Photos by Ruth Gruber
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
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.
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
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.
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."
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."
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."
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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