Helen Keller, Friend of Jews

Building Bridges: From left: Helen Keller, Polly Thompson, Golda Meir and Zipora Sharett, in Israel in the spring of 1951.
American foundation for the blind
Building Bridges: From left: Helen Keller, Polly Thompson, Golda Meir and Zipora Sharett, in Israel in the spring of 1951.

By Devra Ferst

Published April 28, 2010, issue of May 07, 2010.
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The remarkable story of Helen Keller is well known. After losing both her hearing and sight at 19 months as the result of a fever, she went on to become perhaps the most influential crusader for individuals who are hearing and visually impaired.

Now, nearly 42 years after her death, a new exhibition seeks to reveal the breadth of Keller’s story. “Helen Keller: A Daring Adventure,” which will open on May 7 at New York City’s American Foundation for the Blind, where she worked for 44 years, unveils Keller’s largely unknown involvement with Jewish and Israeli communities.

Although Keller was a religious Swedenborgian (a small Christian denomination), she visited Israel shortly after its establishment, to raise awareness and promote equal rights for disabled individuals. A photo of her and Golda Meir, Israel’s labor minister at the time, is displayed in the exhibit. The foundation also houses letters that the two exchanged years later.

During her visit, Keller worked with the Jewish Institute for the Blind. The institute presented her with a silver-covered Tanakh, which is also on display in the exhibit.

Perhaps one of the most powerful pieces on exhibit, according to Helen Selsdon, AFB’s archivist, is Keller’s vehement letter to the Student Body of Germany, which she wrote in 1933, shortly after German universities burned a book she wrote on socialism, along with countless others that challenged Nazi Germany’s ideas. In the letter, which was part of an exhibit in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Keller writes, “History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas…. Do not imagine your barbarities to the Jews are unknown here. God sleepeth not, and He will visit His Judgment upon you.”

The exhibit contains 75 letters, photos and other items, many of which have never been seen by the public, and includes sections on Keller as a traveler, activist, author and celebrity.


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