review the past, evaluate the present, and assess the future, in the light of history.


Based on my personal knowledge of the UN, and the programs with which I was most closely involved, human rights and advancement of women, I see the story of steady but certainly very uneven progress. A story that will present a major challenge to all who succeed us at the United Nations. The United Nations is essentially an organization of governments, and most governments jealously guard what they see as intrusion into matters of national sovereignty and national security.

Governments can be pressured. They can change. They can be swayed by the force of public opinion, at home and abroad. Outstanding individuals and non-governmental organizations. Some of you here today, who represent the voice of the people and act against the abuse of power, have been and will continue to be a key to advancing the cause of human rights and the advancement of women. I'd like to remind you. I've done it many times in other audiences, of the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, with whom I had the very great privilege to work, in the early days of the United Nations, when she was chairing a commission of human rights.

And what she says, in her very simple language, "Where, after all, do human rights begin? In small places close to home, so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world, yet they are the world of the individual person. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunities, equal dignity, without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress, in the larger world."


Enclosing my brief statement, I wish to pay tribute to the courage and heroism of all who throughout history have fought for freedom and defense of human rights, often risking their own lives. This continues today, in most of the current world's trouble spots. I might mention Darfur, Burma or Myanmar, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, to mention just a few. I leave these thoughts with you as we go on with the program. Thank you. (APPLAUSE)



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