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.

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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.