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Finding Safe Harbor
By John Allen
Photos by Ruth Gruber

Refugees on the USS Henry Gibbins
Neither war nor weeks aboard the U.S.S. Henry Gibbins could dampen the refugees' enthusiasm at their first sight of the Statue of Liberty. They would pass New York City by and disembark in Hoboken, New Jersey, before heading to Fort Ontario.

Though she's gained fame as an author and photographer, Ruth Gruber MA'31 found her greatest fulfillment advocating on behalf of the residents of America's only World War II refugee camp.

In the language of biblical symbolism, Ruth is a daughter's name, not a mother's. Her eponymous book shows Ruth as the good child, so devoted to her mother-in-law, Naomi, that she would give up her homeland. When Ruth's husband dies, she follows Naomi to Bethlehem, in search of refuge from the poverty they face in Ruth's native Moab.

To be symbolically correct, a Ruth should be an unfortunate, a wanderer, a refugee. Motherhood, stability, and nurturing don't belong to her - they belong to Naomi. That's how the world would be, if life paid attention to its allusions.

But life, it seems, skipped the class on symbolism. With the sort of casual disregard for literary propriety that vexes English majors, one of the best real-life refugee stories of the last century cast a Ruth in the role of a Naomi.

Ruth Gruber MA'31 is an author, photographer, and journalist, but "the most important assignment of my life," she says, came in 1944, when she became a virtual adoptive mother for the 982 residents of Fort Ontario, near Oswego, a small city in upstate New York. There, at the only refugee camp set up in the U.S. during World War II, she helped a collection of impoverished Holocaust survivors adjust to life in America.

"The camp was one of the best-kept secrets of the war," says Gruber, but the secret's out now - in February 2001, CBS aired a miniseries called Haven, based on Gruber's memoir of the same name, which describes her time among the refugees. Television gave Gruber the face of Natasha Richardson and celebrated both her work and the camp's success. According to the program's tagline, "Her courage saved a thousand lives. A girl from Brooklyn defied the Nazis, challenged the U.S. government ... and changed the world."

The story unfolds in the summer of 1944, when, after having largely ignored the plight of refugees until then, President Franklin Roosevelt declared that the U.S. should bring a thousand of them across the ocean from war-ravaged Italy. The decision was partly humanitarian, partly public relations, and partly pragmatic. "The army was getting ready to make a push northward from Rome," says Gruber, "and officers were afraid that refugees would get in the way of the tanks and jeeps heading to the front lines."

Roosevelt's refugees would fall under the administrative control of the Department of the Interior, and that's where Gruber joins the tale. She was a special assistant to that department's secretary, Harold Ickes, who appointed her as his emissary. "My mission was to help prepare the refugees for life in America, inside the camp," she says. "But I gave myself the mission of collecting their life histories, their case histories. We needed to have a better idea of where they'd come from, of their culture and what they'd been through, if we were to help them properly."

Gruber soon discovered that life in a camp had an ominous sound to many of the refugees. She joined them in Naples, just before they crossed the Atlantic, and as she collected their histories, she learned the full details of the terrors they'd faced. She met Manya Hartmayer, who had been imprisoned in the concentration camp at Gurs, in southern France, and who'd crossed the Alps on foot and hidden in a convent until the American army came. And she met Samuel and Breindel Silberman, who'd fought in the Belgian underground and had been forced to leave their children behind enemy lines. And there was Mathilda Nitsch, a Czech who had run an underground railroad station helping Jews to escape. Captured by the Italian secret police, she'd been tortured, locked in a cellar for ten days without heat, then shipped off to the concentration camp at Ferramonte. Each refugee had a horror story, and Gruber recorded them all for Ickes and, eventually, the American public.

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