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Ruth Gruber finds haven for 1,000 Holocaust refugees

August 3, 1944
Ruth Gruber
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Photo courtesy of Ruth Gruber

When President Roosevelt decided to accept a thousand European immigrants in the midst of World War II and the Holocaust, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes chose the Jewish-American writer and journalist, Ruth Gruber, to go on a secret mission to escort the refugees to the United States. The journey—which culminated in the refugees' arrival in New York harbor on August 3, 1944 and their being given sanctuary on an old army base in Oswego, New York—became "the defining Jewish moment" of Gruber's life.

In her role as a spokesperson for the refugees, Gruber presented the refugees' journey as a human interest story for the press. She told the New York Times that the refugees represented "a cross-section of every refugee now pouring into Italy," including Jews, Catholics and Protestants for whom religious services were held onboard the ship. In a touching moment in Haven, her book recounting the voyage, Gruber recalls a rabbi conducting a service as the boat passed the Statue of Liberty, and her pride in telling the Jewish refugees of the Holocaust that the poem on the base was written by Emma Lazarus, an American Jew.

The story of these European refugees stands out as a momentary relaxation of America's restrictive immigration policy. President Roosevelt's decision provided the refugees with a safe haven as "guests" in the United States during the war, with the assumption that "they were destined to be sent back to their homelands when the peace comes." While Roosevelt planned to allow the 984 refugees to reside in the United States only until the end of hostilities, when the end of the war came, Gruber lobbied the President and Congress—with the help of Catholic, Jewish and Protestant clergy—and convinced the officials to let the refugees stay. While the story ended happily for these refugees, sadly it came at the expense of others waiting in displaced persons camps in Europe. Since the overall immigration laws and quotas remained unchanged, the close to 1000 refugees were just subtracted from that year's quota.

To learn more about Ruth Gruber, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.

See also: This Week in History for September 30, 1911; Jewish Women On the Road; Jewesses with Attitude, "A Time for Travel".

Sources: Ruth Gruber, Haven: The Unknown Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees (New York, 1983); New York Times, August 5, 1944.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "This Week in History - Ruth Gruber finds haven for 1,000 Holocaust refugees." (Viewed on April 24, 2014) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/aug/03/1944/ruth-gruber>.