A Modern Queen Esther: Remembering Ruth Gruber

By Robin Jacobson. 

Ruth GruberAlthough it was a sweltering Shabbat night in August, it felt like Purim. Around a dining room table in Baltimore, our hostess Flora and her brother Simon were recounting their personal Queen Esther story. In 1944, a brave American journalist named Ruth Gruber risked her life to rescue Flora, Simon, and their parents, Yugoslavian Jews. The family was part of a group of nearly 1,000 European refugees – mostly Jews – that Gruber shepherded on a perilous voyage from Naples, Italy, to the United States. This group, lamentably, was the only large contingent of Jews permitted into America during World War II. And even these refugees were deemed temporary “guests” and restricted to Fort Ontario, a former army camp in Oswego, New York. After the war, Gruber rescued the refugees yet again; she and others successfully lobbied for them to be allowed to remain in the United States, rather than returned to Europe.

Ruth Gruber died this past November, at age 105, sparking numerous tributes. Gruber’s wartime mission was the first of many missions she undertook to aid the Jewish people. Nonetheless, she called her encounter with the refugees “the defining moment” of her life. She told their story in Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees (dramatized in the film, Haven, starring Natasha Richardson) and in the documentary, Ahead of Time: The Extraordinary Journey of Ruth Gruber. Here are some highlights.

From Brooklyn to a U.S. Troop Ship

Born in Brooklyn, Ruth Gruber (1911-2016) first won fame by earning a Ph.D. in literature at the precocious age of 20 from a German university. Within a few years, she was reporting from the Soviet arctic for The New York Herald Tribune, a feat that caught the attention of Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. He hired Gruber, initially for a fact-finding mission in Alaska.

In June 1944, President Roosevelt decided to bring 1,000 European refugees to the United States for the duration of the war, outside of regular immigration quotas. Secretary Ickes sent Gruber, who spoke German and Yiddish, to escort the refugees from Italy to Fort Ontario. To protect her, Ickes granted Gruber the honorary rank of general. If Gruber were captured, Ickes hoped she’d be treated as a prisoner of war rather than shot as a spy.

Dodging danger, Gruber reached Naples and boarded an American troop transport ship where 982 refugees awaited her. Selected from 3,000 applicants, the refugees hailed from 18 different countries; all had made their way to Allied-controlled southern Italy under harrowing conditions (as did Flora and Simon’s family). The ship sailed for America, part of a secret convoy that narrowly eluded Nazi bombers and submarines. On the ship’s deck, Gruber set up a blackboard and taught English. She convinced the refugees to tell their war stories, however horrible, so that American readers could learn the truth about the Nazi regime.

When the war ended, the Departments of State, Justice, and Treasury insisted the refugees must return to Europe, in accordance with agreements these desperate people had signed in Italy. But Gruber and others worked tenaciously to raise public support for the refugees. To the joy and relief of many, President Truman granted the refugees immigrant status; they left Fort Ontario in January and February, 1946.

Flora and Simon were young, vulnerable children when Ruth Gruber brought them to the United States. Unlike millions of Jewish children in wartime Europe, they lived to lead full lives. On that Friday night in August when they remembered Gruber’s courage and commitment, their children and grandchildren sat round the Shabbat table.