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This show was made possible by a grant from the Jewish Women's Foundation of New York. Welcome to Jewish Women in America, a television series that celebrates the contributions of Jewish Women to American society. I'm Blanche Wiesen Cook, and my guest today is Ruth Gruber, a woman who has dedicated her life to rescuing Jews from oppression around the world and to peace and justice. Welcome, Ruth Gruber. I am so delighted that you are here.
Thank you. I'm very happy to be here. And you are one of my abiding heroes. I'm sitting here surrounded by your books, your work. There are so many places to start the author of Haven, but not just the author of Haven, the woman who went to Europe in 1944 to rescue a thousand Jews from Hitler's Europe. And I think of you as a rebel girl, a woman who was born, as you wrote in your memoir, inside of time, in a stental and Williamsburg who defied authority, defied your parents, and went off to be one of the greatest journalists of the 20th century. And at 20, the youngest PhD in world history, Ruth, how did you get to be a rebel girl?
I really don't know. I think I just knew that there were jobs that needed to be done, and I would do them. I want you to tell the tale of convincing your mother that it was okay for you to go to Europe in the middle of this hideous war under these incredible circumstances, and you as a mother know how hard that must have been. Because my daughter did the same thing to you. Well, my mother came to Washington to try to prevent me from going, and I couldn't console her. I said, maybe I can find your relatives. We didn't know they were all already murdered. And I said, I'm going to take you to the boss. So it's that maybe my boss, Harold Ickis, the Secretary of the Interior, could calm her fears. And she said, Mr. Secretary, you're sending my daughter to Europe. Now, every day I read airplanes of falling out of the sky.
How do I know she'll come home safe? If he's got up from his chair, he would pass me, put his hand on my mother's shoulder, and he said, don't worry, mother. We're making her a general. He had told me that in general, Gruber. So were you at some point the highest ranking woman? I don't know, but he had told me that in great confidence the day before, and I said, how can you make me a general? He said, we have to, because if the Nazis shoot you down, as a civilian, they can kill you as a spy, but as a general, they have to give you food, shelter, and keep you alive. So that comforted my mother. And she felt, well, if I was a general, maybe, that Hitler couldn't shoot me down. And I then left by playing and flew to Naples with a thousand refugees that President Roosevelt had invited.
We're already aboard an army troop transport called the Henry Gibbons, with a thousand wounded soldiers from Anzio and Casino. And on that ship, I really had, I think, the most defining moment of my life, because I took all their cases, trees. I knew as soon as I got back to Washington, I'd have to report to Ickings and through him Roosevelt. And I learned about Jewish courage, Jewish terror, Jews risking their lives to save other Jews. And I knew from that moment on, my life would be dedicated to saving people in danger. And I had tools to do it. My tools were words and images. My little typewriter would have word processes in those days. And my cameras. And I felt with those tools, maybe I could help save Jews. And they worked for me.
Through the years, I get covered every single exodus into Israel, the most recent when the Ethiopian Jews. And you wrote a book called Rescue on the Exodus of the Ethiopian Jews, which is an amazing book. But before we get, let's just go a little slowly, because this was an amazing thing that you did. You were on the Henry Gibbons. You interviewed people. Was the ship ever attacked? Was it ever in danger? My sense of, there are pictures of you in uniform, looking like indeed, looking like a general. You interviewed people at night. You arranged parties. You introduced people to each other. You gave them hope. Could you just tell us a little bit? I mean, it's for folks who want to read the whole story. It is in your wonderful book, Haven, which is really about courage, your courage, their courage in a grievous time. And it just evokes this time when courage and love and justice are what we need to strive for.
How did you do it, Louis? And day and night, we walked up and down the deck. There were days when 30 Nazi planes flew over us and didn't attack us. Of course, we stopped, the whole convoy stopped, and all the engines stopped working. Other days when Nazi submarines found us, and they didn't shell us. Miracles, just one miracle after another. And I listened to their stories often. I had to stop writing in my notebook because tears were washing out the words. They were walking witnesses of Hitler's atrocities. And I told them that. And they also gave them courage. And they began calling me Mother Ruth's mother Ruth. And most of the world of the lie was, but they were all anxious.
