2 Friday, August 12, 1983
THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS
For the Courageous Libertarians of World
War II There Is Gratitude and ' Appreciation
in the Historic Ruth Gruber Rescue Chronicle
Ruth Gruber's 'Haven' a Tribute to Harold Ickes and American Humanists
Ruth Gruber is a reporter par excellence. She has earned top rank in the profession
from the time when she became the youngest person on record to earn a PhD degree. She
accumulated literary honors and many titles. She also became historically authoritative
with her works on Israel and Zionism and her contributions to journalism as a foreign
correspondent for major newspapers.
She adds to her many achievem4nts a notable work which will remain for all time a
chapter in American history, a deeply moving addition to the Holocaust Library, a
notable study of human reactions in time of crisis. On top of it, her "Haven: The Unknown
Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees" (Coward-McCann) is an indictment of indif-
ference, a rebuke to those in this land who failed to rise to a great need and failed during
the tragic years of Hitler's mass murders to come to the aid of the sufferers from Nazism.
"Haven" is the story of
the Oswego, N.Y., refugee
camp that was established
to save 982 escapees from
Nazism who were brought
to this country by special
order of President Franklin
D. Roosevelt. It was a spe-
cial concession to provide a
haven for survivors of many
faiths, the majority Jews.
There was a condition: they
were given temporary ref-
uge and were to have re-
turned to their "homes" (sic)
after the war.
It was on orders from
President Harry S Truman,
in the nick of time, just as
that condition was to have —
been adhered to, that the
refugees who had no escape
were permitted to remain.
Thus, this significant
chronicle of one of the most
moving events that began
in the last year of World
War II and ended with peace
assumes historic impor-
tance. It is a chapter in
American history, an event
of marked Jewish impor-
tance, a human document
with many aspects of social significance.
This human document commences with the indictment: exposing not only the
American indifference to the great tragedy that struck the Jewish people, the anti-
Semitic element in the un-American practices of prominent officials who stood in the way
of rescue for the oppressed. There were a few who evidenced the human spark, and it was
thanks to them that the rescue mission was achieved. Chief among them was Secretary of _
Interior Harold Ickes, who assigned a young member of his staff, Ruth Gruber, to go to
Europe in the midst of the great war, to join the refugees assigned for rescue, to travel
with them on the U.S. ship, the Henry Gibbins, with a convoy of war ships for protection.
"Haven" is the story of that trip in wartime, of the two years the refugees spent in
Oswego and Gruber's guidance which earned for her the Guardian Angel title.
She was more than such an angel: she was the chief protector and now is the
chronicler of that collective experience.
There are so many aspects to the "Haven" account that it is nigh impossible fully to
accord it the praise earned by this great literary work that retains the record of a noble
task brilliantly attained.
They were not all Jews who were given temporary haven on the SS Henry Gibbins.
They were from 18 countries and included 73 Roman Catholics, 28 Greek Orthodox and
seven Protestants. They spoke 12 languages: Serbo-Croatian, German, French, Greek,
Slovenian, Polish, Albanian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Romanian, Yiddish and Czech.
On occasions they, at the camp, were a veritable Tower of Babel, a Balkanization
where there should have been peace and cooperation. But whatever bitterness there may
have arisen was the accumulation of despair under which they suffered before they
emerged from a motley group of hounded people into a community under American law.
Yet, they produced. On the Gibbins, Gruber formed English classes for them and
commenced their training for a future life. At Fort Ontario in Oswego they pursued their
Jewish legacies, had a synagogue while the Christians also conducted services.
Yet, they dreamed of the right to remain in the U.S. They prayed for an end to the
fence which surrounded them in the camp. Their supplementary to the Star Spangled
Banner was "Don't Fence Me In."
The fence was not impregnable. Oswego citizens helped reduce it, fraternized,
created opportunities for the havened.
To jump the gun in a review of a book that has so much to teach its readers and the
generations that follow the distressed who were rescued, Gruber has compiled a direc-
tory, a "Who's Who" of the survivors. She relates their accomplishments as American
citizens. Many have reached great heights, as university professors, as anthropologists,
as - chemists, as merchants, as contributors to the American way of life. One is in
Michigan and this is one of the numerous stories meriting quotation:
Alex (Aca) and Ralph (Rajko) Margulis discovered on their return to
Yugoslavia that they had made a terrible mistake by going back.
"We were horrified by what had happened to the country," Alex told me
in a restaurant in San Francisco's Chinatown. "My father, even though he
was dying of cancer, used whatever influence he had to get us readmitted to
the United States. The only way we could re-enter was on student visas, and
he succeeded in getting them for us."
Harvard Medical School honored their acceptance, and the two young
men married the young women they had courted in the camp. Ralph mar-
ried Vesna Culnic, has two children and is now a gynecologist in Royal Oak,
One of the survivors, No Lederer, expressed his gratitude to this country and of the
many recorded, this commends quoting:
"My life has been an extraordinary voyage for which I am extraordinar-
ily grateful," he says. "The teachers in the high school were fantastic; I still
have something I made under Mr. Crabtree, our shop teacher. Oswego was
a very positive experience; so many of us who came out of the camp have
had full and useful and rewarding lives.
