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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Woman Who Rescued 982 Jewish Refugees

By Tom Morrow

She was an American Jew who witnessed first-hand the harsh treatment of European Jews by the Nazi during the 30s and World War II. As a U.S. government official, Ruth Gruber rescued 982 German, French, Czech, and Polish Jews from the death camps.

Gruber was born Sept. 30, 1911, in Brooklyn, New York to Russian Jewish immigrant parents.

With the goal of being a writer, Gruber graduated from New York University at the age of 15. At 18 she won a post-graduate fellowship at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. In 1931, she won another fellowship from the Institute of International Education to study in Cologne, Germany.

She received a doctorate degree from the University of Cologne in German Philosophy, Modern English Literature, and Art History, becoming the youngest person in the world to receive a doctorate. The subject of her dissertation was Virginia Woolf. While in Germany, Gruber witnessed Nazi rallies and persecution toward Jews. In 1932, after completing her studies and returning to America, she brought the awareness of the dangers of Nazism/ Gruber’s writing career began.

In 1935, the New York Herald Tribune asked her to write a feature series about women under Fascism and Communism. During World War II, she went to work as a special assistant in the U.S. Department of the Interior. In 1944, she was assigned a secret mission to Europe to bring 1,000 Jewish refugees from Italy to the U.S. For the trip, Secretary Harold Ickes made her a simulated “general” so in case the military aircraft she flew in was shot down and she was caught by the Nazis, she would be kept alive according to the Geneva Convention.

Some 982 refugees were loaded aboard a troop ship in Italy and headed for the U.S. Throughout the voyage home, the ship, USNS Henry Gibbins, was hunted by Nazi U-boats. Gruber’s book “Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1000 World War II Refugees and How They Came to America,” was based on case histories she recorded as she interviewed the refugees.

Since the U.S. Congress had refused to lift the quota on Jewish immigration to the United States from Europe, President Franklin Roosevelt had acted by executive authority and “invited” refugees to “visit” America. The refugees were to be “guests” of the President and upon arriving in New York, they were transferred to Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter, formerly an Army training base in Oswego, New York. They were locked behind a chain-link fence with barbed wire and armed Army guards. Most of the refugees feared it was another concentration camp.

The refugees were met with much anti-Semitism from many Americans. Officials in Washington were determined to send them back to Europe after the war.

Gruber lobbied the State Department to keep them in the U.S. It was not until January 1946 that President Truman made the decision to allow them to stay and apply for American residency.
Later, as a correspondent for the New York Herald-Tribune, Gruber witnessed the ship Exodus in 1947 entering the Haifa harbor in Palestine after it was intercepted by the Royal Navy while making an attempt to deliver 4,500 Jewish refugees from Europe. The British were trying to keep the Jews and Arabs apart and avoid a war.

To meet the Exodus, Gruber flew to Cyprus, where she witnessed and photographed refugees detained by the British. The British then sent the refugees to Port-de-Bouc in France.

The refugees refused to disembark. After an 18-day standoff, the British decided to ship the Jews back to Germany. Out of many journalists from around the world reporting on the affair, Gruber, alone, was allowed by the British to accompany the Jews back to Germany.

In 1951, Gruber married Philip H. Michaels, a community leader in the South Bronx. She gave birth to two children, one of whom, David Michaels, became U.S. Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health.

During her long life, Gruber received many awards for her writing and humanitarian acts, including the Na’amat Golda Meir Human Rights Award and awards from the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance.

Gruber died at the age of 105 on Nov. 17, 2016. The 2001 television film, Haven, is based on Gruber’s life story. The movie stars Natasha Richardson as Gruber. A documentary about her life, titled Ahead of Time, was released in 2010.