One woman's fight for Holocaust refugees

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A week after the Allies landed in Normandy, and three years after the first European Jew died in an Auschwitz gas chamber, President Roosevelt finally opened America's doors to 1,000 refugees fleeing Hitler's terror. "Haven," a four-hour miniseries on CBS (Sunday and Wednesday, 9-11 p.m.), tells their story.

The story is based on the account of the young Jewish American government employee, who accompanied the refugees to the United States. Ruth Gruber's memoir shows the ugly side of American foreign policy during the latter days of Roosevelt's administration. It also depicts the final triumph of the president's humanitarian instincts in the face of stiff political opposition. "We were an overtly anti-Semitic country," says Gruber, who now lives in Manhattan.

"Every Sunday afternoon, we sat paralyzed listening to Father Coughlin from Detroit spew the air with anti-Semitic trash. Congress was isolationist and restrictionist. There were many [of us] who wanted the refugees. There were many who fought for them."

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But the president had political pressures to handle and did not immediately respond, despite mounting evidence of the Nazi atrocities abroad. "Roosevelt was worried that they were calling the New Deal, the Jew Deal, that they were calling him Rosenfeld or that they would say we were fighting the war for the Jews, so that it was a time when it was very hard to bring in refugees."

Once the president made the decision to bring in a limited number, the logistics proved to be a bureaucratic and psychological horror.

"The war refugee board sent a young man over first," Gruber says. "He began the selection and had a nervous breakdown. He said, 'I can't go on playing God' because so many were turned down."

Ultimately 982 refugees were selected. "The criteria for selecting them was first to try to get people who had been in concentration camps and managed to escape," Gruber says. They also looked for skills, such as doctors or nurses, to help run the refugee camp.

As a special assistant to the secretary of the Interior, Gruber was eager to speed the process. Her ability to speak German and Yiddish was an asset, as were her skills as a journalist.

One of the emotional turning points of the story revolves around the fate of the refugees after the war. Gruber helped make sure they were not sent back to a devastated homeland, where many had lost families and homes.

While the events took place several generations ago, director John Gray suggests that the sobering lessons of that time are applicable today.

"This miniseries is about trying to learn from history," Gray says, "which we never really seem to successfully do." The film was shot in Canada, and Gray recalls trouble with a local store owner who didn't want the crew filming outside his shop.

"He felt that by making this movie we weren't being fair to other groups that had been persecuted and slaughtered," Gray says.

"So this is clearly something that is on people's minds."

The show depicts the refugees as still having to face resistance to their presence in America once the war was over. Newly inaugurated President Truman came to their rescue.

"He was the one who as a Christmas present, a Hanukkah present, said on the radio, 'we are going to open our doors,' " Gruber says. "This group proved ... that we are a country of immigration and that the immigrants enrich our blood and our culture."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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