"At 16, I wanted to go into international relations to make the world a
better place. At 52, I suppose, I'm still at it, but with a bit more salt and
pepper. At one point you ask yourself, Why all this brutality; why do nations
do these things to each other? I dOn't know. I'm persuaded that Western
Europe has not run out of creativity; but it has run out of inspired princi-
ples, out of positive ethos. I don't feel that about America. A great many
Americans have begun to lose faith. Yet faith is what has forged this
"Whatever inequities there are, and they exist in every country, the
thing that makes America different from Europe is that here, if you've got
the stuff in you, it will come out. Here you are promoted, not because of
family or wealth, but on merit."
It is at this point that Ruth Gruber concludes with her own sentiment:
Because I had been so much a part of their lives, it was hard for me for
many years to form a single view of the total experience.
How to stack up the frustration and anger of some of the old, obsessed
by the fence, against the exciting vistas opened by the Oswego schools to the
How to weigh the bitterness at the insensitivity of so much of official
Washington against the gratitude for the noble and determined caring of
people like Harold Ickes and Eleanor Roosevelt?
How to forgive FDR, my idol, for proving to be "a politician first and
then a humanitarian"? And how to understand his need to tread carefully
even though this meant anguish and uncertainty, for so long, for so many?
Now, after the search and the rediscovery of the people, I felt I had
attained that final, single view. The people themselves helped me attain it. I
was stunned and delighted by the record of their lives.
They had helped give back to America the kind of confidence that had
made it great. Whether it was genes, heritage, an inborn passion for learn-
ing, or their strength as survivors, they absorbed with relish and
enthusiasm what America offered, and in turn made their own unique
How grateful my country can be for having given them haven. And how
worthwhile was the struggle.
The trip itself on the Henry Gibbins was far from easy. When this ship, with its
thousands of wounded returning home and with the refugees, was under threat from
enemy planes and later from German submarines, there was a bitterness in the ranks of
the wounded, they shouted at the "damned Jews" who they blamed for their plight.
One of the rescued refugees, a Christian, related her personal story, and in refutation
of the anti-Semitic comments Gruber read her story to them, thus:
Mathilda Nitsch smiled, and it seemed to me all the faces around us
began to smile, too.
"Why did I help all these people"? she repeated my question. "Why?
Because I have belief in God."
The group shushed one another, eager to hear the story of this woman
whose openness and obvious love of human beings seemed to embrace us
"I am a Catholic, a Roman Catholic. I could not understand why they
killed Jews, who were innocent people, so I helped them escape. I stole false
passports from the chief of police himself. You see, I had a boardinghouse in
Susak on the northern coast of Yugoslavia, though I am Austrian by birth
and a Czech citizen because I married a Czech officer. But I have not heard
from my husband since early in the war."
She stopped talking, no longer smiling. The people honored her silence.
Then the smile returned. "I was very happy in Susak. I lived there for 15
years. Then the Nazis came and began to throw people into jail. That's when
I decided to help them escape. I hid them in my boardinghouse, gave them
the false passports I had stolen, and then I took them to other friends in
"Fiume," she explained, "is right next door to Susak in Yugoslavia, but
it belongs to Italy. Most of the Italians — though not the secret police"— are
much better to the Jews than the Nazis. So at night, in Fiume, we put the
people on boats, which took them across the Adriatic to other parts of Italy,
where we hoped Italian peasants would hide them."
As the rescue ship and its convoy neared the American shores and the Statue of
Liberty, there was a feeling of fraternization, especially when the wounded Americans
were treated to a concert by the refugees.
The FDR story must be related. He had already been shown the revelations of the
wholesale murder of Jews in the Nazi camps, of the threat of a total annihilation of Jews
under Nazi rule. There was the granting of 1,000 temporary visas. Then came the
opportunity to permit the escapees to remain in this country. Roosevelt was adamant.
Here is the Gruber account of it:
(M-torn-0 General Francis) Biddle was not, to be moved by Ickes'
arguments, nor was President Roosevelt, who had informed Biddle earlier -
that he "wholly agreed that the people should not be permitted even to
apply for immigration to the United States. They should in fact be returned
to Europe as soon as a favorable opportunity arose."
Ickes showed me the correspondence. I read it, appalled. Roosevelt, in
his original cable, had announced that the people would go back; I had been
sure it was largely to placate Congress. But this confirmation to Biddle was
even sharper than his message to Congress.
Agonizing months followed. A Congressional investigation was inaugurated under
the chairmanship of Rep. Samuel Dickstein. There was a favorable response to the needs,
after much agonizing. Even Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. refused to
alter the Roosevelt order, because he would not alter a decision by his dear friend FDR. It
was a matter of days after FDR's death, whose name kept being heralded as the great
savior by the rescued. They should have thrilled at the very mention of Harry S Truman
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