And their lives had been filled with running. There were young girls and boys who had never been in school since 1933. They had been running. Wherever they ran, Hitler came. They ran from Germany to Poland. Hitler came to Poland. They ran to Hungary. It was always running. I knew then what it meant to be a DP, a displaced person, a refugee. You've lost everything. You've lost your land. You've lost your culture. You've lost your language. You've lost your home. And that's what it means to be a refugee. And we have thousands of thousands of refugees all over the world. So when they got here, when they landed, after a month on the ship, it was 14 days. But they fell like a month. And then they landed and they were sent to a place, a makeshift place in us. We go, which you describe in Haven, so vividly, and the photos are so vivid. They were behind Bob Wier. And they lived behind Bob Wier.
And could they go to school? Did the schools in the neighborhood open for the children? Yes, that was the most wonderful part of the whole thing. Because the government didn't know what to do with them. They were not prisoners of war. They didn't have visas. They were guests of the president. But they couldn't leave this camp. And the favorite song there, that theme song, was Don't Fence Me In. But the schools opened their arms to our children. And the children brought the Bill of Rights into the camp. The children began educating their parents. And it was a great experience because they loved America. And they were all supposed to go back as soon as the war ended. And that's something that you say in your memoir that is so chilling. You say that Henry Morgenthau had promised FDR, had promised the president that when the war ended, all these refugees would be sent back.
And it was your lobbying and Harold Iki's lobbying that persuaded. And Eleanor Roosevelt's lobbying. And she visited the camp. Were you with her when she visited the camp? Could you tell us a little bit about the lobbying and how you prevented Truman? Well, it was Iki's who taught me how to fight. How to fight bureaucracy. He said, you have to change the climate. He said, go up to New York, and see all your friends in the New York Times and the Herald Tribune, and get them to write very strong editorials on why you can't send a thousand people back to Europe. That isn't the Europe they lived in. Poland was already under Stalin. They didn't want to live in a country like that. And you have to get your friends. So they did. They were wonderful editorials.
And he said, get leaders in New York, Jewish and non-Jewish, and bring them to Washington, and let them come to me and I'll tell them who to go to. And he said, don't waste your time with me. I'm on your side. We have to prevent them from going back. But we have people who are fighting us like the Justice Department that they must go back. The State Department said they have to go back. They're not prisoners of war. They've no right to be here. And even the Treasury Department, Morgantor, who was wonderful at the beginning, and who fought to have them come. He said, I couldn't sleep with my conscience. If I went back on my promise to my friend, Franklin Roosevelt, and I said to your friend, Franklin Roosevelt, would have changed his mind if he was still alive. And if he didn't, Eleanor would have made him change his mind. And in the end, we got to President Truman, and he decided to let them stay. And it was a Christmas Eve he got on the radio. And they never changed the terrible quotas, which had been established in 1922, mostly to keep Chinese out in Jews.
But they never changed those quotas. But he said, there's this group up in Oswego, New York, and it would be so ridiculous to send them to Europe because many of them already had numbers. And so he allowed them to go to Canada, because in those days, in order to enter America, you gotta leave it when you got a visa and then you came back. So they were all sent by bus across the rainbow bridge to Canada. Shipped the hand of the American Council, got that holy stamp, that visa, and they all came back into America, and 70 communities asked this for them. They all wanted refugees. And they have given back to America everything America gave them. And more, one of them helped create the CAT scan in the MRI.
Another one, his name was Dr. Alex Markle, he's a radiologist. Another one was one of the fathers of the Polaris missile and Minuteman missile, always instruments of death and war. He turned his back on all of them in our country, sends him to places like Indonesia to teach the usages of energy for peace. So they've given back everything, they will, it shows you what immigration does in our country. And some of them have created fabulous restaurants that people have parties. Yes, my friend, Dara Shek, who considers me her surrogate mother, and she is my surrogate daughter. She was five when I brought her. She was five. Five years old, and she decided after her five children were in school that she wanted to be independent. So she began baking in Great Neck, and she was so successful that she helped the restaurant, then she came to New York.
