Ruth Gruber

A life dedicated to rescue.

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Chapters in American Jewish History are provided by the American Jewish Historical Society, collecting, preserving, fostering scholarship and providing access to the continuity of Jewish life in America for more than 350 years (and counting). Visit www.ajhs.org.
Ruth Gruber has led a remarkable life dedicated to rescuing her fellow Jews from oppression. After earning her bachelor's and master's degree by age 19, she accepted a fellowship in 1931 to study in Cologne, Germany. While completing her doctorate there (the New York Times described her then as the world's youngest Ph.D. at age 20), Gruber attended Nazi rallies and listened to Adolf Hitler vituperate against Americans, and particularly Jews. She completed her studies and returned to America, attuned from then on to the threats that totalitarianism posed to the Jewish people.

In 1932, Gruber started her career as a journalist. In 1935, the New York Herald Tribune asked her to write a feature series about women under communism and fascism. She traveled across Europe to the far reaches of Siberia to cover the story. Harold L. Ickes, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Secretary of the Interior, read Gruber's writings about life in Siberia and asked her to study the prospects of Alaska for homesteading G.Is after World War II. After this assignment, Gruber's life-defining moment came in 1944, when Ickes asked her to take on another special mission: secretly escorting a group of 1,000 Jewish refugees from Italy to the United States. Ruth Gruber

Despite the grim news coming out of Europe throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s, the United States Congress steadfastly refused to lift the quota on Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe to the United States. Finally acting by executive authority, President Roosevelt invited a group of 1,000 Jewish refugees living in limbo in Naples to "visit" the United States. The refugees were to be "guests" of the President and lodged at Fort Ontario, a decommissioned Army base near Oswego in northernmost New York. Ickes asked Gruber to travel to Italy secretly to meet and escort the refugees.

(Image to the left is HIAS refugees at Fort Ontario, NY, 1940s. Courtesy of American Jewish Historical Society.)

Ickes gave Gruber the rank of "simulated general." He explained, "If you're shot down and the Nazis capture you as a civilian, they can kill you as a spy. But as a general, according to the Geneva Convention, they have to give you food and shelter and keep you alive." In Italy, Gruber boarded the Army troop transport Henry Gibbins along with 1,000 wounded American soldiers and the refugees. Throughout the voyage, Nazi seaplanes and U-boats hunted the Gibbins.

Aboard ship, Gruber recorded the refugees' case histories. She told them, "You are the first witnesses coming to America. Through you, America will learn the truth of Hitler's crimes." She took notes as the refugees told their stories, but she often had to stop because her tears blurred the ink in her notebook. The grateful refugees began calling Gruber "Mother Ruth," and looked to her for protection. As historian Barbara Seaman observed, "She knew from then on, her life would be inextricably bound up with rescuing Jews in danger."

On arriving safely in New York, the refugees were immediately transferred to Ft. Ontario. As guests of the President without any rights conferred by the possession of a travel visa, the refugees were locked behind a barbed wire-topped, chain link fence. U. S. government agencies argued about whether the refugees should be allowed to stay at the fort or, at some point, be deported back to Europe. Gruber lobbied Congress and FDR on behalf of keeping them at Ft. Ontario through the end of the war.

Gruber finally prevailed. In 1945, after Germany's surrender, the refugees were allowed to apply for American residency. Some became citizens and went on to have extraordinary careers as radiologists, physicists, composers, teachers, physicians and writers. One, Dr. Alex Margulies, who came as a teenager from Yugoslavia, helped develop the CAT-scan and the MRI. Another, Rolph Manfred, helped develop the Polaris and Minuteman missiles. Later, Manfred dedicated his life to teaching engineers in developing countries about peaceful uses of atomic energy.

Her mission at Ft. Ontario ended, Gruber's role as Jewish rescuer was just beginning. In 1946, she took resigned from her post as assistant to Secretary Ickes to return to journalism. The New York Post asked her to cover the work of a newly created Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine. When Harry Truman, Roosevelt's successor, learned that Jewish displaced persons were living in camps in the American Zone in conditions that paralleled Nazi work camps, he ordered improvements in the camps' conditions and pressed Great Britain to open the doors of Palestine to 100,000 European Jewish refugees. Stalling, Prime Minister Bevin suggested that the US and Britain appoint the joint committee to meet with the refugees in Europe, as well leaders in the Arab world and Palestine before deciding whether Jewish immigration to Palestine was feasible. Truman assented and Gruber accompanied the joint committee to the squalid DP camps in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

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Michael Feldberg

Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.