Last evening, I had the privilege of attending Ruth Gruber‘s 100th birthday party at the newly renovated Abigael’s in Manhattan. Who is Ruth Gruber? Why did almost 90 people, not her relatives, gather to honor her?
In a quiet voice, clearly filled with emotion, Ms. Gruber thanked every one in attendance as she looked on with pride at the group of successful professionals and business people that had emerged from the 1000 Jewish refugees she brought to these shores in 1944. Born in Brooklyn, in 1911, she became the world’s youngest Ph.D when, in 1931, Germany’s Institute of International Education – in Köln – awarded her a doctorate in German Philosophy, Modern English Literature and Art History.
As the Wikipedia puts it:
In 1944, she was assigned a secret mission to Europe – by U.S. Secretary of State Harold Ickes – to bring one thousand Jewish refugees from Italy to the US. 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. Throughout the voyage, the Army troop transport Henry Gibbins was hunted by Nazi seaplanes and 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 refused to lift the quota on Jewish immigration to the United States from Europe, President Roosevelt acted by executive authority and invited the group of one thousand to visit America. The refugees were to be guests of the president and upon arriving in New York, they were transferred to Fort Ontario, a decommissioned Army training base near Oswego, New York and locked behind a chain link fence with barbed wire.
While U.S. government agencies argued about whether they should be allowed to stay or, at some point, be deported to Europe, Gruber lobbied to keep them through the end of the war. It was not until January 1946 that the decision was made to allow them to apply for American residency. This was the only attempt by the United States to shelter Jewish refugees during the war.
Her unending quest to show the world the awful truth of WWII and the injustice of the refugees’ subsequent plight, led her to photograph and report for the Herald Tribune as the Exodus 1947 ship entered Haifa harbor after being attacked by the Royal Navy while making an attempt to deliver 4,500 Jewish refugees. She then flew to Cyprus, where she witnessed and photographed Jewish refugees detained by the British. The British then sent the ship to Port-de-Bouc in France and Gruber was there too.
The refugees refused to disembark, however, and after an 18 days standoff, the British shipped the Jews back to Germany. Ms. Gruber was the only one – of many international correspondents covering the story – who was allowed to accompany the DPs back to Germany. Aboard the prison ship Runnymede Park, Gruber photographed her famous shot of the refugees, confined in a wire cage with barbed wire on top, defiantly raising a Union Jack flag on which they had painted a swastika.
Last evening’s celebration of Ms. Gruber’s 100th birthday was a fitting tribute to her efforts on behalf of refugees. At an age which the few people who ever reach it can barely speak, or are barely aware of what is going on around them, Ms. Gruber stands out with her wit, her pride, her strength and her obvious love of people.
May it be His will, Ruth Gruber makes it to 120 and beyond!