And now she has this delicious restaurant called my most favorite dessert company. And we've eaten them many times because it's kosher dairy with delicious food, not only baking, not only cakes and pies, but everything. So they've really given back to America. I don't know what it is about us. Whether it's our love of education, whether it's our sensitivity to tragedy that we have to end. And whatever horrors they are in the world and fight for justice, but they are a symbol of what immigrants can do for this country. And Haven, you know, was made a movie with Natasha Richardson. Yes, and she did a great job. And Ben Croft, you played your mother.
Right. There are so many questions that I have for you. You go from Haven and this group of 1,000 refugees to Israel. What is your journey? What is the steps of your journey? I mean, you initially were going to write inside of time as a kind of joint biography of Eleanor Roosevelt and Helen Rogers read. And I know that Helen Rogers read was very important to you as a journalist and she being the publisher of the Herald Tribune. Was it Helen Rogers read who sent you to Palestine? Yes, yes. So you went first to Palestine for the Herald Tribune? Right. And learned again what refugees lived through, what survivors of the Holocaust lived through. And I traveled with some of the great Jewish leaders in 1946 and then 47. I covered Exodus and I was...
Well, you really, again, I have your wonderful book Exodus, which is a book of photos and commentary. Your incredible photos and Exodus, subtitle the ship that launched a nation was really... I mean, people think Leon, you're us wrote that first, but everybody who knows knows that you did. Tell us about what you saw and what you did in your journalism. I watched that ship come into Heifer. I was then traveling. I'd been listening to speeches in Jerusalem with Dr. White's men and others. And this ship came in battered. The British had smashed it from both sides for terrible warships. And there was the biggest hole I had ever seen and that lifeboats were hanging at crazy angles. And the second mate that everybody loved on the ship, Bill Bernstein, was killed when a British marine hit him on the head and broke his skull.
And two 16-year-old orphans, there were 4,500 survivors of the Holocaust to board this small ship built to hold 400 excursions. And they came into the harbor and it looked to me as if a nutcracker had smashed, you know, in a tight nutcracker. And then they were put aboard three ships. They were called hospital ships, but they turned out to be prison ships. And they were told, as journalists that they were sent to Cyprus, so I flew there. Cyprus was a hellhole for two years from 46th to the birth of Israel. 52,000 Jews living in just tents in concert hut sand.
It was a horrible life. And I took a lot of pictures of those. I was the only journalist they allowed in. How did you get to be the only journalist? General Gruber. How did you get to be the only one, you know, journalists have ways I told the guard that there was a birthday party going on. And my editor told me I had a covenant, if I didn't cover it, I'd be fired. So he gave me a pass. And after that, I could change the date every day. Oh, that's wonderful. And then they would call you an enterprising journalist. Well, you have to learn how to send them to Southern France and I flew there. And they were put on these three prison ships and kept for 18 days in heat of 105 degrees and they wouldn't come off the ship. And then the British announced they were sending them to Germany to the death land.
These survivors in the Holocaust and the world was so outraged. Journalists all came in then and the British said, we can't take all of your board, we'll take three. We'll take one for the British press, one for the world press and one for the American press. And they selected me for the American press. I think they've regretted it for 50 years because I got a board, the Runmead Park named for the site of Magna Carta. And there, as soon as I entered. Yes. Yes. And just the Runmead Park. And as they entered, they raised a flag, they had painted the swastika on the British Union Jack. The refugees, the refugees, they were defying, not only the British Empire, they were defying the whole world. And I took some pictures of it and it became life's photo of the week. And then they said to me, go below, go see our floating Auschwitz. And I went below, it was a scene out of Dante's Inferno.
