A Safe Haven.
In the early 1940s, U.S. citizens began to hear stories about Adolf Hitler's extermination of Jews. The German dictator had been terrorizing Europe for years in his mad quest for power.
Hitler believed that Jews were less than human, and the cause of many of Germany's past problems. He sent millions of Jews to concentration camps, where many died from disease, hunger, and exhaustion.
Other prisoners were shot--their skeletal bodies tossed into vast pits. Still others were herded into gas chambers and murdered. In all, 6 million Jewish men, women, and children were killed.
A Dangerous Assignment
Ruth Gruber, a Jewish American journalist, agonized over the fate of European Jews. She also risked her life to help some of them escape Hitler's persecution.
At the age of 32, Gruber was working in Washington, D.C., as an assistant to Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior. When Gruber learned that President Franklin D. Roosevelt would allow a limited number of refugees into the U.S., she begged her boss to let her accompany them on their journey across the sea.
Ickes agreed. In July 1944, Gruber flew to Italy to board the Henry Gibbins, a U.S. military transport ship, with 982 frightened and confused refugees, 880 of whom were Jewish.
Gruber's parents had tried to convince her not to go on such a dangerous assignment. But, as a passionate journalist and photographer--and humanitarian--Gruber knew that the trip would change "the course of my whole life. I knew my life was [forever] bound with rescuing people and survival."
World War II began in September 1939, when Hitler's army invaded Poland. German troops seized control of most of Europe, while Hitler's henchmen rounded up Jews for the death camps.
Throughout Europe, terrified Jewish families hid in basements, tunnels, and sewers. In Italy, Steffi Winters, 20, and her mother hid for three-and-a-half years in a small village.
Somehow, the two made it to Naples, where they met Gruber--the "angel" who would deliver them. Gruber did everything she could to help Winters and the other refugees on the Gibbins. She comforted them, taught them English, and listened while they spoke about the horrifying experiences they had survived. She wrote down every word.
The Lucky Few
Despite their hardships, these refugees were lucky--very lucky. Three thousand others who had asked to be evacuated were turned away. There was not enough room on the ship.
"People who had been in concentration camps," were chosen first, says Gruber, "next, people who could help run the [refugee] camp--doctors and nurses and people with certain skills."
The 13-day voyage to America was far from peaceful. German planes launched attacks from above, while German submarines prowled beneath the waters.
A Tall Fence and Barbed Wire
After arriving in Hoboken, New Jersey, the refugees boarded a train for Oswego, New York, a small city on the shores of Lake Ontario.
They were housed at Fort Ontario, an old Army base. The steel fence and barbed wire surrounding the barracks reminded the refugees of concentration camps. Most chilling of all, they could see Nazi war prisoners on the other side of the fence, enjoying relative freedom. "We thought, 'Why in blazes are they out there and we're inside!'" recalls Kostia Zabotin, then a teenager.
But he and the other refugees soon adjusted to their new life. Having arrived with few possessions (those without shoes had wrapped newspapers around their feet), they were grateful for even the smallest comforts.
"Receiving everyday items such as sheets and shoes," says Gruber, "inspired joy and appreciation."
Gruber, whom the refugees called "Mother Ruth," wanted to lead more refugees to safety. But U.S. officials would not cooperate. "The Assistant Secretary of State, Breckinridge Long, sent messages to every [U.S.] consulate in Europe, saying: 'Delay, delay, don't let them in [to the U.S.],'" says Gruber.
Unfortunately, many leaders around the world shared Long's anti-Jewish sentiments. Besides the U.S., only the Dominican Republic, a small country in the Caribbean, agreed to accept Jewish refugees from Europe.
Throughout their 18-month stay at the camp, the refugees were forbidden to go into town--except for children who attended local schools.
Remarkable New Citizens
Kostia remembers that he had a pass--No. 806--but that his parents could not leave the barracks. He and the other refugees cherished their newfound friendships and the generosity of many Oswego residents. The refugees were thrilled when President Harry S. Truman allowed them to stay in the U.S. after Hitler's defeat in 1945.
Soon, many of these once-tattered, though highly educated, refugees became U.S. citizens--doctors, dentists, inventors, and humanitarians with a string of remarkable achievements.
"The biggest lesson I learned is that no one believes in his own death," Gruber says. "They felt they had to go on living ... and become witnesses toward what had been done to them and to the Jews in Europe. If we never forget, we may prevent [a holocaust] from happening again."
After the War
After the war, Gruber returned to her career as a journalist, reporting and taking photos of death-camp survivors and refugees. She has written 15 books, including Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees and How They Came to America. More than a thousand of her photographs are in the U.S. Holocaust Museum's collection in Washington, D.C.
Think About It
Pretend that you are a refugee about to board a ship for a faraway county. Fill a shoebox with the items you will take with you.
Where Is She Now?
Now 89, Ruth Gruber is still recording the stories of Holocaust survivors. Haven, her account of the 1944 journey, was recently made into a miniseries starring Natasha Richardson. Recently, JS spoke with Gruber at her New York City apartment.
Q: How did your parents react when you decided to accompany the refugees to the U.S.?
A: They were so worried that I would be killed. I would say to my mother, "Don't worry, I'll wear a little American flag on my lapel, and I'll carry my passport." My mother would say, "And they can't shoot through a passport?"
Q: Who had the greatest impact on your life?
A: In first grade, I had an African-American teacher--a beautiful young woman. She would have us sit in a circle and read us poetry. It was like music to my ears. I loved the words. I knew that I loved words.
One day she came to our house. She said, "I'm Ruth's teacher." My mother said, "What did she do wrong?"
My teacher answered, "She didn't do anything wrong. I just wanted to tell you, take good care of her, she's going to be a writer."
I was hiding behind the bedroom door and thought to myself: How does she
know? I had decided after hearing her say those beautiful words that that's what I wanted to do.
Q: What advice do you have for JS readers?
A: Use whatever talents, whatever skills, whatever gifts God gave you, and whatever skills you develop on your own.
The tools that I used were words and images. I always carried a little typewriter and a camera. And I always had a notebook, wherever I went. To this day, I always take out my notebook and copy down people's words exactly.
Q: Are you still in touch with the refugees?
A: Yes. Several of us get together often for reunions. We sing and dance, and sometimes cry and reminisce. We're now building a museum in Oswego, where the camp was. It will tell the story of these refugees.
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|Title Annotation:||how Ruth Gruber aided Jewish refugees escaping World War II|
|Date:||Apr 9, 2001|
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