Heads here, naked people. And they said, take pictures, show the world, how they're treating us. And I took a lot of pictures, I don't know how, because I was blind. I was blind because the only light came to prison bars. And I was blind with their agony. And then the woman handed me her baby. And I said, it's a beautiful baby. And she said, I know, but my life herself. I said, I will know you. She said, 23. I said, don't talk that way. You'll get there. They can't do anything worse to you. I said, everything's stupid in the presence of something. So tragic that I who lived with words had no words. But she was much worse, much wiser than I. And she said, no, I'll live. I'll live so that my child will live. I'll live so that no Jewish child is ever torn from its mother's arms again. I'm going to live.
And then they said, I had to get off. And I stood on the dock with a young Hagenha girl. And we watched these three prison ships take these 4,500 survivors of all. To Germany. And she said, now you will see the birth of a Jewish state. And she was right. They were put in prison camps in Germany. They got out. They smuggled them their way out. And children put in ambulances. And all of them crossed Europe, got on worship. And they were in Palestine on the 15th of May, 1948, when it became Israel. That's fantastic. These people on the Exodus returned. They were able to return. They were able to come to Israel, the country. But they had dreamed of in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Knowing some day they would have their own homeland is what kept many of them alive.
Now, you have also written two or three books on Israel, a book called Raquela, which is a book about a woman of Israel. And I have to ask you a really hard question, Ruth. You know, your life has been devoted to peace and justice and rescue. And at one point you wrote a very wonderful article. Divide the land and let the people grow. What is your vision now for hope? For hope for peace, hope for justice, so that no child is torn out of his or her mother's arms, so that no home is bulldozed and blown up, so that we get beyond this horrible moment of vengeance and revenge. What can you say to us to give us?
Quote, Ben-Gurion. Just before he died, I went to see him. I said, master, will there ever be peace here? And he said, yes. I said, when? He says, not in my time, but in yours and your children's. And I said, will it come from? He said from Egypt. He said, a young, a whole new generation will grow up in Egypt. And they will know how much they will get by living with us. We can coexist. They are still victims of diseases that we cured 50 years ago. We can send our scientists, our doctors, to help them. To help them with their babies who die at birth. And they have resources. They have minerals and oils, things that we need.
And the two of us, Egypt and other Arab countries and Israel, will learn that we can live side by side. And he was of all the world leaders I've met, the most prophetic. And I keep that interview, that last interview with us, dying leader ahead of me. So that I refuse to give up hope. And even though these are terrible days, and in many ways Israel is in more danger now than she was when I covered the world independence. Because everybody has weapons of mass destruction. And if she can be wiped out. And what about Israel's policies regarding the settlements? I mean, one of the things you told me, Ben Gurion, said at the time in 1967, was that Israel should get out. Give it all back.
Give it all back. Yes. Well, there's a group that now says we would like to give up most of the settlements. And we would help those that have to come out of the settlements. And give them up. We'd help them get reestablished within the borders of Israel. And we will give up little pieces of land or exchange. And I hope that maybe this group that we've just heard about in the last few days will be able to influence policy. Bruce, bless you. Thank you so much for coming. We are out of time. Ruth Gruber will all be energized and emboldened by your courageous books documenting your courageous life, your courageous life. I'm so grateful for you on the show. This is Blanche Weez and Cook for Jewish women in America. Thank you.
Ruth Gruber. Thank you. Thank you.
Jewish Women In America
Ruth Gruber
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CUNY TV (New York, New York)
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Episode Description
Ruth Gruber, a journalist and author of "Haven and Exodus 147," talks about her experiences helping Jewish refugees relocate to the U.S. and Palestine during and after World War II. Host: Blanche Wiesen Cook. Original tape date: October 15, 2003.
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Chicago: “Jewish Women In America; Ruth Gruber,” 2017-09-06, CUNY TV, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed May 29, 2024,
MLA: “Jewish Women In America; Ruth Gruber.” 2017-09-06. CUNY TV, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. May 29, 2024. <>.
APA: Jewish Women In America; Ruth Gruber. Boston, MA: CUNY TV, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from